UNDERLINING just how disillusioned many Dundee United supporters have become in recent months, not even the return of a well-regarded former striker as manager could trigger the expected measure of enthusiasm. The appointment of Mixu Paatelainen certainly failed to arrest recent poor results.
United lie four points adrift at the bottom after this latest defeat, while Hearts, courtesy of a first league win since the end of August, rise to third – just four points behind second-placed Aberdeen. But it is United’s predicament that led to the club changing their manager in the hope of sparking an upswing in fortunes.
Paatelainen, pictured below, was applauded as he made his way up the touchline, but the empty seats told their own story. Results the previous day only served to dampen spirits further. Having hoped to be handed the chance to lift themselves off the bottom of the league, United knew that, however they fared against Hearts could not alter this detail.
Defeat by the well-organised visitors looked on the cards from the moment Hearts took an early lead through Juanma, from the penalty spot.
Paatelainen pledged to instil fight and aggression. These qualities were, for the most part, misplaced yesterday. United did come out on top in the bookings count – 6-2, with Blair Spittal sent off for a second bookable offence when impeding Sam Nicholson, whom he had earlier felled in the penalty incident near the end. John Rankin could also easily have seen red for a two-footed lunge on Juanma.
The game followed a familiar pattern as United mustered very little in response to the loss of the game’s only goal after 15 minutes. They were committed – well, most were – but such effort foundered on Hearts’ balanced mix of physical attributes combined with youthful talent.
Spittal tripped the always-lively Nicholson in the box and Juanma converted his sixth goal of the season. By conceding so cheaply, United illustrated just what a task Paatelainen has on his hands. An unnecessary booking for skipper Sean Dillon followed after he barged into the back of Osman Sow.
No one could doubt United were playing for their new manager. But they seemed over-anxious to please and, when things so quickly started to go awry, panic set in.
Hearts could have been two up after only half an hour but Luis Zwick managed to save a powerful drive from Danny Swanson at the second attempt after Sow out-muscled Mark Durnan, who perhaps failed to receive the memo from Paatelainen about fighting harder. These words also had little impact on the barely-noticed Darko Bodul, who was substituted at half-time.
Swanson looked very eager to catch the eye on his return to his former club, with whom he won the Scottish Cup five years ago. Zwick was tested by a 25-yard free-kick from Swanson that the goalkeeper was happy to tip over the bar.
Another former United player made sure he was noticed, but for less positive reasons. Prince Buaben found his name noted in the referee’s book after becoming involved in a flare-up with Ryan McGowan following a foul on Rankin.
It was an untidy game and not a good advertisement for Scottish football. Although the live television cameras were at Tannadice, it was perhaps fortunate attention was focused on the oval game. In saying this, some passages of play resembled a rugby match. Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson, a tough-tackling right-back himself, later remarked how he relished the rugged qualities of the game.
With John Souttar switched to right-back and Ryan McGowan moved inside to centre-half, United certainly had the height to deal with Sow and Juanma, Hearts’ physical forwards.
But while United looked an improved unit at the back, in attack they were dreadfully lacking. Bodul paid the price for another undistinguished performance when he was replaced by on-loan Fulham striker Craig Taggart. Billy Mckay struggled because of lack of service.
United could not even take advantage of the extensive running repairs required by Hearts, nor the six minutes of injury time added on by referee Kevin Clancy. The visitors were rocked by almost simultaneous injuries to Juwon Oshaniwa and Miguel Pallardo, which resulted in both being replaced, by Liam Smith and Morgaro Gomis respectively. Swanson had already made way for Jamie Walker.
Because of their failure to secure a second goal, Hearts endured some sweaty moments in the dying stages but United failed to capitalise on a pair of free-kicks in dangerous areas.
Dundee United: Zwick, J Souttar, McGowan, Durnan, Dillon, Spittal, Kuhl, Fraser (Connolly 77), Rankin, Bodul (Taggart 46) Mckay. Subs not used: Szromnik, Murray, Telfer, Donaldson, H Souttar.
Hearts: Alexander, McGhee, Augustyn, Rossi, Oshaniwa (Smith 70), Swanson (Walker 52), Buaben, Pallardo (Gomis 70), Nicholson, Juanma, Sow. Subs not used: Hamilton, King, Djoum, Zanatta.