For Dundee United fans, the announcement finally arrived with 15 minutes remaining. At 11.45pm on the 31st day Loick Ayina, a well-regarded teenage defender, was signed on loan from Huddersfield Town. More to come? United fans weren’t just hopeful but desperate for a forward to follow. There was an expectation that since Tony Watt had been allowed to join league rivals St Mirren earlier in the day a replacement would be waiting in the wings. That wasn’t the case.
It now leaves all the pressure and responsibility on the shoulders of Steven Fletcher with the team bottom of the Premiership. Although it should be noted that the striker who turns 36 next month has been excellent since joining the club in the summer and more than capable of handling that expectation.
Social media response
United’s sporting director Tony Asghar sat down with the club's in-house channel DUTV for an interview which sought to address the fears, frustration and fury. Supporters have unfurled an ‘Asghar Out’ banner at the last two outings, losses to Kilmarnock and Hearts at Rugby Park and Tynecastle Park. The interview may not have had the desired effect judging by the response of the club's fans on social media. Many are still in the dark regarding what has gone wrong and why and what the club are striving to do to improve matters on and off the field.
Asghar, who played an important part behind the scenes in helping the club back into the Premiership, spoke of the Watt deal, how had “heard people say it was a gamble”. “The reality is that if a player is here and he isn’t getting game-time, then we have to make a conscious decision for the good of the group," he said. “Tony wanted to go and play football and he wasn’t getting that here.”
It is difficult to view allowing a talented forward to depart and, in turn, weakening the quality of the squad without a replacement as being good for the group. Especially when the forward, recruited 12 months ago from Motherwell, departs so late in the window. It's not so much the fact the player has left but the timing and failure to replace him. If it was a case of having to wait for Watt to join St Mirren and the windfall of Harry Souttar’s move from Stoke City to Leicester City before making moves then the club were operating with one hand tied behind the back and the other having just been loosened.
Yet, Asghar suggested that was not the case. Instead, they were looking to land players who were potentially out of their reach financially. Fans will likely ask questions about such a model and also about alternatives, Plans B, C and D. But doing such business in January can be difficult and even more so when there are mere hours and minutes left to get business done.
“We’re a different level of club now where we’re trying to sign targets who are potentially on a financial scale we can’t reach," he said. “There are other clubs in competition with us. The players we used to pick up in January windows were free agents who teams traditionally didn’t want but now we’re going for players who other teams want.”
It has to be remembered, United invested in their squad during the summer. Many of the additions got the thumbs up when they were announced. Fletcher, Jamie McGrath and Dylan Levitt would add to almost every squad in the Premiership. Aziz Behich displayed his quality at the World Cup, while Craig Sibbald, Glenn Middleton and Arnaud Djoum are solid top-flight players.
The issue remains, however. They didn't and haven't filled key positions, both in defence and then at the base of the midfield. The balance of the backline, whether in a three or a four isn’t quite right with the profiles of players, while the lack of defensive midfielder has been a complete oversight. As good as Sibbald and Djoum are, it isn’t their game. In turn, it has had a knock-on effect individually, namely Dylan Levitt, and collectively.
Now, United are set to be without Ian Harkes, McGrath and Peter Pawlett from the midfield and attacking areas due to injuries, only adding to Liam Fox’s headache. Still, judging by the Dundee United which turned up at Tynecastle Park and were the better team even with ten men, Asghar is correct, they “have some very, very good players”. They possess more than enough quality to avoid relegation at the expense of other strugglers, including Motherwell who appear to be in free fall.
Also evident was the backing and support of the visiting crowd, their irritation with Asghar not having a negative influence on the field. That may be tested on Saturday when the team host Kilmarnock in the Scottish Cup, the first home fixture since the January transfer window.
The season that has been so far is one few would have predicted when Jack Ross was appointed as Tam Courts’ replacement. There was a belief the side had what it took, with the likes of Levitt, Fletcher and McGrath, on board to consolidate in the upper echelons of the league. Yet, the season has collected more and more issues, bringing the team and club to a position where the campaign is now all about survival.