In a Talking Football play-off special, Eric Nicolson, Ian Roache and Neil Robertson assess the winner-takes-all clash between Dundee United and St Mirren.
Are Dundee United better equipped to win promotion third time around compared to the previous two seasons?
IR: Call me Captain Cautious but, after early uncertainty, I am slowly beginning to believe that is the case. I do think they have the right manager in Robbie Neilson, who has been the personification of calm over the last few weeks. There were some previous big names who failed to get United over the line – Tony Andreu, Simon Murray and Scott Fraser spring to mind – and that shows you how difficult it is to get back up. However, this group seems to be full of self-confidence. One thing is for sure, the United players think they can do this.
EN: Yes they are better equipped – but I think this St Mirren team is better than the Hamilton one that Ray McKinnon’s side lost to and the Livingston play-off winners of 12 months ago. It’s not often you can say that the Premiership side and the Championship one are both ‘form teams’.
NR: I have just had a quick look at the United team that began the second leg of last season’s play-off final with Livingston and the starting XI that played Inverness last Friday and you would have to say this current vintage looks better than last season’s. Arguably, only Scott Fraser would make it into Robbie Neilson’s side.
It’s St Mirren they face but do you think they would have preferred to have avoided the Buddies?
IR: I have been weighing up the Buddies or Accies quandary for a while now. I started out hoping for Saints because United beat them in the cup. Also, Hamilton have their dreaded plastic pitch and, as we have seen once again, possess a stronger survival instinct than the weeds in my garden. However, the Paisley men’s recent record is excellent and reads: draw, draw, win, draw, win, win. I do suspect United would – just – have picked the Buddies if given the choice.
EN: I’ve been flip-flopping like Ian and also came to the same conclusion. The cup win, and the lack of a fear factor as a result of it, is the key reason.
NR: I have seen Hamilton and St Mirren in recent weeks against Dundee and I have no doubts that United are far better off playing the Buddies.
Name your three key men for the Tangerines and say why they will matter?
IR: My first choice is goalkeeper Benjamin Siegrist. The reason is that the big guy has to have the type of game he had last Friday and avoid making the mistakes he has made all too often this season. A slip against Premiership side is likely to be punished. Next up is skipper Mark Reynolds, who was outstanding against Inverness. His experience will prove crucial in keeping his colleagues clam and focused. Last, and definitely not least, is Paul McMullan. He can be United’s star man. You just know the wee man will be heavily mentioned in opposing manager Oran Kearney’s team talks.
EN: I’ll pick another three then. Mark Connolly – because I think he hasn’t been as impressive as Reynolds and needs to get to that level. Jamie Robson – because I think St Mirren will target that side of the United defence. And Osman Sow – because Robbie Neilson has put so much faith in him.
NR: There’s not much left for me! However, Nicky Clark is someone who could have a big role to play and hopefully Pavol Safranko is fully recovered from illness. Like Ian though, Mark Reynolds is key for me.
United knocked the Paisley men out of the Scottish Cup earlier this season but do you think that will be a factor?
IR: I would like to think so but both clubs have a different look and feel to them now. What we are about to see is two well-matched sets of players giving their all.
EN: They are two different sides – United have improved and St Mirren have improved even more so. I do think the fact that United have won does mean something, though. There isn’t a gulf between the sides, and United know it.
NR: It is good that United have that positive memory of winning at Paisley in their minds but overall, it is not a factor.
There was a bumper crowd inside Tannadice for the Inverness match. How important will the fans be in the final?
IR: I have always thought that United’s ability to call on a huge support would be integral to their promotion push and so it proved on Friday night. It was notable how many people in the Inverness camp mentioned the home support after that game. They were impressed. The Buddies are well backed, too, as we saw at Dens on Saturday so I think there will be a couple of cracking crowds for these two massive matches.
EN: There is no advantage to be had here. If United had been playing Hamilton, maybe. But both sides will carry a big travelling support for the away legs. I’ve been at St Mirren matches recently (Dundee and St Johnstone) when the home fans have created a brilliant atmosphere.
NR: The fans will no doubt create a cracking atmosphere at both games. There will be another large United following inside Tannadice on Thursday but the club’s fans all but made the Scottish Cup tie in Paisley a home one with their fantastic backing that day – more of the same on Sunday would certainly help the team.
Time to show your hand. Give us an aggregate score prediction.
IR: Whisper it but fear has been replaced by optimism. United didn’t play well at times in the semi-final but let’s take a step back and acknowledge the achievement that is a 4-0 aggregate win over a tough Inverness team. I think United will edge the home leg by a goal and then get the draw they need on Sunday. So that’s 2-1 to United.
EN: I certainly won’t be putting any money on the outcome. This is about as evenly-matched a play-off as you could ask for. I’ll go for United 3-2 overall after a 1-1 draw at Tannadice. I’ve had a feeling all along that Neilson might get his Sow pay-off when it matters most.
NR: St Mirren may have scored three goals against Dundee on Saturday but they toiled to do so after Darren O’Dea’s sending off and they actually conceded when the Dark Blues were down to nine men. United possess much more of an attacking threat through Sow, Safranko, Clark and McMullan. So having made a case for a comfortable United aggregate win, I have to confess I am still sitting on the fence! Extra-time and penalties for me.