It hasn’t yet reached the stage where Keith Burkinshaw, relieved of his duties as Tottenham Hotspur manager, delivered a withering last assessment. “There used to be a football club there,” he complained to reporters as he walked away after clearing his desk. But Dundee United are in danger of losing more than their top league status at present. Mixu Paatelainen is this morning due to host a press conference previewing this weekend’s potentially awkward Scottish Cup tie against Airdrieonians.
He will do so not at Tannadice Park. Instead he will be in St Andrews, a near 30-minute car journey from Dundee, at the well-appointed training centre that is Dundee United’s base of operations. Tannadice, meanwhile, is beginning to resemble a cemetery of hopes.
This sense of a club having been abandoned is not unique to Dundee United. Many whose training facilities lie elsewhere can feel deserted. But this sense is particularly striking in United’s case. On a street with not one but two football clubs, you expect a hustle and bustle of football players coming and going, as well as reporters and office staff, perhaps the odd agent or two.
Not that the latter breed have as much need to do business with United these days. The club have already been preyed upon to the extent that some supporters lament only a husk remains. It could explain why Paatelainen’s struggling - some would say doomed - side are sitting on just ten points from a possible 63.
John Souttar is one of their remaining young stars being courted by suitors, including Celtic. He has already declined to sign a contract where he would have become one of the club’s highest paid players. It seems that he, too, will move on before long, simply intensifying the impression of a club being in the process of having its once vibrant heart ripped out.
With training now located in St Andrews, the players rarely visit Tannadice Park except on matchdays. Tannadice itself seems to have lost something since redevelopment led to home fans vacating the Shed end. That was while ago now. United have won a Scottish Cup in the interim. They would – with better luck against Rangers in 2008 – have also added a League Cup to their major trophy haul as well.
But when even club legends are moved by concern to post on a fans’ forum, it is surely time to fret. Paul Sturrock is a fairly regular visitor to one particular Dundee United supporters’ message board so perhaps the timing should not be regarded as significant. But he chose to headline his latest contribution with a portentous phrase: “important time”.
Stirred into action by having watched United’s latest defeat in Saturday’s Dundee derby, Sturrock provided his diagnosis of a team suffering through “trying to put square poles into round holes”.
The former United winger deserves to be in our thoughts at this time in any case. Firstly, he recently lost his 81 year-old mother, just weeks after Sturrock, who turns 60 later this year, all but called time on his managerial career after his sacking by Yeovil Town in early December.
He was also the star of a clip from a Dundee derby of yesteryear shown on Sunday night’s Sportscene. He was seen scoring twice at Dens Park in a fixture where he tended to experience a lot of joy. Indeed, he remains the highest goalscorer in Dundee derbies.
But he comments in the role of a concerned supporter now. “Must get target man and some pace wide in window or I’m afraid the writing is on the wall,” he advised from his base in Cornwall. “P.S.”, he added, “Mixu hasn’t had enough time yet to be too critical.”
Rarely can any club have endured such rapid on-field decline.
After all, this time last year they were still celebrating a 6-2 derby victory that gave absolutely no hint of the horrors that lay in store over the next 12 months. But they have paid the price of unrest following the leaking of details regarding then manager Jackie McNarama’s contract.
This awkwardness might have been overcome had McNamara made a better fist of his summer recruitments. Coll Donaldson hasn’t featured since October, Darko Bodul is seen only fleetingly while Rodney Sneijder left in strange circumstances after one substitute appearance.
Yesterday’s news of the capture of Spartans wunderkind Aaron Murrel is a sign that United are getting back to doing what they do best; developing youngsters identified as having a big future. Of course, this won’t help them in the short-term. Rather, it is established stars such as Florent Sinama Pongolle and Guy Demel who the increasingly exasperated-sounding Paatelainen is placing his faith in.
But not even experience can be relied upon; Pongolle is currently injured, Demel was red carded in the derby and new goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, although otherwise solid, was culpable for Dundee’s equaliser on Saturday.
As many as three more players will brought in before the window shuts, while Ryan Dow and Paul Paton are expected to return imminently from long injury lay-offs, which equates to two more new signings. The date 23 January ought to have a red ring around it if United are to avoid relegation and the inevitable cutbacks that would result.
This is when they host Kilmarnock, currently 11 points ahead in 11th place. It really is must win, as much as Saturday’s derby might have seemed like it was the last chance saloon.
Not that anyone at Dens Park should be getting too carried away, something suggested by the playing of the Paul Johnson song Get Get Down across the Tannoy after Dundee’s 2-1 win at the weekend.
Football is a malicious mistress. Even if United have sunk too low to be saved, 11th place could amount to a second relegation place due to the standard of team likely to be contesting the play-off final.
Indeed, given that the scenario also involved city rivals, Dundee, just five points clear of second bottom, should be particularly mindful of Hibernian’s plight after delighting, prematurely it turned out, in Hearts’ misfortune two seasons ago.