Football can often seem a slave to narrative and, in the case of Thomas Courts’ first match as Dundee United head coach, that rings true.
Of all the football clubs in all the land, it had to be Kelty Hearts.
Courts’ all-conquering Kelty side emerged from a relegation battle to become a dominant junior outfit during his five years at the helm — winning five major honours prior to his departure in 2018.
That dugout success came following more than a decade as a player with the Fifers, spanning two spells and establishing himself as a true stalwart at the heart of the Maroon Machine.
As such, familiarity will abound when he returns to New Central Park on Friday night — even if the playing squad has been irrevocably altered. Midfielder Ross Philp is, as he puts it, ‘the last man standing’ from a different era.
“You couldn’t write it, could you?” Philp tells Courier Sport. “The first competitive game of our season; first competitive game of their season — and Tam coming back here.
“I’m the last man standing from his Kelty team so it’ll be good to see him.
“It’s not going to change my mindset or the challenge for us, just like it won’t change anything for Tam and United. We all have a job to do on the night. But it’s certainly another wee added storyline.”
He adds: “There won’t be any text messages from me. I’ll be keeping quiet and speak to him after the game — depending on how the game goes, that is!”
‘Dundee United fans might say ‘who is he?”
Like Courts, Philp has enjoyed two stints as a player with Kelty Hearts and was a teammate of the new United boss.
The 29-year-old watched Courts transition from the pitch to the dugout before leaving Kelty in 2018.
Following interviews with the likes of Sheffield United, West Ham and NAC Breda, Courts joined Dundee United as head of tactical performance in 2020.
Philp is well-placed to predict what to expect from United in Friday night’s televised Premier Sports Cup showdown — and what ‘sceptical’ Arabs can expect from their new gaffer in the coming campaign.
“Everyone saw the scepticism when Tam was offered the job and I understand that for a lot of the fans, he wasn’t the big name they were looking for,” continued Philp.
“But, in terms of how he set things up at Kelty and the way he will look to operate at United, they will be tough to beat, try to dominate the ball and he won’t be overawed by working with the standard of players United have.
“Dundee United fans might say ‘who is he? Where did he come from?’ But he carries himself really well and will tackle that job with a lot of belief and determination.
“He’s clearly made the right impression up there to get the top job and he is the sort of guy who speaks well and gets his ideas across. However, if he does do well, I hope that starts after they play us!”
‘We won’t be overawed’
Indeed, there is no room for sentimentality from Philp.
Kelty are in fine fettle ahead of their maiden SPFL campaign and, with the likes of Joe Cardle, Kallum Higginbotham, Nathan Austin, Jordon Forster and Darren Jamieson to call upon, have a core of players who will not be cowed by the occasion.
Allied with that, a more modest Kelty side — featuring Philp — took United all the way at Tannadice at this stage of the competition last season.
“There’s nothing to fear; no expectation on us,” he continued. “United are in this section as favourites and the ones everyone will expect to win the group, but we have players who can cause them problems.
“We’ll obviously set up in a certain way in order to compete with that calibre of opposition, but we don’t have a squad that will be overawed by the challenge. I think we proved that in the game against them last year.
“We competed on their patch and I think we were unlucky not to get something from the game — and we’ve arguably got a better squad now.”