ALTHOUGH it may partly have been a canny ploy to butter up their next opponents, Motherwell manager Stuart McCall is eager to portray Dundee United as even better than last season ahead of tonight’s league clash at Tannadice.
McCall’s contention might be considered surprising because not only have United lost the services of first-team players Ryan Gauld and Andrew Robertson over the summer, they also ran out 5-1 winners in their last meeting with Motherwell towards the end of last season.
However, McCall believes they have become even stronger in the meantime, with their off-the-pitch stability – the sales of Gauld and Robertson brought in a combined total of more than £4 million in fees – meaning manager Jackie McNamara is able to operate with the comfort of knowing there is less risk of losing players to pay off debt.
The Tannadice manager has also managed to recruit quality replacements for Gauld and Robertson, bringing in ex-Sparta Rotterdam striker Mario Bilate and Hull City left-back Conor Townsend. In addition, United have signed Polish defender Jaroslaw Fojut to replace centre-half Gavin Gunning, who left for Birmingham City.
United’s impressive 3-0 win over Aberdeen on Sunday certainly suggested they have managed to overcome the loss of two such promising players in Gauld and Robertson.
McCall believes United have emerged an even tougher proposition after a summer of wheeling and dealing, and following a season when they managed to defeat Motherwell three out of four times in the league, scoring 14 times in the process.
“I think they are stronger than last season,” the Fir Park manager stated yesterday. “Ryan Gauld is a terrific talent. He has great ability and is a great prospect for the future. But even if you looked at Jackie’s team at the back end of last season the boy [Ryan] Dow was actually more effective for them and played in the cup final ahead of Ryan [Gauld].
“So I don’t think of that part being a huge loss – they have Dow, [Stuart] Armstrong and [Chris] Erskine is back after playing a lot of games last season. They have Gary Mackay-Steven, [Nadir] Ciftci up front, they have brought in Bilate, who has played at a good level at Sparta Rotterdam, and they still have [Brian] Graham.”
McCall also contends the loss of a left-back, the position where Robertson played, is unlikely to have a profound effect on a team. “I am hoping, and am sure, young Andy Robertson will go and represent Scotland for years to come,” he said. “But you miss a goalie, you miss your top scorer, but a left-back? If you are able to bring someone in from the Premier League, like the lad they have from Hull, then I don’t think he will be a massive loss. And they have strengthened in other areas as well. I think they will definitely be stronger than last season.
“They are probably in the strongest position they have been in for a long, long time,” McCall added. “You hear [chairman] Stephen Thompson say they don’t have to sell. They have a group of players there at a good age and good strength in depth.
“I think they are as well equipped as any club to perhaps not threaten Celtic, but certainly be in that second position, along with Aberdeen obviously.”
McCall’s failure to mention his own team as potential challengers for the runners-up spot perhaps hinted at the game he was playing yesterday. Motherwell slipped into second place ahead of Aberdeen in the dying minutes of the last campaign, after finishing runners up in 2012-13 as well. The Fir Park side also got their current campaign underway with a 1-0 victory over St Mirren, although McCall was honest enough to describe this as a “bonus win” as the visitors, he reflected, were worth a draw.
Unlike Dundee United, he is still bidding to replace key players who have left over the summer, including James McFadden and Shaun Hutchinson. Centre-half Mark O’Brien looks poised to join on loan from Derby County while McCall is also hopeful that a loan striker can be arranged before the weekend. He targeted 19-year-old Manchester City player Devante Cole, son of former Manchester United striker Andrew, but the player has opted to go on loan closer to home, a decision the Motherwell manager described as “understandable”.
McCall relished the situation where many, including himself it seems, are writing off Motherwell’s chances of again finishing second this season.
“There are probably a lot of squads stronger in depth,” he said. “A lot of teams are talking about trying for top six this season. It’s everyone’s aim and we have no divine right to be there when you look at the level of squad. It’s full credit to the group of players we’ve had.
“We will need to up our performance from last Saturday. Hopefully, with a couple of players coming in, we will get stronger.”