THE possibility that one of the Ladbrokes monthly awards for February could wing its way to Tannadice has been much speculated on. Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson ought to have been a cert for manager of the month, ran the quip. In reality, though, club midfielder Paul Paton can be considered a deserved recipient of the player of the month title.
It might seem that United have only shown signs of life in their daunting struggle to avoid relegation since Thompson let rip at his football department after an abject 3-0 home loss to Motherwell midway through last month. But the upturn that followed – with fine wins at home to Hearts and away to Ross County – was characterised by Paton powering on the team and powering in thunderous strikes.
As the result of a long-term knee problem, February was the first month since last January that the Northern Ireland international could truly provide such impetus for United. He is also capable of providing a stirring defence of his team-mates in decreeing that the joshing about Thompson’s motivational address is a joke not funny any more.
“No credit goes to the chairman for his statement,” Paton said. “Not at all. The chairman isn’t on the pitch playing. It doesn’t matter what people say. It’s the players. It was the players who underachieved and it’s the players who are now doing well. It was down to the players. We knew what had to be done. When the players do well, we deserve the credit. When something doesn’t go right, that always lies with us.”
Paton says United “won’t get too down” about the loss to Aberdeen in midweek and that, in being eight points adrift of second-bottom Kilmarnock two weeks after that gap was 13 points, they have “momentum”. “We’d have taken this points deficit compared to what it was a few weeks ago”, he insisted.
In a personal sense Paton has had plenty to get down about in the past year. Aside from his injury lay-off – when, as he reflected ruefully, he had just been capped by Northern Ireland, claimed a player of the month award and played in two cup finals – he had a court case with which to contend. That ended in October when he was fined £500 after admitting an assault on former Celtic and United goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska on a night out in Glasgow 12 months previously. During the trial, evidence was given of Zaluska acting provocatively, and it is this aspect that must underscore Paton’s surprise assessment of that experience. “I’ve come through that with flying colours,” he said. “I think I came out of it looking well. I don’t really want to comment any more.”
Paton wants to look ahead and pour all his efforts into a relegation escape he refuses to believe became impossible with that loss to Motherwell, a side that Mixu Paatelainen’s men travel to Lanarkshire to face in Friday’s live televised fixture.
“We didn’t think it was too big a mountain to climb at that point. We did have a talk before the Kilmarnock game a few weeks ago and we knew it was do or die. We won that game, we showed a lot of battling qualities and took a lot of confidence from that.”
For all the confidence, Paton reveals much about the task in hand with his assessment of how he would regard successfully completing it. “It would be the most special thing in my career. And I realise that. That’s why there’s been such a real effort by me. I don’t want to have relegation on my CV. I came to United because it’s a big club and I wanted to win things. I didn’t come here to be relegated. I’ll do everything in my power to stop that.”
Many seasoned football observers are adamant that Paton’s presence can make the difference – former United coach Darren Jackson venturing this opinion in recent weeks. The midfielder does not wear such commendations lightly.
“On social media, people send you things that are being said and you read that,” Paton said. “I do feel there’s a lot on my shoulders. When people are saying good things you feel more pressure as you want to show that’s right. If people are slagging you, that doesn’t bother me. But if they’re saying something nice you want to prove they’re right to say that and that I deserve the praise.
“There is pressure. But I’ve been involved in international squads in the past and enjoyed that pressure. I’m the right man for this relegation fight.”