The challenge “show us your medals” holds no fears for Jackie McNamara, whose ten major honours means he has won twice as many as the venerable club he manages, Dundee United.
Formed in 1909, originally as Dundee Hibs, United have lifted two Scottish Cups, two League Cups and a single league title in their history. Born in 1973, McNamara won ten major honours in a gilded decade-long career at Celtic. Ironically, his first major honour, the League Cup in 1997, was earned with a victory over the Tannadice club at Ibrox. Now McNamara is in league with United their joint mission is to lift another major honour together.
The obstacles that must be overcome underlines just how hard it is to obtain silverware. First of all it is Aberdeen who must be dealt with at Hampden Park this afternoon. Should this task be successfully achieved, one of either Rangers or Celtic await in the final. It is why no-one should under-estimate, or take for granted, the winning of a cup. McNamara appreciates they are hard-earned and one of the abiding memories of his career is scoring in a 3-0 Scottish Cup final win for Celtic over Hibs in 2001.
“There’s no better feeling,” he said. “As a manager, you try and pass on your experiences. You want your players to re-live the moments you had as a player, effectively be like a schoolteacher passing on bits of wisdom and belief that helped you along the way. That’s the satisfaction I get from it.”
Although one of Scotland’s top clubs over the last four decades, United have earned just five major titles. Many expected a sixth to come last season when they were pitched against St Johnstone in the Scottish Cup final. That it didn’t was one of the biggest disappointments of McNamara’s career but, as he said yesterday, he tries not to look back.
It is incumbent on teams like United to take advantage of the new economic reality in Scottish football. While Rangers and Celtic have dominated the game since the mid-Eighties, the recent past has proved that other teams are beginning to taste their share of glory again. St Mirren won the League Cup in 2013 and Aberdeen lifted the same cup – their first major title in nearly 20 years – 12 months later.
St Johnstone, meanwhile, savoured a first major trophy success last year with victory over United, who return to Hampden today with McNamara’s warning about ensuring they don’t see another opportunity slip by them ringing in their ears.
“The chance to win trophies doesn’t come around all that often, so you need to grasp it,” he said. “Last season, after Celtic had been knocked out, we didn’t do that. Scottish football has changed a lot in the last four or five years. The gulf hasn’t become as big as it possibly should have. It’s still there in terms of budgets but, when it comes to quality, it’s not as big as it should be.”
“Rangers’ budget still dwarfs ourselves’ and Aberdeen’s does as well, so I don’t see it as a given,” he added, in response to whether teams like United must take advantage of the Ibrox club’s current financial predicament.
“If you look at when we beat Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final last year, they still dwarfed our budget and we were playing kids like [Ryan] Gauld and [John] Souttar, who we’d brought through the youth system. It’s how you use the resources, having a structure that is there for the future.”
United certainly have that. But the cycle of young players coming through means that lack of experience could be their Achilles’ heel. McNamara has already identified Aberdeen as favourites.
“They won it last year and they have a bit more experience in their squad,” he explained. “Guys like [Niall] McGinn and [Barry] Robson and [Willo] Flood have the experience of winning it last year. We only have one or two who have the experience of winning trophies. It is about getting them to settle down and play their normal game.”
McNamara isn’t concerned by the attention being given to the other semi-final, even if most observers suspect this afternoon’s game will be the more enjoyable spectacle. “When the draw was made, no-one spoke about United v Aberdeen because the Old Firm have not played for a few seasons and everything else behind the scenes,” he said. “But I’m sure Derek [McInnes] will say the same – it doesn’t affect our preparations behind the scenes.
“If anything, it has been a bit more low-key, which is fine,” he added. “The players are not as nervous about it. The Rangers-Celtic thing is always there and always will be there because of all the things around it.”
McNamara doesn’t know whether he will attend the other semi-final tomorrow or not. Most probably he will watch it at home, clearly hoping the main object of the exercise is to identify the team United face in another final.