WHEN the Dundee United supporters left Hampden on 31 January, everything in their collective footballing garden appeared rosy.
Jackie McNamara’s team had just beaten Aberdeen 2-1 at the national stadium to reach the League Cup final, further enhancing a season which also saw them still in the Scottish Cup and just six points off the top of the Premiership table.
The manner in which United’s season has spectacularly unravelled in less than seven weeks since that propitious weekend has left their fans understandably shell-shocked.
Wednesday night’s crushing 4-0 defeat at Celtic Park in the replay of their Scottish Cup quarter-final continued a tailspin of despair for followers of the Tannadice club which effectively began in the late evening of 2 February. It was then, in the closing hours of the winter transfer window, that United chairman Stephen Thompson accepted a £2 million offer from Celtic for the services of midfielder Stuart Armstrong and winger Gary Mackay-Steven.
In terms of making your bed and having to lie in it, Thompson and United could hardly have experienced more uncomfortable consequences of that decision.
It was made for purely economic reasons and has maintained the improving financial health of a club which was losing around £3 million a year when Thompson’s father Eddie purchased it back in 2002. United are now free of bank debt and recorded a profit of £1.2m in their most recent set of accounts.
United have won only one of their eight matches since Celtic’s bid was accepted
But it is teamsheets rather than balance sheets which concern football supporters. Many among those of a tangerine persuasion remain resentful of the sale of two of United’s most influential players at such a critical stage of what had the potential to be such a memorable season.
Back in September, they went two points clear at the top of the Premiership after losing just one of their first eight games. Tentative talk of a potential title challenge continued when their 2-1 defeat of Celtic at Tannadice towards the end of December left them just four points behind the defending champions.
That plug was pulled on that feelgood factor, however, when Thompson concluded that Celtic’s bid for Armstrong and Mackay-Steven was too good to refuse. United have won only one of their eight matches since and that was a Scottish Cup tie at League 1 part-timers Stranraer.
“There is no doubt from a football point of view it was not the right thing to do,” conceded Thompson earlier this month.
“I admit that and it’s been hard for a lot of people to accept. But we have financial obligations to do the right thing for the club. Once all the transfer fees are in we will be down to about £1.3m of debt, so the club is going in the right direction.
“I understand the fans’ frustration, we are all frustrated. But I need to make sure this club is here for many years to come, that’s what matters to me.”
In Thompson’s defence, it is far too simplistic to say that United would have been certain to fare better on the pitch in recent weeks had they retained the services of Armstrong and Mackay-Steven. For while they still had both of those players in their ranks, it should be remembered, they were hammered 6-1 by Celtic at Parkhead in the first league meeting of the teams back in August. But the circumstances which have dictated United and Celtic should face off four times in 14 days have sharpened the focus on how much the loss of the duo has diminished United on the pitch.
With Armstrong and Mackay-Steven ineligible to play for their new club in any of the three cup matches which have just taken place, it has all been about United’s loss rather than Celtic’s gain. Those United supporters able to stomach the trip to Glasgow tomorrow for the final instalment of the tetralogy will have salt rubbed in open wounds when both players are expected to return to Ronny Deila’s starting line-up for the league fixture.
It is McNamara who must deal with the fall-out of that fateful final day of the transfer window. An instinctively pragmatic individual, he has done his best to put a brave face on it with public acceptance of how United must conduct their financial affairs in the current era.
Privately, however, there will unquestionably be a deep sense of frustration for the 41-year-old who is as ambitious for success as a manager as he was during his highly decorated playing career. Remarkably, he is currently the longest serving boss in the Scottish Premiership. Reaching two major cup finals in his tenure of just over two years is an achievement in itself but a sense of fulfilment can only be provided by silverware.
Since last summer, McNamara has seen four of Scottish football’s brightest talents leave his first team squad with the sales of Ryan Gauld to Sporting Lisbon for £3m and Andrew Robertson to Hull City for £2.85m preceding the more recent departures of Armstrong and Mackay-Steven.
As much as McNamara relishes the development and encouragement of young players at first-team level, it is exceptionally difficult to challenge consistently for honours when you are losing key personnel so regularly.
United’s season did not come to an end on Wednesday night, of course. Their remaining target is a third place finish in the Premiership to secure Europa League qualification. They are currently seven points behind Inverness Caledonian Thistle, with a game in hand, in that particular race. But no matter how the next few weeks pan out for McNamara’s side, their fans will be nursing a painful sense of ‘what might have been’ for some time to come.
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