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Talking football St Johnstone test will tell us if Mixu’s Dundee United are tougher than McNamara’s

Tommy Wright will come up against a new Dundee United manager this weekend after regularly getting the better of Jackie McNamara's sides in recent seasons.
Tommy Wright will come up against a new Dundee United manager this weekend after regularly getting the better of Jackie McNamara's sides in recent seasons.

Mixu’s Tangerines aim to end a poor run of results against their Perth rivals, Dundee face a reshuffle to cope with the loss of Rhys Healey and Angus United anyone? The Courier’s Eric Nicolson and Neil Robertson discuss the football weekend ahead.

Q It’s the fixture on Saturday that used to send a shiver up a Dundee United manager’s spine United v St Johnstone. What does Mixu Paatelainen have to do to change the script?

EN: I don’t think this one is down to Mixu, his tactics or his team selection. It’s all about his players. They have to show more mental toughness. Too many of the United boys have had that “here we go again” look about them when they lose a goal to Saints. Jackie’s last game was the most recent example, but it certainly doesn’t stand alone. Apart from Celtic, this is the team United could make the biggest statement by beating.

NR: Looking through the respective squads of the two teams at the moment, there are not many in a Tangerine strip that you would swap for one in a Saints jersey. So, one of Mixu’s biggest jobs will be instilling some self-belief into his players. Too often in recent seasons, it has looked like Tommy Wright’s men have won the psychological battle before a ball has been kicked the Tangerines really have to be up for the fight, mentally and physically, otherwise it could be a long afternoon for them at Tannadice.

Q Saints are without Liam Craig and Graham Cummins. Will that have a big impact?

EN: With the greatest respect to Liam, who is a lovely man and a good Premiership performer, Cummins is the more significant absentee. If he hasn’t been scoring goals, he’s been setting them up. Chris Kane will no doubt replace him, and he’s just as willing a runner in behind as Cummins, so the United defenders shouldn’t expect an easier shift than against a Saints team with Cummins in it.

NR: Every time I think St Johnstone’s squad will be stretched and tested this season, they prove me wrong by producing the right result. The game against Aberdeen at the start of October was a case in point with Saints being without star man Michael O’Halloran, influential midfielder Chris Millar and first-choice keeper Alan Mannus, yet they left Pittodrie with all three points after a stunning 5-1 victory. So while Craig and Cummins will be missed, their manager has plenty of options at his disposal.

Q Michael O’Neill is Northern Ireland’s footballing saviour, but has he got it right by picking Michael McGovern and Roy Carroll ahead of Alan Mannus in recent internationals?

EN: No. If McGovern is a better keeper than Mannus I’m an Irishman. Carroll is playing in League Two down south these days and is well past his best, so he’s not the answer. There’s still plenty of time for O’Neill to come to his senses and make Mannus his number one for the Euros. Dare I say that Jackie McNamara should have tried to lure him to Tannadice?

NR: I have to admit that I have not seen enough of McGovern or Carroll recently to accurately judge their form in comparison to Mannus. What I do know is that the St Johnstone stopper is a top-quality, intensely-focused pro and if he does win the nod for his country, then he will definitely not let anyone down, even on the big stage of the Euros.

Q Rhys Healey will be out for six weeks. A big loss to Paul Hartley?

EN: A loss, but not necessarily a big one. I like Healey, but it’s not as if he had nailed down a place in the team. Rory Loy should be the man to start, and he’s definitely capable of being a regular scorer at this level.

NR: You have to feel sorry for Healey as he suffered his injury just as he was starting to look as if he had adjusted to Scottish football and could become an important player for Dundee. Luckily for Hartley, he still has Kane Hemmings, Rory Loy and Greg Stewart at his disposal.

Q Greg Stewart is five games without a goal. Is second season syndrome kicking in?

EN: To an extent. There’s no doubt that defenders are familiar with Stewart’s style of play and his trademark cut in from the right on to his left foot and curl the shot into the far corner. He’s still having an impact in games (the penalty won at Inverness, for example) without scoring, albeit not to the same extent as last season and the start of this campaign. Getting him involved more centrally could be worth a try for Hartley as well.

NR: After his incredible debut season in the top flight, it was always going to be difficult to replicate that level of standard as well as the amount of goals he scored. In the last campaign, the former Cowdenbeath frontman was very much an unknown quantity but as the season progressed he was singled out for “special” treatment by the opposition and that has continued this term with defenders doubling up on him. However, Stewart is a quality player and I am sure he will be back banging in the goals soon.

Q Hearts away is one of the toughest matches of the season, isn’t it?

EN: Correct. Apart from the thrashing of Kilmarnock on day one, Dundee haven’t had a result that really caught your attention. Winning at Tynecastle would be that result.

NR: Hearts are unbeaten in their last six league games and will be confident of making it a magnificent seven in a row at home to the Dark Blues. However, Dundee dominated the Jambos in the first game between the sides back in August, albeit for just the first 45 with Robbie Neilson’s side mounting a fightback to win the game in the second half. Hartley’s men simply have to produce a full 90-minute performance this weekend if they hope to have any chance of picking up three points.

Q Looking down the leagues, there’s not much to get enthused about in Angus just now by the looks of things?

EN: That’ll be what you call an understatement. Arbroath are second bottom of League Two and are already too far off the pace to be play-off contenders. They’re more likely to be involved in the dreaded play-off to drop out of the SPFL.

Brechin are rock bottom of League One and have a rookie boss in charge who is still, understandably, finding his feet. Forfar haven’t won for nine games and Montrose are already out of the Scottish Cup. Out of them all though, they’ve done the best so far given the base they were starting from. Angus United, anyone?

NR: Angus United! Prepare yourself for a bumper postbag from irate fans, Eric. There is more chance of Dick Campbell asking for a new hairbrush for Christmas than that ever happening. The league tables do make grim reading for the Angus clubs but I am sure Forfar will come good again, while Brechin are far from cast adrift. Montrose will be all right under Paul Hegarty. However Arbroath need to improve quickly otherwise they could be heading for the same fate that befell the Gable Endies last season.