United talisman tells Moira Gordon it would be a ‘great honour’ to finish as SPL top scorer
FOR a while injuries and headline-grabbing team-mates overshadowed Jon Daly. Now the Dundee United striker is in the form of his life, challenging the Old Firm dominance of the SPL scoring charts and getting the recognition he deserves.
Considered more of a provider in the past, helping youngsters such as David Goodwillie shine, now that he has had a sustained period of full fitness, he has cultivated a more clinical side to his own play and both he and his club are benefitting.
Named SPL Player of the Month for March, with five games of the season remaining he is within touching distance of becoming the first non-Celtic or Rangers player to finish the top division’s leading scorer since Tommy Coyne in 1994/95, and the first Tannadice player to achieve that feat since Andy Gray in 1974/75, long before the Irishman was born.
“I think it’s always difficult for players outwith the Old Firm,” reasons Daly. “Celtic and Rangers are massive clubs and they will always be at the top end of the table and they always have quality strikers. It’s going to be hard to finish at the top but I just need to keep working hard and get the goals in.
“It would be a great achievement and great honour but if I’m being honest it’s not something I would have thought of at the start of the season. It wasn’t top of my priority list. The biggest priority for me was the club finishing in the European places and helping the club do that. But your goals change throughout the season and I am top of the pile now, but I have no doubt that Gary Hooper and even Fran Sandaza, who has had a great season, have plenty of goals left in them before the end of the season. If I am going to achieve that then I need to keep doing what I’m doing.”
The goals, allied to the all-round contribution, has prompted his team-mate John Rankin to state the United skipper should be on the shortlist when the player of the year contenders are revealed. It has produced some ribbing in the dressing room, and some self-deprecation from Daly.
“If that’s what Ranks thinks then that’s nice. There have been a lot of good players this year so for Ranks to say that, it’s a massive compliment. I don’t think I will be but if I was nominated it would be a great honour and a great achievement for me. But I just laughed it off to be honest.”
Back in October the speculation was that manager Peter Houston was just 24 hours away from the sack. But now, thanks in part to Daly’s goals and his willingness to help the youngsters find their feet in the first team, they have come through what the 29-year-old describes as a transitional period and the club have made a sprightly and sustained ascent of the SPL.
A European qualifying place is now more than likely and according to the ambitious captain, they have not given up hope of overhauling Motherwell to claim the country’s second Champions League berth. Such a sway in fortunes has excited Daly, in the same way that training and playing alongside so many indefatigable youngsters has reinvigorated him and the responsibility of captaining the side has given him an even greater sense of purpose. But it is the realisation that he may have been watching it all from the sidelines which he says was the making of him.
“Since I came up here I think I have probably found a love for the game again. Down in England I wasn’t enjoying the game but the gaffer brought me up here and it has given me the spark that was missing down south when I wasn’t really enjoying my football. Up here I have enjoyed it a lot more.
“The injuries I have had, I have obviously had to work hard to come back from them and that has helped me fitness-wise. The posterior cruciate ligament was the first one, then I did my ankle and then my medial ligament against Hibs and that one was touch and go because it was on the knee I had done before. I have worked hard , though, and once you get your head round the injury you can do that. That’s the big part, getting your head round it and working hard to do the work you need to do to come back from it.”
It helped having someone like Lee Wilkie around while he battled back. Having been through comebacks from similar injuries, he knew what to say and do to keep spirits up. “Definitely,” acknowledges Daly. “He had it really bad. He is a great lad as well and when he was here whenever I was struggling in the gym or struggling mentally, I could always ask him for advice and he was always there.” Wilkie’s career eventually succumbed to injury, which has left Daly in no doubt about how fortunate he is to still be playing and captaining the side Wilkie once led. “He was great and I know I am lucky that I have come back. I have had to put in a lot of hard work but I’m happy it has paid off.
“It is by far the best form of my career and that is down to enjoying the game and playing under a good manager and good coaching staff and playing with a bunch of boys that we all get on. We have a great team spirit here and everyone is down to earth and no-one is a prima donna. There are no Balotellis so we all enjoy it and even the boys who haven’t been playing, they are still on board and they are not spitting their dummy out. Everyone understands where we want to go with the club.”
With the target of Europe in their sights, what about the personal ambitions he set for the season. “Yeah, you set targets but they are achievable targets. I wouldn’t have set myself 20 goals at the start of the season. The first target is to get to ten goals as quickly as possible and then you take it from there. If you get to ten then you are looking for another five and you work it that way. Realistically, I thought maybe 15 or 16 but the lads have been brilliant. A lot of credit has to go to the rest of the boys because the service I have got has been tremendous all season and long may it continue.”