MENTION hoodoos and Darren Jackson is wrinkling his nose before the question is even completed.
“I don’t buy into that. It’s about what happens on the day,” he says. But on the days that Dundee United contested key Scottish Cup games during his playing days, more often than not, they lost.
“Yeah, thanks for that. But yeah, I didn’t have the best Scottish Cup record as a player.” Asked for the best and worst he can muster, there isn’t one he treasures. The low point is easier to dredge up. That was the year Jim McLean lost 4-3 to his brother Tommy’s Motherwell side, in 1991.
“It was 22 years ago and I’ve not got a great memory of that day but I do remember we were favourites and we just didn’t perform. Motherwell deserved to win although there is absolutely no doubt that it was a dodgy refereeing decision that cost us the fourth goal.”
It was a day to dismiss to the dustiest recess of his mind. “We got beat, I broke my wrist and I was sent off in that game so it wasn’t a good day! But this is my first time there as coach so hopefully things will change.”
But for that to happen Dundee United have to rectify another worrying trend. It’s 21 years since they last bettered Celtic in Glasgow. “I didn’t know that,” says Jackson with raised eyebrows. “That’s amazing. We did beat them a few times when I was here so it’s incredible it has been so long, especially when you think that by the law of averages results have to go your way sometimes but as players, as coaches, as a club we have to earn that result. The fact is this is a game at Hampden and you want to go there and perform. You want to get to a cup final.”
But he won’t go there burdened by past results. “Those games have gone and you can’t change them. You have to forget them. This game is the only one we can influence.” That was the mantra of McLean, a legend he considers one of the best Scottish managers ever. “No, there was never any sense of desperation. If I’m truthful, Jim was the same every game. In hindsight Jim should have won the cup for Dundee United and it’s a shame it didn’t happen because he deserved it, but it wasn’t a hoodoo, it just didn’t happen.”
McLean tried, tried and tried again but it was only when Ivan Golac replaced him that the Tannadice club grabbed the trophy. They managed it again under Peter Houston and while Jackson begrudges neither manager their success, he does feel for his old gaffer.
“During the Jim McLean era there was a lot of talk about hoodoos and cup jinxes but as a player you’re not thinking about them. You’re not thinking ‘oh, I must win the cup because Dundee United really need to prove they can win the cup’, you’re just thinking ‘I want to win the cup, I want a winner’s medal’. That’s the only motivation and on Sunday we will just want to get to the final.”
Celtic will want the same. But Jackson is consistent in his dismissal of past results as any kind of indicator. He doesn’t care that questions are being asked about United’s ability to perform as expected in recent cup games. Losses to Ross County, St Mirren, Hearts and Kilmarnock have sullied their record. “We won’t be going there thinking about Celtic and whether they have won this game or that game or who has beaten them at Hampden in the last couple of years. None of that will cross our minds, we just want to get to a Scottish Cup final and we just need to look at how we perform on the day.”
Jackson remembers running out at Hampden, he knows there is a special buzz, but despite all that, he says the message to the players will be to try to take the occasion out of the equation. “If you want to be a top player then these are the occasions you have to handle, these are the occasions when you have to perform.”
He believes they have more than enough of those big-game players in a squad he describes as excellent. He is also pleased that the game comes at a time when the players are beginning to believe that again themselves. “I think it was just a little lack of confidence that held them back early in the season and hopefully they have that back now.”
He knows what that is like. He suffered a similar slump in self-confidence when he was a player. “It was my second season at Hibs and things weren’t going for me. I just had to get my head down and stick at it. Fortunately, it’s a team game and I had quality players around me and Alex Miller was my manager and he told me just to keep working away. But I think our players have come through that now. Some of them played in a Scottish Cup final and they are all desperate to get the club back there.”
Johnny Russell has already been ruled out by manager Jackie McNamara but while he will be a miss, there are others who can take the game to Neil Lennon’s team, says Jackson. “It’s incredible, the kids that are coming through. It’s serious talent, I’m talking top notch. There’s no doubt there are some fantastic players in that dressing room, the experienced guys and the kids, they have real ability and we have the utmost confidence in them and hopefully they now have that belief in themselves.”
Jackson was at the national stadium last May to watch the capital sides lock horns and he has watched United lift the silverware, but he never thought he would ever be back at Hampden, in the technical area. “But it’s funny how things work out in football.”
Having helped out with some additional coaching for the strikers when Jackie McNamara and Simon Donnelly were in charge at Partick Thistle, he was surprised but thrilled to be invited on to the coaching staff full-time when they moved to Tannadice.
“It didn’t really take me long to say yes.” He’s loving being back in the dressing room, he’s revelling in the day-to-day camaraderie and he is as excited as anyone to be back at a club chasing silverware. But he is working hard to keep a lid on it. It’s one day at a time. He doesn’t want to live in the past and looking too far into the future serves no purpose. It’s all about what they do on the day.