In this week’s Talking Football, Courier sports writers Eric Nicolson and Ian Roache assess the significance of Dundee United’s first league defeat, James McPake’s willingness to make bold selection calls and St Johnstone’s new signings making their mark.
Was Dundee United’s defeat at Somerset Park a worrying reminder of last season or an excusable blip in an otherwise flawless start to the league campaign?
EN: It is certainly excusable at this stage. The truth is, we won’t really know until the next few games are played. What I would say is United were nowhere near as poor as on their previous trip to Ayr in January. There was undoubtedly a drop-off from the derby but it wasn’t a truly alarming one. They’d actually got things going when Ayr broke and scored their second goal.
IR: It is now up to the United players to ensure that it is an excusable blip. I was also found guilty of looking at the fixture schedule and thinking that if they could get through Inverness, Partick, Dunfermline and Dundee then things would start to get easier. It didn’t turn out that way thanks to a fine Ayr side and their terrific manager. What you do now, though, is try to dilute that defeat by going on another winning run, starting with Arbroath on Saturday.
In Ian McCall’s words (more of those later), Ayr United passed the ball around United. Time for a bit of tinkering in midfield?
EN: I would have played Harkes in midfield and Butcher at centre-back (the team that won the derby, effectively). McCall is right (to an extent). There were periods when Ayr had control in midfield and were much more fluid with their passing. I expect Harkes to start against Arbroath.
IR: The dilemma for United is that Butcher does make the central defence more solid but he does the same to the midfield. The man can’t be in two places at once. I also think you need a cool head following a defeat and Neilson is just that. He won’t panic and his thinking will be that it was an off day for the midfielders and everyone else, come to that.
Back to that man McCall then. What did you make of his comments about the Shankland transfer?
EN: It was classic Ian McCall, wasn’t it. He’d clearly been sitting on that one for months. I asked him the first question about the game. He ignored it and went off at a tangent with his rehearsed message. After digging out the quote he was upset by, I didn’t think it was worth getting so worked up about.
IR: I think it’s safe to say that some people were left a bit perplexed by it all, with no insult intended in that statement. I think McCall, with whom I had a terrific working relationship when he was at Tannadice, has overdone it a bit here.
It’s Arbroath on Saturday. What lessons do United need to learn from the Tunnock’s defeat and the Ayr one?
EN: That slow starts put you in trouble whatever the competition and opposition.
IR: There is zero danger of United taking anything for granted from this one and neither should there be. The Lichties in general and their boss Dick Campbell in particular will be shown the utmost respect by Neilson and his players. I actually think United will be looking back at another game for their lead into this one – the Dundee derby. That was their last home game and they will want to reproduce the attacking menace and expert finishing shown that night.
With Dundee, Inverness and Ayr all winning, it’s bunched up again at the top of the Championship. Will it stay that way for a while?
EN: I still envisage a two-horse Dundee city race eventually. Ayr are a very strong 1 to 11 but they were two substitutes light on Saturday which says everything about their strength in depth. I suspect they will drop away after Christmas and Inverness a bit later.
IR: The Dark Blues will be delighted to see that gap between themselves and United close to four. That was the perfect post-derby tonic. History tells you things will be tight and the others will be happy if they can hold United back after the start the Tannadice men had.
Nobody could accuse James McPake of ducking the big decisions. A good sign that he was willing to drop Kane Hemmings?
EN: It’s a good sign for McPake the manager as he has benched several of his big-name summer signings at some point. Hemmings not hitting the ground running hasn’t been such good news, though.
IR: It’s a squad game and this wasn’t the first big call for McPake, who left Finlay Robertson out of the United game. It worked out well against Alloa and not so well in the derby but McPake is proving that he won’t shy away from making tough decisions.
Morton v Dundee. How do you see that one panning out on Saturday?
EN: I watched Morton comeback against Partick on the TV a few weeks ago and that should give Dundee a warning. David Hopkin is a proven winner at this level as well, of course. McPake has far better options up front, however. That will win Dundee the game.
IR: I concur that the Dens men will have enough to take this one, even if it is by just a goal. A trip to Cappielow is never easy but they will carry momentum forward from the win over the Wasps.
St Johnstone are off the bottom of the league quicker than many thought they would be. The new signings are making an immediate impact, aren’t they?
EN: Jason Holt was the key signing for me. By all accounts the influence he has had on training has been as significant as on the pitch at Pittodrie. He’s one of those players who control the tempo of a game, which he did superbly at the weekend. To refer back to a previous question, he’s exactly the type of midfielder United lacked at Ayr.
IR: I am happy to report that Holt was excellent at Aberdeen, while both Anthony Ralston and Stevie May did OK. They all looked like they had been in the side for a while.
Do you give Saints a chance against Rangers?
EN: Holt can’t play unfortunately, which is obviously not ideal. I think it will be close but Rangers will probably edge it. As long as Saints play well again they’ll be in a good position to cash in when the fixture list improves. Tommy Wright is spot on to say they’ve had the hardest opening of anybody.
IR: Play as well as they did against the Dons then they will make Rangers work for what I predict will be a single-goal success for the Ibrox men.
Saints moving up a position stopped it from being a bottom place clean-sweep in this part of the country. Which team are you most worried about – Dunfermline, Montrose or Brechin?
EN: You have to say Brechin, purely because their league status is on the line. If you asked me which is the biggest surprise, I would have to say it’s a draw between Montrose and Dunfermline. Teams that can beat St Johnstone and take Celtic to extra-time at Parkhead shouldn’t be bottom of their divisions.
IR: I have always had a soft spot for the Pars because of the good people who work at the club so I am most concerned about them. They started like a train on opening night against Dundee but have gone off the rails since then.