AFTER a season of such promise, in which they were the merited recipients of so much praise, Saturday’s defeat in the Scottish Cup final was a massive reality check for Dundee United.
Not that Jackie McNamara needed one. While some of us have reacted ecstatically to his team’s most inspired displays, the Tannadice manager has always kept his feet on the ground. Still, at the age of 40, a relative novice in management himself, McNamara knows his team have a long way to go if they are to realise their immense potential.
That knowledge, however, was no consolation in the immediate aftermath of the 2-0 defeat by St Johnstone in which, he accepted, his side had fallen well short of their high standards.
“Yes, I think so,” McNamara agreed when it was put to him that United had under-performed. “We had a couple of moments when we hit those heights going forward, but not enough.
“But you have to give St Johnstone credit for that. They pack themselves in numbers and work very hard in midfield not to allow us space and movement. That was why we went with two up front to try to get in behind them.
“I felt that was our biggest threat. If we had scored once, then I was confident we would go on and win it.”
Other than defender Gavin Gunning, who is out of contract and has been linked with a move to Rangers, United’s best young players look set to stay at Tannadice for a year or two yet. But McNamara is not merely seeking to preserve the bulk of the talent he has: he hopes to strengthen his squad over the close season, and appears confident that club chairman Stephen Thompson will give him the budget to do so.
“There is a danger there that we might lose one or two players, but there are also one or two positions that I would like to strengthen as we need to get better,” he said. “I would anticipate that would be Gavin’s last game. He’s out of contract and I would think that would be the case.
“Not reaching European football is a disappointment, but, in reflection, over the season, there are so many things we need to be better at before we are ready to compete in Europe. Things like passing the ball, keeping possession, being brave on it and switching on at set pieces.”
“Ever since I’ve been here I’ve had a very good relationship with the chairman. I’ll sit down with him next week before I take a break to see what the budget is. We’ll work out which players are coming, which are going. We’ll try to strengthen and make the team better. They are a young side and they’ll learn from this disappointment but I have every belief that they are good enough to win trophies.”
Goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak bore the brunt of criticism as his blunder led to the opening goal and he was also at fault for the second. But McNamara was all too aware that more than one of his players had been below their best, and he had no intention of singling out the Pole for blame. “There were a hundred mistakes made out there today – not just by my goalkeeper. The outfield players made mistakes too.
“I would never criticise him for coming out for crosses, because that’s exactly what we want him to do. We want him to command his area, and over the season he’s been outstanding at it, one of the best in the league.
“What happened to him today was part and parcel of being a goalkeeper: when you make a mistake it gets highlighted. But, as I say, there were a lot of mistakes made in that final.”
Accepting that St Johnstone were deserved winners, McNamara only once allowed himself to indulge in some mild resentment of events – when asked about the incident in which Stevie May handled the ball into the net. The United manager was spoken to by referee Craig Thomson after protesting too vociferously, which he thought was ironic. “I did think the goal had been given,” he said. “The ref managed to see me waving my hands around from 60 yards away, but he couldn’t see May punching it in. But there you go.”
As well as hoping to keep his squad together, McNamara plans to stay right where he is, and he again stated that he had no interest in talking to Blackpool, who had hoped to interview him. “I’ve said all along that I’m happy here.
“I’ll continue to do my best for this club and try to bring it success, so that next time we get here we send the fans back home happy,” he said.
“To be honest, the first I heard about Blackpool’s interest was when the chairman phoned me to say he’d had a call from them. I haven’t spoken to anyone at Blackpool and I have no intention of doing so.”