There’s still a chance, not a great chance, but not a remote chance either, that Dundee United will be in the Ladbrokes Premiership next season. So it appears a little strange that they’ve already started building their squad for the 2017/18 campaign. And even stranger that they’re building a squad which, on paper, would be very well equipped to win the Ladbrokes Championship, but uncertain in the top flight.
The explanation is simple. Ray McKinnon playing the percentages. Even if United were by far and away the best team left in the Championship (they’re not) the path to the Premiership is still rife with potential hazards. They’ve won the first game - an impressive come-from-behind victory over Morton - but there’s still five to go. There’s little room for error over that period.
Free agents are only available for a short period of time, so they’ve decided to snap them up rather than wait until their play-off exit or promotion. Besides, the possibility of playing in the top tier is a useful bargaining chip during the courting process for what, probably will be, a second tier side.
Prior to concluding a deal with Billy King, a move that was first revealed by the Evening News last week, they managed to get James Keatings to agree to a two-year deal.
Similar to King, who you can read about here, Keatings is a player with proven productivity at the top end of the Championship. He helped Hearts to win the title in 2015 before moving to Hibs when the Tynecastle club decided to gamble on Gavin Reilly rather than keeping Keatings for the Premiership challenge. Whether Keatings would’ve thrived in the top flight or not, we cannot know, but the switch didn’t work out for the Jambos.
It’s fair to say he wasn’t as consistently productive after crossing the city to Easter Road, though that could be down the lack of opportunities to play up front compared with the season before. At Hearts, though he was third or fourth on the depth chart at the outset, he soon became the first-choice striker as a slew of injuries robbed the side of Osman Sow, Soufian El-Hassnaoui and Dale Carrick. It pushed Keatings in the lone striker role for a couple of months. Not a position his skills are necessary suited to, but which he thrived in anyway.
At Easter Road, he found himself playing in the same side as Jason Cummings, the top goalscorer in the Championship in two of the past three years. As neither suited the target man role or possessed much of an aerial threat, it was never a partnership that was likely to work, so Keatings often found himself on the bench or at the tip of Hibs’ midfield diamond, which he never looked wholly comfortable playing.
It was a similar situation to the one he found himself in at Hamilton, having helped them to promotion. After a terrific scoring start to the season he was increasingly used out wide in the latter stages. Since it didn’t look like Accies were suddenly going to revert back to using him as a No.9 , having moved up a division, he took the decision to leave.
When he’s had the chance to play up front in the second tier, whether at Hamilton, Hearts or Hibs, he’s largely played well and scored a decent amount of goals.
That’s what Dundee United are getting: a proven goal scorer at the Championship level who’s an improvement on what they have. Like Simon Murray, he’s fast and willing to use those quick legs to chase lost causes and harry opposing defenders, but he’s a more accomplished player than his new team-mate. He’s got a better touch and is a better finisher. Though he may not be able to match Murray for power, he’s shown himself to be a better fit to the 4-2-3-1. It was the system Hearts used for the most part, and the one preferred by McKinnon.
In summary, Keatings helped get Hearts promoted. He helped get Hibs promoted. And now that he’s joined the biggest team left in the second tier, you wouldn’t back against him doing it again.