HAVING drawn huge attention to itself by voting to leave the United Kingdom, the city of Dundee yesterday had further opportunity to emphasise its specialness when the football teams convened for Scotland’s only top-league derby.
Scorers: Dundee - Stewart 90; Dundee Utd - Bilate 25 (pen), Dow 54, Morris 59, Watson 79
Dundee United won it by netting the four goals needed to take them to the top of the Premiership, so there was certainly no need for a recount.
Mario Bilate, Ryan Dow, Callum Morris and Keith Watson were the scorers and while Dundee scrapped well enough for an hour they were ultimately undone by the trickery of Gary Mackay-Steven and, more than anything, a towering performance in the midfield by Paul Paton. Greg Stewart’s strike in the final minute of injury time was mere consolation.
Along with Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire in last Thursday’s referendum, the City of Discovery was one of an elite superhero collective – the Affirmative Four. But only on Tayside could they get over the disappointment of their Yes votes not quite being enough by losing themselves in the clatter and dispute of a rumbustious derby.
Paul Hartley’s team went into the game as the top-flight’s only unbeaten side and were looking for a win to draw them level on points with their old rivals and – with eight derby debutants in the line-up – end a ten-year stretch without a victory in the fixture. Unlike in politics where there might be no more referendums for a generation, football throws up a quick chance for revenge in Wednesday’s League Cup tie at Tannadice. But Dundee will have to pose more of a goal threat and find a way to counter the speed and dynamism of United which in the second half reached such a level of exuberance that more than four goals seemed likely.
The first half had been fairly even, and fairly typical derby fare, with the players sizing each other up, overhitting passes in their keenness – and slipping on the over-watered surface. Glimmers of quality came on the flanks, courtesy of Mackay-Steven and Phil Roberts. But the key feature of the 45 had been the pace and power with which United broke on the occasions when space did become apparent in the pell-mell. Chris Erskine was good at exploiting it and Paton was even better.
United had Bilate deputising for the suspended Nadir Ciftci. The Russian-born Dutchman doesn’t have the Turk’s sleekitness – meant in the best meaning of the word – and was easing himself gently into the game, but he made the breakthrough from the penalty spot.
Mackay-Steven won the award when Thomas Konrad toppled him, although not with great force, but the crucial moment in the build-up, if not the entire half, had been the thunderous Paton challenge which sprang the breakaway.
Dundee looked to Gary Harkins and Paul McGowan for a creative retort but the United midfield gave them no room or time, and an abiding image from the game was the latter being forced to run away from the Tangerines’ goal with John Rankin snapping at his heels.
But as the half drew to a close, James McAlister dug in to find Harkins, whose cross was met by Robertson’s volley into the side-net and moments later McAlister looped a header over the bar. Until the late goal, this would be as good as it got for the Dens fans, who had been anticipating the resumption of these Tayside stramashes so keenly.
“There’s only one Paul Hartley,” they sang, eager to show their in-demand manager how much they appreciated him. At the interval the more pessimistic among them revealed they were worried that Cardiff City’s interest had not entirely been defused, that the contract on offer from the Welsh club was a million a year, and that if it wasn’t going to be Cardiff then other predators would soon be circling Dens.
On the touchline yesterday, when the ball went out for United throw-ins, Hartley would open his legs rather than stop it and bounce it away with a shrug off his shoulders. But his cockiness disappeared in the second half as his team’s challenge faded.
In the 53rd minute, Ryan Dow doubled the visitors’ lead after another surge from the middle that by then we were calling United-esque, was finished with a decisive right-foot shot.
Rather than hold onto what they had, United decided to play with even more verve.
Beforehand, Jackie McNamara had warned his team about Dundee’s aerial threat from set-pieces. This may have been a cunning ploy, to deflect from his own team’s ability from free kicks, particularly from the left flank and especially when Paton was the despatcher. Just before the hour-mark, he whipped one on to Morris’s head, then in 79th minute repeated the trick for Watson.
The away end was in a state of high delirium. “Hartley must stay” they teased, and Konrad’s red card for a second bookable offence – he had been shown a yellow in the penalty incident – only increased the home side’s discomfiture.
Among all the kind words which have come Hartley’s way thus far, much has been made of his fitness training, including a technique which involves his players pulling against bungee ropes. Yesterday it was United who seemed to be able to run for ever while some in dark blue looked like they had forgotten to remove their strappings.
A week is a long time in politics, as we know. Now, with the cup-tie looming, Dundee have to prove that in football too, but with slightly less time to play with, the change in fortune can be just as dramatic.
Dundee: Letheren, McPake, McGinn, Irvine, Konrad, Harkins (Wighton 66), Ferry (Boyle 75), McGowan, McAlister, Roberts (Tankulic 57), Stewart. Subs not used: McBride, Bain, Clarkson, Kerr.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Watson, Morris, Fojut, Dillon, Rankin, Paton (Smith 81), Dow, Mackay-Steven, Erskine (Armstrong 58), Bilate (Spittal 67). Subs not used: Telfer, Connolly, Szromnik, Spark.