In this week’s Talking Football, Ian Roache and Eric Nicolson assess a rare home loss for Dundee United, Dundee’s transfer business and predict St Johsntone’s Pittodrie fate.
Dundee United have lost at Tannadice at last. It’s been coming, though, hasn’t it?
IR: In nutshell, United conceded a poor goal from their point of view and then failed to break down a well-drilled Arbroath team. They were too ponderous when approaching the Lichties’ box and lacked creativity in midfield. They did have chances – Lawrence Shankland should have scored from close-range – but sitting watching the game you weren’t convinced that an equaliser was coming. What we should not play down is how well Arbroath were set up by their manager Dick Campbell. United certainly haven’t been at their best in some recent games but when they do lose maybe that is the time to sit back and recognise their achievements this season, especially the long unbeaten home record in the league.
EN: It has, and I don’t say that as a criticism of United. They have been everything you would hope for title contenders, and more. But there have been a few comebacks needed at Tannadice in the last couple of months – Hibs, Alloa and Morton. Liverpool aren’t the norm – most champions-in-waiting have off days and Saturday was one of those for United. No great drama.
United are still going to win the league by a country mile given the lack of competition the rest of the ‘contenders’ have put up. But what has been brought into focus by Saturday’s result and a few other wobbly performances in the last couple of months?
IR: For as long as I can remember, well from the start of the season at least, manager Robbie Neilson has been warning everyone that there will be bad results and off days. The encouraging thing for United fans is that these form dips have been followed by good displays and winning runs. As Calum Butcher said to me after the game (and who would argue with him!?) you don’t become a bad team overnight.
EN: United fans – and their manager – probably knew already how important Nicky Clark’s role in the team as the link between midfield and Shankland was but that has been underlined in his absence. As for the general point, it has probably made things less clear rather than bringing things into focus. There are three or four players who could do with rediscovering their best form as Neilson’s thoughts turn to his summer transfer business.
Were too many new contracts handed out to players too soon?
IR: This is a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. United move to secure players on deals and they are accused of keeping people who may not be good enough for the Premiership. Do nothing and they risk good players running down their contracts and moving elsewhere. I would trust Neilson and sporting director Tony Asghar on this one.
EN: I’m not sure about that. All of the ones tied up mid-season are assets. One defeat hasn’t changed that. I always had in my head four or five players to improve the team in the close-season and that hasn’t changed.
We better mention Shankland. He’s still at Tannadice. When will he eventually move on and how much will United get for him?
IR: When the worst-case scenario doesn’t materialise – in this case Shankland’s leaving last Friday – then the next option, while not ideal, almost comes as a relief. Therefore, there now appears to be an acceptance and expectation that he will be off in the summer. That is certainly what the mood music is telling me. Owner Mark Ogren was at the Arbroath game and before kick-off suggested that they would be looking higher than £3 million for their star striker. I think the Tangerines should be ambitious and I trust them to deftly handle the deal when it comes.
EN: If Shankland doesn’t move in the summer the business plan for him hasn’t worked. United will need a bidding war (or a goal or two for Scotland in the play-offs) to drive the fee much further north of £2 million, I suspect.
Dundee did plenty of transfer business last month (six were brought in). What did you make of it?
IR: The last time I interviewed Christophe Berra it was at a Scotland media day and he was preparing for international duty. It may have gone wrong for him at Hearts since then but I still expect him to be an excellent addition to a Dark Blues’ defence that needed bolstering. Having experienced men like Berra and Graham Dorrans in the dressing room has to be a positive thing.
EN: I expect more hits than misses, which would be an improvement on previous January windows. It is a concern that they’re coming into a team struggling for form and confidence, mind you. There is no time for easing these lads in.
They only have two out-and-out strikers on the books. Does that worry you?
IR: Let’s be honest, there will be a few nerves in that Dundee dugout every time Andrew Nelson and/or Kane Hemmings are fouled. Had it been up to me – and thank goodness for Dundee supporters that it isn’t – I would have kept Danny Johnson.
EN: It certainly does. I know that James McPake is a one-up-front man but Nelson has had a lot of injury issues since he arrived at Dens and Hemmings hasn’t had a run of form for whatever reason. Best of luck picking up a free agent good to go, however. It’s a real shame that the Danny Mullen deal couldn’t be completed because he would have been perfect for Dundee.
They have dropped out of the play-off places. Are you confident they will be back in them when it matters (the end of the season)?
IR: Definitely. Within Dens, the conviction is that they are not far away from getting it right on the park. They feel a winning run is close. I hope, for their sake, that it starts on Saturday when they host Partick Thistle. Finishing in their current fifth spot or even lower does not bear thinking about but I am backing them to claw their way back up the way.
EN: I still am. The run of fixtures coming up is decent. I’m far from confident Dundee can claim the all-important second place, though.
It was a strange week for St Johnstone – well beaten by Celtic and then unlucky not to beat Hearts. Where does it leave them?
IR: It all looks fine to me. You just get the feeling that St Johnstone are in a much better place than they were even a few weeks ago. (Dear reader, please miss this answer out if they get hammered from Aberdeen! – cheers, Ian).
EN: The general form curve for Saints since the end of October has been of a mid-table side. That’s enough evidence to suggest they can keep themselves away from the scary stuff in the last few weeks of the season.
It’s Aberdeen next. Do you give them a good chance at Pittodrie?
IR: Going up to Aberdeen to try to win a game is still one of the hardest tasks in Scottish football even if the Dons have looked a bit out of sorts at times. They did hold Rangers at Ibrox at the weekend but the word from the north is that all is not rosy in the red camp. I have seen Saints play well there on numerous occasions so they do have a chance.
EN: I’m cautiously optimistic about this one. There’s a split opening up between the Aberdeen fanbase and their manager and an excellent 0-0 draw at Ibrox won’t fix it. If Liam Gordon – Saints’ best defender of late – was fit enough to play I’d have been even more confident. A draw.
Dunfermline stayed strong when Hibs were trying to get Kevin Nisbet out of East End Park. Foolish or sensible?
IR: Foolish? Give me a break. It was terrific news for the Pars and the fans will be thrilled.
EN: It certainly wasn’t foolish. Hibs, and others, will still be keen in the summer and by that time, who knows, Nisbet’s goals may have even taken the Pars into the top flight. If Dunfermline had cashed in on Friday night, a lot of Pars fans would have stayed away from East End Park and I wouldn’t have blamed them.
Give me your signing of the window?
IR: My non-signing of the window is Shankland staying at United but that’s not what you asked me. My signing, albeit on loan, is Craig Wighton to Arbroath from Hearts. That is not just with the benefit of hindsight (promise) after he scored the winner against United. Dundee admitted they wanted him but instead he had ended up a Lichtie. He is loving it there by his own admission and his presence should help ensure there will be Championship football at Gayfield against next season.
EN: That’s an easy one. Steven MacLean going to Raith Rovers. I was stunned that he has dropped down to League One. It’s a signing that could clinch Rovers promotion. Second prize goes to Arbroath and Wighton. Two goals and six points isn’t too shabby a return so far, is it?