The Courier’s football writers discuss Dark Blues captain Kevin Thomson’s injury problems, Mixu’s Robbie Muirhead predicament, the Michael O’Halloran speculation and Luggy…
Q Dundee and draw seem to go together in a sentence as often as Paul and Hartley these days. Positive or problem?
IR: I was at McDiarmid on Friday and it was a good point for Dundee. The three amigos of Kane Hemmings, Rory Loy and Greg Stewart ensured they looked dangerous up front all night, even though the second half fizzled out. It’s the most recent games that matter most and draws against St Johnstone and Hearts are more than satisfying results.
EN: A bit of both. The Hamilton, Partick and ICT draws were glass-half-empty ones, and the Hearts and St Johnstone ones glass-half-full. But, the good news is that the draws away to the two in-form teams in the league, Hearts and Saints, were their last ones. Hartley is right to talk those draws up. I do still feel though that Dundee need a result that catches the attention of everybody, and beating Aberdeen on Saturday would do the job.
Q Kevin Thomson missed the Saints game with yet another injury. Should Hartley be planning for life without him?
IR: Thomson’s injury woes will be more frustrating for the player himself than anyone else. It is a shame that we haven’t seen more of him but he can still have a major role to play in pushing the club into the top six. Hartley is nobody’s mug and he will have assessed all scenarios regarding his skipper. He will have a plan B ready if he feels he needs one.
EN: I don’t think we’re quite at that stage yet, but if this in and out of the team saga continues for the rest of the season, Thomson won’t be holding a very impressive hand if he wants a new contract at Dens. No matter how good a player he is when he’s on the pitch, his injury record is becoming the narrative of the Kevin Thomson Dundee story, rather than his football.
Q Dundee United have had bigger defeats than last weekend’s by Hamilton, but was the 2-1 loss the most depressing so far?
IR: No it wasn’t more depressing than Accies away, the “rubbish with a capital R” loss to Celtic or probably the worst of the lot the hammering from Hibs in the cup. The reason is that they played better than they had been doing and created chances. It is painful to see a “winnable” game slip by but United need to keep calm and carry on.
EN: I think Ian and other veterans of Hibs away, Accies away and Celtic away would say different, but I can see what you mean. There was probably greater expectation of a win on Saturday’s game, which made the result so hard to take. United are ticking pretty much every box of a team heading towards relegation at the moment.
Q Results haven’t picked up under Mixu Paatelainen and United are in a worse predicament now than when Jackie McNamara left. Has progress been made, though?
IR: I think it is wrong to say United “are in a worse predicament.” They haven’t been winning but any fair observer would surely agree the team has improved under Mixu. Progress is being made and I think fans should appreciate how badly damaged the Tangerines were when he took over.
EN: I definitely think the new formation is worth persisting with, and the team looks fitter and more organised. But United have to find a way of getting goals out of somebody other than Billy Mckay. And, on that front, Mixu doesn’t appear any nearer cracking it than his predecessor.
Q Would you have recalled Robbie Muirhead?
IR: A resounding yes from me. Paatelainen has, quite rightly, pointed out that Muirhead wasn’t exactly a mainstay of the Partick Thistle team until his starring role at Kilmarnock on Saturday but it just doesn’t look good to be loaning a player out to a rival club when you are at the bottom of the league. At the very least, Muirhead would be a good option for the bench in case Billy Mckay has to go off.
EN: Yes. Even if Mixu didn’t want to play him, you shouldn’t have one of your own players scoring goals for a relegation rival. McNamara clearly expected United and Thistle to be in different parts of the table when he was loaned out, but this is now an awkward situation that outweighs the value of player development.
Q Mixu has already brought four new players in. How many more can we expect?
IR: United need to boost the quality of their squad, not necessarily the quantity. They have too many players as it is so signings will need to pass the “better than we already have” test. The targeting needs to be precise and not a scatter-gun approach.
EN: It’s impossible to put a number on it, and if I was Mixu I’d keep going as long as Stephen Thompson is willing to keep signing cheques. The Ross County way of last January (a serious overhaul of their squad) is United’s best hope. Nobody in that team has the right to feel secure about his position.
Q If United do put some results together, which team is most susceptible to being dragged into a fight with them at the bottom of the table?
IR: Here we highlight arguably United’s biggest problem. I don’t see any team that looks particularly vulnerable to attack from below at the moment. Partick’s resounding win at Kilmarnock must have made deflated United players feel even worse than they were after losing to Hamilton. The sad fact is that it is the Tangerines who others are looking at as their saviours from relegation.
EN: Going by what I’ve seen of the bottom six teams, I’d say Motherwell. There was a mixed reception to Mark McGhee’s return from Well fans, and they strike me as a club that is on the decline. Whether that decline will be spectacular enough to match United’s, though, is another matter.
Q The speculation has started about which clubs are watching Michael O’Halloran. If Saints were minded to sell in January, pick a perfect club to suit him?
IR: I know it’s not answering the question but the perfect club for O’Halloran is St Johnstone. He should stay where he is this season, sign a new deal for Saints in the summer and then move to England in a year or two if the money is too good for the club to resist.
EN: An upwardly mobile one in the Championship. Derby County has suited Johnny Russell well, so they’re the sort of club that could be a good match for O’Halloran. Celtic are the only realistic suitor in Scotland, but I don’t think that would be a good move for him. His career would stall at Parkhead. O’Halloran should sign a new deal and then head south in the summer of 2017.
Q It’s Ross County away for Saints at the weekend. End of unbeaten run time?
IR: No, I don’t think so. Saints got a decent point against Dundee on Friday without playing particularly well. What would be nice is if they don’t lose an early goal.
EN: It’s certainly the biggest test of it. But (after correctly predicting a draw against Dundee last week!) I think this will be another one.
Q The Scottish Cup fourth round draw has been made. Do you expect all our Premiership teams to progress to the fifth round?
IR: Anything looks tricky for United at the moment but they should get through against Airdrie. I think Dundee have a tough one against Falkirk, who are a strong and skilful side under ex-United boss Peter Houston. I trust Saints to squeeze past Kilmarnock. While the Hearts v Aberdeen clash is the tie of the round I like the look of Raith Rovers v Hibs and would hope that match packs the fans into Stark’s Park.
EN: Probably. Just. I think Dundee have got the toughest task at home to Falkirk, even though Saints are playing another Premiership side in Killie. Falkirk will go for it and the pressure will really be on Dundee after their defeat at Dunfermline in the League Cup. Despite being safe in the middle of the table, another early cup exit would put a real downer on their season.
Q Paul Sturrock has lost his job at English football’s bottom club. If this is the end of Luggy’s colourful management career, what will be the lasting memory of it for you?
IR: That has to be the hugely-entertaining trip I took down to Plymouth to interview Luggy after he had just confirmed publicly that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. After our chat at his house, during which he hammered me at pool, we went on to a pub packed full of United fans who had travelled down for a friendly game against his Argyle team. He was treated like royalty by the supporters and loved every minute of the adulation!
EN: His superstitions! He had enough of them to fill a book. I always think it’s a shame that he left St Johnstone when he did. I know Dundee United were his club but if he’d stayed on at McDiarmid he could have been Tommy Wright before Tommy Wright.