AT THE moment it adds up to a season of plaudits, potential and more points than last term. But only if Dundee United win the Scottish Cup on Saturday can they turn that into something more tangible.
Victory over St Johnstone at Celtic Park will take this squad into the history books. It will also secure them European competition next season. The silverware would be the physical reward for both dreams being realised.
“That’s the most important thing for the players,” says Dundee United manager Jackie McNamara, who is hoping for his first major cup win as a manager. “Fortunately, as a management team, we have won the Scottish Cup a few times as players and you do want to be part of history. It’s good for your careers, and while you want the money and everything else that goes with the job, you want to have something for after you are finished, you want the medals and the memories to go with it. It will be special for the boys to experience. Special for guys like John Rankin to enjoy his first final at 30 and to have that experience and a medal is something we want for them. That’s what it is all about.”
It’s not all that is a stake, though. Nadir Ciftci is already imagining lifting the trophy in front of the tangerine-clad support. “Morgaro Gomis, Keith Watson and Sean Dillon have all had that experience before. They have said how nice and how enjoyable it is. I’m dreaming about it at the moment but hopefully I can live it as well,” he says.
After a season when United have done as much as anyone to bring a smile to the face of Scottish football, he believes the rewards are no more than this squad of players deserves.
“It’s a bit disappointing that we can’t get into Europe through the league. We wanted to finish second, which I thought we deserved, but we didn’t get enough points. Now we just want to win the cup and get into Europe that way. That’s something we want to do.
“You want to get into Europe and go as far as you can. I remember [former club] Portsmouth got Milan the year after we won the FA Cup final.”
Real Madrid would be his dream opposition but with that club contesting higher goals, he says simply making the group stages of the Europa League and lining up against any of the household names would suffice. “I just hope we can get there – get a nice team – and progress as far as we can. It will be hard but we can do it. I think the way we play football would suit us if we get into Europe. We play so much different than the way some other teams in Scotland do. If we can take that into Europe it can only be good. It would be great experience for us as well.”
That word “experience” has already provoked a few wry smiles in the build-up to the cup final. St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright wondered aloud if his Dundee United counterpart will forsake some of the youthful gems in his squad for a bit more experience on the final stage. “Are the experienced guys the young guys or the older ones?” asks McNamara with a mischievous grin. “You’ll need to ask him that because Gauldy [Ryan Gauld] is 18 but he has played 50 games now, including two semi-finals in two years, so he is probably more experienced than some guys at 24-25, guys like Paul Paton.”
The strength in United’s play this season has come from the combination of wiser heads and youthful exuberance. There have been issues with consistency or lapses which have cost them a higher finish in the league but McNamara says there is no evidence that his experienced or inexperienced players have caved under pressure in big games.
The hullaballoo and acrimony which surrounded the semi-final against Rangers at the supposedly neutral venue of Ibrox was the real test of character. United passed it.
“It was like a final. I think we handled it very well. The experienced players – [John] Souttar and Gauld, guys like that,” he adds, tongue in cheek, “they learned from that. There was no tougher place than Ibrox to go that day given the circumstances but they handled it very well without playing our best. I think we can play a lot better than we did that day but the good thing for me is that we still tried to do the right things and cause them problems and I thought we were clinical. I think they handled it well and competed well and they didn’t freeze on the day, which was the most important thing.”
St Johnstone, though, have proved a tougher proposition this season. In the four head to heads, United have won just one and that was in the first encounter of the season. Since then, St Johnstone have kept three cleans sheets and scored six goals. “Of course we have been disappointed in the games against them this year,” says McNamara. “The first one we beat them 4-0 at Tannadice and, to be honest with you, I don’t even think we played that well but everything went for us that day. The other games have been disappointing. But look at St Johnstone against Aberdeen, they hadn’t scored against them going into the semi-final but then they beat them to get into the final so we all know that one-off games are different. We need to take our chances and have that little bit of luck.”
Only Celtic have scored more than United this term so the fact they have struggled to find a way past Wright’s men in three quarters of their meetings could be a cause for concern but McNamara says there will be no panic or mass revision of personnel or tactics. He believes in the men he will select.
“There are some things we need to do better, but often when things aren’t right the first things people change are the things they are actually good at. But we know the things we are good at. We are good at moving the ball quickly and we have good movement and pace and more often than not that has worked for us. We have scored 87 goals this season so when we are on it we are a good side to watch. But when things don’t work, the first thing people want you to do is play percentage football and change our philosophy, which is something we won’t do.”
There is certainly a wealth of attacking options for McNamara to choose from. He says he has almost settled on his starting XI but from experience he also knows that starting as a substitute does not preclude players having a massive role to play. His favourite cup memory is winning this trophy in 2001 with Celtic but he wasn’t in the starting line-up. He came on as an 18th-minute replacement for the injured Lubomir Moravcik and scored the opener in a 3-0 victory over Hibs. “Yeah, that was good,” he says. “It was good to score and play and it was part of a treble that year as well so it was a great experience. When I speak to the players I don’t think I will use myself as an example but there are other things we can use when we are speaking to the players who aren’t involved who feel they should be.
“That’s the downside of my job, leaving people out – but it will be all worth it if we win the cup.”