Dundee United boss Robbie Neilson admits tomorrow’s game against Ross County in Dingwall will be the acid test of just how far the team have improved since he took over at the club.
The last time the sides met at Tannadice, it was a horror show for the Tangerines and their fans as the Staggies ran riot winning 5-1.
The result signalled the end of Csaba Laszlo’s reign as manager with Neilson drafted in to replace him.
Since then, United have won three and drawn once under the 38-year-old former defender but the manager knows that the Highland outfit, who are sitting four points in front of his team in second, will pose the biggest test of his tenure so far.
Neilson said: “We will play Ross County this time with a different mind-set, that’s for sure.
“We have had a good start since we came in and this is another big test for us.
“It will be a test of how much we have improved lately.
“The team got turned over by them at Tannadice so the players know how significant this game is for us.
“We will take a good support up there and I think it’s a good place to play football.
“It is always tough up there. County are unbeaten at home this season and have a very good squad.
“They have a lot of players who have played in the Premiership so I think it has the ingredients of a good game.
“For us, we hope to be the ones coming back down the A9 in a good mood.”
While United appear to have bounced back from their sticky start to the season, Neilson believes it is only a matter of time before County and league leaders Ayr United suffer a similar “difficult spell”.
He is hoping to inflict the start of that for the Staggies tomorrow and close the points gap, especially as he is sure the Ross County chairman Roy McGregor will open his cheque book to strengthen in the next transfer window.
The manager said: “I would expect Roy to put his hand in his pocket again in January to bring in more experience.
“They did it in the summer, making good signings like Don Cowie – who is someone who played a lot for Hearts last season.
“To be able to do that shows the backing they have and the resources Roy is willing to give them.
“So it’s important for us to keep in around them. If we can win the game, then the gap goes down to just one point.
“We have had a difficult start to the season, a lot of lows, but if we can cut the gap to just one then we would be happy.
“Ayr United and Ross County haven’t had a difficult spell yet so if we are in there around them then we give ourselves a chance.”
Neilson, of course, knows exactly what it takes to win the Championship having done so previously with Hearts.
And he insists that while all the focus is on tomorrow’s match, the importance of United’s following fixture against second bottom Alloa cannot be overestimated.
Neilson said: “These big games at the top of the table are not the ones which win you the league, they are the ones which give you confidence.
“In this league you can’t afford to beat the likes of Ross County then drop points next week – it’s about getting consistency.
“That is what we have been searching for and if we can win then the confidence we’d get from it would be massive.
“For me, a victory would have a bigger impact on the spirit of the club than the league position really.
“There is a lot of focus on the league, there has been a good build-up from the moment the Queen of the South game was finished last weekend.
“I can tell from training that the players are up for it and they are looking forward to it.”
United defender Frederic Frans, who had to call off from last week’s game against Queen of the South after being injured in the warm-up is still rated doubtful.
Neilson added: “We have had a few niggles ahead of the game and Freddie will need checked before we head up to Dingwall.
“Nicky Clark has played in a bounce game and scored a couple of goals, which was good and he’s on his way back to full fitness.
“We have had bounce games to keep people fit, we have a big squad and you need to get minutes into the ones who haven’t been playing.”