THE future for Dundee United looks to be in promising hands, even though their Scottish Cup dream perished yesterday for another year.
The Tannadice club might be set to lose Jon Daly, who came the width of a post away from scoring a famous Hampden hat-trick yesterday, but 17-year-old Ryan Gauld lit up the stadium at times, and the even more tender-aged John Souttar provided further evidence of a United stalwart-in-waiting.
Their performances provided some comfort after such an agonising loss and manager Jackie McNamara afterwards stressed how “proud” he was of them both.
Souttar even back-heeled the ball while in his own half at one point, drawing applause from the crowd. The 16-year-old endured a difficult debut in Aberdeen in January, when thrust into the first-team picture and asked to play out of position at right back, against the equally prodigious Ryan Fraser.
United’s youngest-ever first-team player has only made one other start since then – against Aberdeen two weekends ago. Yesterday Souttar partnered Sean Dillon in central defence, and, although clearly raw, he looked far from out of place on this showpiece occasion.
For United, it was a case of needs must, with centre-half Brian McLean having failed to shake off a knock. Johnny Russell, meanwhile, was able to play a part only as a television pundit after being unable to recover in time from his leg break. McNamara made the bold decision to start with Gauld, and it was quickly shown to be an inspired one, as the winger offered another dimension to United’s play. Gauld was replaced just before extra time, and it was possible to detect something missing from United’s game thereafter.
McNamara applauded the contribution of both players afterwards. “It was a massive game today playing against not just Celtic players, but international players, and they didn’t look out of place, despite being 16 or 17 years old,” he said. He saluted Gauld’s “ability and awareness”, singling out one reverse pass for John Rankin, whose shot looked set to give United a 3-2 half-time lead before Kelvin Wilson made the block. The teenager had already played a part in United’s first equaliser, setting up Gary Mackay-Steven after 24 minutes.
McNamara was upbeat despite the loss, which is United’s tenth successive Scottish Cup defeat by Celtic, his former club.
“It is not difficult to take, it’s disappointing,” he said. “I thought the players were exceptional. We caused Celtic a lot of problems. I was disappointed in losing the early goal. And then after scoring to go 2-1 up, to lose a goal so soon after that.
“We have to concentrate for the full duration when you are playing a team like Celtic,” he added. “They will penalise every little mistake, or somebody switching off for even a second. I said to them after the game they have shown that they can handle it on this stage, whether they be 16, 17 or 30 years old – it is not beyond them to go and get on the ball and pass the ball. We looked a real threat. There are a lot of positives things to take from it. Obviously now I am a wee bit drained and tired from watching it, but I am proud of them.”