IN making the big news in Scottish football over this weekend, it is perhaps fitting that images of a Ron Burgundy-style walk-to-war are conjured up by the convention that dictates the away team strides along the street to front up at the home of their adversaries in preparation for any Dundee turf war.
Unlike in Anchorman, they are not tooled up, nor are they working their best The Warriors/West Side Story pastiche. This Tayside tale is deadly serious and will be given added gravitas today by the fact the teams will be meeting for the first time in over a year when they scrap on Dundee’s patch. Yet, United winger Gary Mackay-Steven can see the practice of players in tangerine brazenly padding the 200 yards from Tannadice to Dens Park – straight through the throng of blue-clad supporters – for the football oddity that it is. Especially when even teams that ground-share are bussed up to the front door on the matchdays when their ground is an away venue for them.
The 25-year-old doesn’t deny that an iPod on full blast could sometimes make the march through enemy lines a little less challenging. However, he also cannot help but be energised by a ritual that ensures an away derby for an opposition player in Dundee brings a pre-match experience like no other.
“It’s weird. I’ve never experienced anything like it in football,” says Mackay-Steven. “You have your pre-match at Tannadice and then walk up in your tracksuits as a team… you feel the nerves and adrenaline pumping. There are a few shouts, a wee bit of abuse, but you try to take no notice of it. It’s all part of the tradition.
“It’s great. You wouldn’t want it any other way. It does feel a wee bit like you’re going into battle, but you just have to focus on the game and, hopefully, it doesn’t get too heated up. The fact there’s two in a few days, the second one at home, all adds to it as well.”
This afternoon’s Premiership contest being followed by a League Cup quarter-final meeting down the road – though on a different street, you understand, with Sandeman Street becoming Tannadice Street, conveniently – will give Mackay-Steven the opportunity to double his derby days. This is likely to be the player’s last season in the city. The ex-Liverpool trainee has stated his desire to go south again when his United contract expires next summer. Ahead of that no doubt hoped-for English Championship challenge, he will be seeking to preserve a largely pain-free experience of the fixture.
The 24-year-old is well aware that his derby record reads played two, no defeats. He debuted in the confrontation when the teams met in the Scottish Cup at Dens Park in March 2013. The encounter was one to remember for the Highlander as he scored the winner and was booked in a 2-1 win. When he then first sampled a league meeting between the sides at Tannadice a fortnight later, the 1-1 draw wasn’t too upsetting for the home side since it required them to score in the 89th minute to claim a point. Little wonder, then, that Mackay-Steven feels that his “memories have been positive” of such meetings and also no surprise that he also offers the caveat: “But this is different with different players on both sides.”
That is certainly true of Dundee. With Paul Hartley embarking on an overhaul of his personnel in the close season, they are unrecognisable from the team of two years ago. That Dundee side always looked inferior against their neighbours and appeared destined for a temporary stay in the top flight after being catapulted there two weeks before season 2012/13 began owing to the demise of Rangers in the summer of 2012. Hartley’s side are a different animal from any Dens side Mackay-Steven will have encountered. Not least because they are the only team in the Scottish top flight not to have lost this season. He is not begrudging of the accolades heaped on United’s city rivals in the past month, or shocked at their unbeaten start.
“It’s great for Dundee as a whole that Dundee have come up and are playing really good football,” he says. “We’re doing all right too, but they’ve shown they’re not just up to make up the numbers. Paul Hartley has bought well, so Sunday should be really exciting. It’s not too much [of a surprise], because the players Dundee have brought in like Gary Harkins and Paul McGowan are really good on the ball.
“It is inevitable that the face-offs between the Dundee clubs will assume an added weight owing to no Old Firm or Edinburgh derby in the top flight this season. Mackay-Steven admits that the fixture “was one we all looked for as soon as they were promoted”, adding that “the fact there are two in a week is great”. Even if the second part of the double-header is a winner-takes-all cup contest, Mackay-Steven has no problems prioritising. “[The league] is our bread and butter.”
Jackie McNamara’s side thrilled before fading last season. Fourth place in the Premiership and the loss of the Scottish Cup final in the end were unsatisfying outcomes to a campaign in which their football was praised to the heavens. The summer sales of Andrew Robertson to Hull City and Ryan Gauld to Sporting Lisbon mean few considered United could better their showings in league and cup last season. Yet Aberdeen, everyone’s banker for Celtic’s closest challenger, haven’t entirely convinced this season, to suggest the jockeying for second could be more open than expected. The polite and good mannered Mackay-Steven, however, doesn’t bite on the suggestions he and his team-mates might be entitled to be hacked off that their possibilities of a second-place finish were entirely written off.
“Not at all [did that annoy]. People can have their opinions, but we’re quietly confident in our ability and we’re definitely eyeing that second spot as well,” he said. “We’ll take what’s said with a pinch of salt, though.” Just as long as there is no requirement for smelling salts after his team’s quick-step to Sandeman Street this lunchtime.