WHEN Dundee United defeated street rivals Dundee 6-2 on New Year’s Day, the length of the Tay Bridge seemed a more appropriate measure of distance separating the respective sides.
But almost ever since this bleak experience Dundee have been clawing nearer United, helped considerably by the Tannadice club’s remarkable decline in fortunes.
Now the width of the single street they share stands as an accurate reflection of how close the neighbours currently are on the pitch. Indeed, with the right combination of results, it is possible Dundee could go above United as soon as tomorrow.
This would continue a remarkable transformation since the first day of this year, when United stretched their lead over Dundee to 16 points while harbouring ambitions of supplanting Celtic and Aberdeen at the top of the table.
However, Dundee will actually prefer for United to earn a long overdue victory tomorrow when they host Hamilton Accies, since this outcome would almost certainly secure their own place in the top six.
“It would be a bit ironic,” agreed Paul Heffernan yesterday, as he contemplated the prospect of United helping their rivals achieve this aim. “But we go to St Johnstone and we know we’re definitely in the top six if we win through there. That’s what we will be focusing on.”
“People remember big games like derbies. They can certainly define players”Paul Heffernan
Heffernan was still basking in the memory of striking such an important first goal for his new club in Wednesday’s victory over United. His close-range effort after 68 minutes provided Dundee with a two-goal cushion and they duly closed out the 3-1 win. Injuries have restricted Heffernan to just three appearances since joining from Hibernian at the start of February.
The Irish striker played against Dundee United for the Easter Road club earlier this season in a thrilling League Cup tie. After a 3-3 draw, United triumphed in the penalty shoot-out and Heffernan admits he is shocked by the recent struggles endured by Jackie McNamara’s side, who have now gone ten games without victory. “I am surprised at that,” he said, when this run was pointed out to him.
“They’ve been going through a bit of a sticky patch but they’re a good side as well. I’m sure they will come good again. When I was at Hibs, we played them early on in the season in the cup and they were a very good side. Whenever I seem to play them, they’re good so to not win in ten games is a long time. But, having said that, they’ve got some very good players in the team. I’m sure they’ll come good.”
Heffernan admits he hopes their recovery will start tomorrow, when the equally out-of-form Hamilton Accies arrive at Tannadice. “It would be perfect if they come good against Hamilton on Saturday,” he said. “That would cement our place in the top six so here’s hoping. Hopefully they can turn it around. That would help us.”
On the subject of whether Dundee can in fact overtake their rivals, who have played a game fewer, over the coming weeks, he added: “It’s all to play for. We’re only two points behind United now. We’ve just got to keep going when the split comes. I’m sure the fans would be delighted if we could finish above them.”
Heffernan stressed that he “wasn’t really surprised” at being told by manager Paul Hartley he was starting Wednesday’s clash with United. David Clarkson ended his recent goal famine by scoring against Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Saturday and was expected to retain his place for the derby.
However, Clarkson dropped to the bench, a decision Hartley later admitted had irked the striker. Heffernan was the beneficiary and he started only his second game for the club.
“The gaffer had spoken to a few of us and said that there were three games within a week and because of that he was going to make a few changes,” said Heffernan. “It was a case of not everybody being able to play.”
“He wanted to freshen things up,” he added. “He had already told me I would probably play in this game.”
Scoring a goal that secures a first derby win in over a decade for your new club is a good way to properly introduce yourself to the fans. Now Heffernan hopes he can “kick on” in a bid to win a longer-term deal at the club.
“People remember big games like derbies,” he said. “Obviously it’s on the TV and stuff like that makes it special. They can certainly define players.”
“It’s been a time coming,” he added, with reference to his first goal. “I’ve picked up a few niggles and injuries since I’ve been here so hopefully – touch wood – I can stay fit and get in the team and score some more goals between now and the end of the season.”
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