Having hit the half way mark in Dingwall last Saturday, the opportunity of a game of Friday night football closer to home, at Tannadice, was impossible to turn down. Beyond the geographical appeal, the game itself was a big one.
With just three points separating Dundee United and Hibs at the top of the Championship table, this was one of those clashes often labelled as a “six pointer”. Before the match, it was more important for second placed Dundee United to get a result from the match. While there is plenty of time to make up ground, pulling six points ahead in the league would give Hibs a confidence boost.
At this point, in case you’ve missed some of my earlier posts, it’s worth declaring a conflict of interests. I’ve been going to Dundee United games for around ten years with my Dad. Not every week, but every so often. Last year, while living in Dundee, I had a season ticket at Tannadice and got to games a bit more regularly. For that reason I’ve developed a soft spot for the Terrors and I might have been a little less neutral than normal in the stand…
I’ve mentioned the words “last year”. I probably shouldn’t have. I’m sure the Arabs reading this would prefer it if I ignored last season altogether, but I won’t… United were relegated from the top flight last year. After a decade of challenging for the top six, and the experience of European football, it was quite a fall from grace. The downfall, for many, started with the sale of Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong to Celtic, almost two years ago. That wasn’t necessarily a blow in terms of the quality on the pitch, as neither had been particularly exceptional leading up to their sale, but for the effect that decision had on the remaining players and the atmosphere at the club.
That “rot” fed in to last season, with the further sale of Nadir Ciftci leaving the club short of striking options and a disappointing summer of recruitment which left the club lacking the quality of player that fans had become used to over the years. Tannadice became a toxic place over the course of the season, with players, management and officials becoming increasingly unpopular. Jackie McNamara was sacked and replaced by Mixu Paatalainen but nothing could arrest the slump which ultimately led to relegation.
There was a lot of ill-feeling at the club at that time and a summer clear-out was required. What was also required was a unifying figure to win over the fans, and Ray McKinnon was the man tasked with that job.
Off the pitch the club have made and are continuing to make strides to improve relations with their fans. The mood is not quite harmonious at Tannadice yet, but the improvement in performances and crucially results of late, has certainly led to an optimism which was nowhere to be seen last season.
This was in evidence leading up to the match, with tickets selling quickly. Shifting over 10,000 tickets for a Friday night televised game is an impressive feat. There was no anger or resentment in the stands, just a genuine belief in what the manager and his team are trying to do. Through reaching their lowest point, the club have had the opportunity to rebuild and to this point at least, they have made the most of that opportunity.
In recent years, and last season in particular (for obvious reasons), the atmosphere at Tannadice has been criticised. However, there are occasions when Tannadice can rock. This was one of those nights under the floodlights, with the sizeable away crowd’s noise matched in the home end after taking the lead.
The stadium itself is one that will be easily recognised to those that have followed Scottish football on TV over the years. The Shed sits empty behind the goal for much of the season, opened to teams with larger supports – like Hibs. The George Fox stand runs along the touchline opposite the dugout. There are two tiers, with the upper level offering the best view in the ground, from my experience. The Eddie Thompson stand behind the goal is the noisy stand, full of Arabs willing the ball over the line. The Jerry Kerr and Jim McLean Fair Play stand (yes, there are five stands at Tannadice!) run alongside the same touchline as the dugouts and are home to the hospitality boxes.
The match started fairly evenly. As is often the case in such an important match, both sides were fairly reserved and looked happy to spend the first 15 minutes or so feeling each other out.
Both sides looked strong at the back, but Hibs in particular lacked a creative touch. They look like a team that won’t shy away from a physical battle and they were strong throughout.
Dundee United perhaps lacked genuine width, a complaint which has been levelled at the club for quite some time, but in Tony Andreu they have a player capable of creating chances from nothing. He had two decent chances in the first half with two long range shots.
Blair Spittal had the best chance. At first glance it appeared that he had the chance to score from a tight angle, but his shot was deflected over the bar by a brilliant block.
The second half started in much the same way. Hibs started the half stronger, but there was still little to separate the sides.
That could have changed when Hibs were awarded a penalty. Martin Boyle stepped up to hit it, but it was saved by Cammy Bell in the United goal. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise given that he has made a habit of saving penalties this season, but the save was greeted with the kind of celebration usually reserved for an important goal.
That fired up the players and the crowd. A large scuffle in the middle of the park sparked tension, and both sets of players responded by upping the tempo.
United brought on Simon Murray – a player who was much maligned last season, but looks to be improving in the Championship. He made the difference, with his pace and direct running causing problems for the Hibees.
He would have a big impact on the game when he was taken down in the box following a probing run towards goal. Another penalty was given. This time Andreu stepped up and scored to make it 1-0.
United sat back to try and hold their lead, and ultimately, through a combination of strong defending and Hibs lack of creative treat, they were able to keep their lead.
The celebrations at the end of the game between the players and fans highlight the hard work that has been done so far this season.
United needed a manager who could overhaul a squad, change the atmosphere around the club and crucially, win games. If tonight was anything to go by, McKinnon might be that man.
There is still work to do, but the Terrors are on the right track.
Dundee United 1 Hibernian 0