As a veteran of Dundee derbies in the late 1980s, Mixu Paatelainen understands the desire of Dundee fans to see Dundee United suffer
He might struggle to empathise with them since he played at a time when United very much ruled the roost in the city. But he is aware of the complex psychology at the heart of most football fans; it isn’t enough for their own team to succeed, they must also see their rivals fail.
This maxim might be particularly applicable to Dundee supporters. Paatelainen can sense how Dundee fans – and players – view Sunday’s derby, potentially the last one of this season and also, perhaps, for some time. He understands that many regard it as the yearned-for opportunity to give vent to 40 years of frustration (since Dundee were relegated and United stayed up on goal difference in the first year of the Premier League).
For so long on the receiving end of mockery from their more successful neighbours, now is Dundee’s chance to exact some revenge. In this particular case, the stakes are high for both sides. A loss for Dundee United at Tannadice would surely hasten their departure from the top tier. But a defeat for Dundee would heighten the chances of the Dens Park club being involved in the relegation play-off scramble.
So apprehension mixed in with schadenfreude are the ingredients making up a particularly powerful broth of emotions for the visiting contingent. United’s plight has tempted some to imagine a delicious scenario whereby Dundee resume being the city’s only top-flight club.
Not since 1959-60 have Dundee played in a league above their rivals. The Dens Park side were already in the First Division on the sole occasion United have been relegated since, in 1994-95.
If United’s recent upturn in form is not enough to save them, the trick for Dundee is to avoid going down alongside them, as happened with city rivals Hibs and Hearts two seasons ago.
Paatelainen found an expressive way of describing Dundee’s state of mind as they contemplate Sunday’s clash at Tannadice. It might be a short trip they are making across a single street. However, in terms of historical significance, it is a journey on which years’ worth of baggage is being carried.
“I am sure the Dundee supporters will look to come to Tannadice in good numbers and nail us, beat us and make sure we stay where we are and reduce our chances of survival,” he said yesterday. “Of course, it is natural. And I am sure Dundee players feel that way, too.”
He pondered for a moment the possibility that not every Dundee supporter is cheered by thoughts of United’s demise. “Maybe there is a section of Dundee supporters who feel ‘no, derby matches are so special during the season, I hope they survive. They deserve it’,” he mused.
“But these things are secondary. The players and coaching staff don’t really think about these things at all. We want to make sure we give ourselves the best chance to stay up and go forward.”
A win on Sunday would help to that end while also making a further derby this season more likely. “We hope we have another one against them in the bottom six, it’s as simple as that,” he said.
Paatelainen wasn’t trying to pretend the derby fixture is like any other match, although, in its starkest form, that is indeed what it is – the opportunity for another three points. This would count as a priceless return in United’s continuing bid to peg back Kilmarnock, currently eight points above them in 11th place.
“We can only affect our matches, how we play and how many points we accumulate,” he said. “Of course if it happens to be that Celtic are good enough to beat Kilmarnock on Saturday and we can reduce the gap to five points, I’m sure the Kilmarnock players will start feeling the heat a little bit.
“They know we have improved and that our results have improved.”
Paatelainen’s main injury doubts concern goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who was called back into Japan’s squad yesterday for forthcoming World Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan and Syria, and influential midfielder Paul Paton. However, he expected any niggles to mysteriously disappear before the type of game in which all players ought to want to participate.
The manager was in Inverness on Wednesday night to find out the identity of United’s opponents in next month’s Scottish Cup semi-final, with the answer being his former club Hibs. The Finn greeted Hibs chairman Rod Petrie with a hug at the Caledonian Stadium, illustrating his feelings about a club where he served as both player and manager.
But he was barely willing to contemplate the Hampden clash in four weeks’ time given United have four crucial league clashes, including a derby, to play first. It is a schedule on which their survival hopes hinge.
“It is on the back-burner, the cup,” said Paatelainen. “The league is the most important thing for us, definitely. But of course we want to do well in every competition and every match we play.
“Hibs are well capable and are a good team, no question. They are lively and defensively excellent. They can score against any team. With the mistakes we have made at the back throughout the season it makes the task very, very difficult. But it would be the same against anybody, not only Hibs.”