Dundee United back to square one in relegation battle, Ross County envy, Kilmarnock v St Johnstone allure
Two of the club’s Scottish Cup winners from 2010, Danny Swanson and two-goal hero Craig Conway, were paraded in front of a bumper home crowd ahead of the fixture with Ross County. A mere appetizer for the main course, members of the Premier Division-winning side from 1983 came out next – the only time the club have won the top-flight.
Deep in a relegation battle, these heroes of yesteryear should have acted as both reminder and inspiration. A reminder for the predicament United have found themselves in and inspiration to get out of it, ensuring they don’t suffer their second relegation in eight years. Instead, what followed was a defeat which could not only prove significant but catastrophic as the Staggies waltzed away with a 3-1 win and their striker Jordan White grabbing the match ball with a hat-trick.
From four points behind United going into the split, Malky Mackay and his County team have moved to 11th and two points ahead of the Tannadice men. The past two weekends have shown the true beauty of the split despite some within Scottish football still treating it as some beast. When four sides are involved in a relegation battle these five games can see the teams move with the rate of motion of the worst speed dating event of all time.
Back to square one
It wasn’t meant to be this way for United. Jim Goodwin had, thanks to a run of one defeat in six, including three successive wins guided the team from 12th and four points adrift, to tenth and four points away from the bottom. Just when you thought they were going to kick on and put even more distance between them and 12th, back-to-back defeats, first to St Johnstone and then County, has them back at square one, ushered towards the trap door as rivals Dundee watch on with glee. It is an unwritten rule within Scottish football, a general rule of thumb. When it comes to football in the City of Discovery, the fans of Dundee’s two clubs are not allowed to be happy at the same time. Often, neither are.
The Tangerines showed resilience from conceding in the first minute to the Staggies to control the first-half, get on level terms and be unlucky not to go into the break ahead. Yet, the reset button was hit. All the good elements of their play from the first 45 minutes, namely Loick Ayina's influence stepping out of defence disappeared. And, as so often this campaign, amateurish defending. Paul Hegarty watching on from the stands will likely have had Scott McMann-infused nightmares. That is what this season has been for United and the spectre of Tony Asghar still hangs over the side. The club shutdown former manager Craig Levein's “suspicions" over his continued influence despite his departure. But what cannot be doubted is the recruitment under his watch this season continues to undermine the man in the dugout.
Now, Goodwin has done a better job of making something out of this collection of players than his predecessor but, for the third manager running, key faults are evident. When you consider the kinds of players you need to have to be competitive in the Scottish Premiership, United lack in most departments. If Steven Fletcher was to get injured they would be snookered. Ayina has made a case for one of the team’s best and most influential players. The teenager was a late addition on deadline day in January.
Staggies, Saints and Killie
Yet, it would be foolish to write off United just yet. They still have Motherwell and Livingston, teams with little to play for, on the horizon and have got the better of both recently. And you also have to take into account the nature of the league and relegation battle. County, seven defeats from nine coming into the split, were viewed as the 12th team but have six points from six and have those individuals which give you a chance in the Premiership. Towering centre-backs who can dominate and be in the right place at the right time, as did and were on Saturday. A combative midfield with defensive nous and energy. Then pace, creativity and a target man in the final third.
Both teams will take a keen interest on the action at Rugby Park on Saturday as Kilmarnock host St Johnstone. The Perth Saints are still in danger, unable to build on their win over United when they hosted Motherwell. An inept second-half performance similar to too many first half-displays under Callum Davidson. If results went a certain way on Saturday they would go into the final two games 11th, just two points off the bottom. Three points, coupled with United failing to win, would ensure they are safe from automatic relegation. It can't be underestimated how important survival is to the club who are heading for a state of flux this summer, on the field and off. The club remain up for sale with two of the three current board members stepping down at the end of the season. Remaining in the top-flight and with Steven MacLean in position to take over permanently would provide a modicum of stability and continuity with a rebuild of the playing squad required.
Kilmarnock boss Derek McInnes will also be eyeing up the summer with relish. Only eight first-team players are contracted. It is a squad primed for an overhaul. The former Dons boss will see it as an opportunity to build a squad which is capable of challenging for the top six rather than survival. The good news for Killie is two of their three remaining games are at Rugby Park where they have picked up 85.3 per cent of their points.
It is, however, United who have most to do as they attempt to salvage something from a mess of a season.
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