Dundee United 2018/19 League Review

And, just like that, the 2018/19 league season is over. We now have the excitement and emotional rollercoaster of the playoffs to look forward to but before that drama kicks-off it is maybe time to reflect on what has been a turbulent and club altering league season. It really should have been a title winning year if not for hesitancy by the previous Chairman and the (hopefully now finished) United big-match psychological weaknesses, but all is not lost and the fans have a great deal to be optimistic about moving forward.

At the bottom of this blog entry I have posted a compilation of our league goals from the 2018/19 campaign for everyone to enjoy (apologies for the music selection). Whilst I was putting together the clips it gave me a chance to look back at the season. Maybe things might could been different if Mike Martin had sacked Csaba Laszlo after the Livingston playoff defeat in 2018? There are always ‘what ifs’ in football but Neilson was available last summer and it might have been that we would be sitting here as league champions if Martin had made the call earlier. He didn’t, so all that is left is for us to do is look at the present and concentrate on the future under our new owner, our new leadership structure and the current manager, Robbie Neilson.

The league campaign began in August with United suffering defeat on the opening day against Dunfermline. Losing 3-2 meant that the fans maybe did see enough to give us hope, but looking back the team we put out that day was never going to be good enough to win the Championship. In fairness to Laszlo we won our next two fixtures but dismal draws against Alloa and Morton meant that fans were beginning to realise that things were never going to improve under the Hungarian and it didn’t help that he was becoming increasingly unhinged during matches. I don’t think I have ever seen someone so animated in the technical area and you would assume that this out of control approach affected the players. It always felt like Laszlo alienated the playing staff and that his approach was so eccentric that he never really had their full backing.

Despite a decent win against Falkirk on the 22nd of September it was 7 days later that Laszlo’s side were annihilated 5-1 at home by eventual league winners Ross County and it was to be Laszlo’s final game in charge.

Mike Martin, before leaving United, did move quickly to secure Robbie Neilson and the former United player arrived in mid-October before immediately galvanising the support and the team. Fans started to come back to games, maybe not in huge numbers but it did feel like Neilson had given everyone a lift. The travelling support seemed to increase and grow louder which in-turn helped Neilson establish early momentum.

His opening set of league results read – WDWWWW and as far as everyone was concerned it was a case of the title race being alive and well. Unfortunately, as has been the United way in recent years, a few positives is always met with a massive negative. In this instance, it was a 5-0 defeat at home to Ayr United. We were simply blown away by Ian McCall’s side and it was this result and the two draws immediately after this fixture that gave Neilson the ammunition to criticise many of the players who were signed under Laszlo and who were simply not good enough.

After a 2-1 defeat to Alloa on the 29th of December Neilson went public with his frustrations and it was the first time he made his thoughts clear to the fans. Ten days previous to this we had announced that after years of boardroom unrest and, more recently, financial struggles, we finally had a new owner in the shape of American Mark Ogren. Without going over ground already covered in posts like the one linked here, it kick-started a mini-revolution inside Tannadice and the club now looks very, very different to the United of even just six months ago.

January was an incredibly busy one for Neilson and the new leadership team. Our squad had a major rebuild and the infrastructure at the club started to change dramatically.

In terms of results on the pitch we still faltered during that busy spell and if you want to pinpoint a period of the season when our title challenge probably ended you could look at the 5-0 against Ayr and the five or six games that followed.

February and March gave us fresh optimism (in part because Ayr United and Ross County were trying their best to throw us points) but ultimately we came up short and to be honest my feeling is that although Laszlo undoubtedly had a major part to play, Neilson must take some blame here. I am a fan of him and believe he has the skills to take us up but his philosophy of defending a lead or trying to be very rigid in order to neutralise opponents has seen us lose points that we really shouldn’t have. Neilson’s game management has been poor at times and this includes changing things too negatively when we have been well on top in games (Ross County away recently is a prime example). The players get to shoulder responsibility too and our inability to convert chances still lingers. This does feel like a season of missed opportunities.

Overall, we can see this as a season that does have its frustrations but it could be one that signals the start of a positive new period in the club’s history. The fans feel more involved and the club is looking healthier off the park. The next two weeks will be the real test of that fresh optimism but even if the unthinkable happens, and we don’t get promoted, we would be entering the 2019/20 season safe in the knowledge that the club is secure and that we would be in a very strong position to win the league next year (and pile misery on Dundee in the process). Ogren and the board have committed to spending again in the summer regardless of where we are playing our football.

I’ll be posting more on the playoffs as the first fixture approaches but in the meantime I hope that the club can do their utmost in attracting fans to these massive games and that the team, who on paper seem in a stronger position than in previous playoff attempts, can do us all proud.

The Cups

I wasn’t really going to look at the League Cup, Irn-Bru Cup and Scottish Cup in much detail but when you analyse each one individually they all tell the story of our season. In the League Cup early stages we were abject and apathetic which pretty much summed up our style under Csaba Laszlo and it was clear in these early fixtures that the manager would not see out the campaign.

For the Irn-Bru Cup we, rightly, decided to focus on youth and allow Craig Easton and Scott Robertson to take the team, but despite a couple of positive performances the youngsters were knocked out. Then all went quiet on the youth front after Ogren arrived. A few months down the line the two ex-United men have now left as part of our re-structuring and the new youth system is in place.

Finally the Scottish Cup and maybe a chance to feel optimistic for the future as we put in some of our better performances of the season. It was also the case that United fans really engaged with the competition for the first time in a few years. This season’s Scottish Cup felt like one that wouldn’t have looked out of place five of six years ago when we always felt like we could do well and we could enjoy cup-ties. The atmosphere at the club and the positivity amongst fans was excellent during our short run and hopefully it is a sign of things to come.

Player of the Season and Signing of the Season – Pavol Safranko

No real surprises here. Safranko won the Player’s Player and Fan Vote at the recent club ceremony and he is fully deserving of these awards. For a long time we have seen players come and go with the underlying feeling that they weren’t enjoying their football at Tannadice and that United were a club who seemed to bring out the worst in players.

Safranko has changed that and has shown us that basic human attributes like commitment, passion and a love for football are things we can all appreciate. His future is up in the air but he is a definite fans favourite who certainly fits in to the ‘cult hero’ category (and is the first to do that for a good few years). He will be someone that we will remember for a long, long time regardless of where he is playing his football next year.

Young Player of the Year – Jamie Robson

If you had told me 8 months ago that I would be sitting here writing about Jamie Robson being our best young player I wouldn’t have believed you. I will hold my hands up and say that I was one of those fans who reacted badly to his Halloween costume and his previous incident with the big green drink. Many, myself included, were surprised that he was given a new deal last year and for a while under Neilson it looked like he was not really in the picture.

To give Robson huge credit though he has re-invented himself as a winger/defensive wide-player and on the whole he has been a bit of a revelation in that new role. His performances still have weaknesses and he has not been in the best of form in the last few weeks but he offers a natural left-sided attacking threat and it is always nice to see a player, who lacks any real skill, do the basic thing of just running at a player directly before whipping in a cross.

Might it be that this is now his permanent role and that Booth + ‘A N Other’ will be our left-backs next season? That would free Robson up and although we would still need another wide player to come in it would give us good flexibility down the left-hand side. I would also argue that his performances recently have helped Booth become more confident because he knows that he has someone ahead of him who can track back and has defensive awareness.

Worst Signing of the Season – Adam Barton

You know that things are bad when you could point to four or five names in a category like this. The recruitment that we carried out last summer was, publicly by the club talked up as being a well-researched plan that allowed us to build security by handing out long deals to strong targets. We did, in fairness, hit the mark with one or two but many were (and are) simply not good enough. After much debate I whittled my list down to Yannick Loemba, Christoph Rabitsch and Adam Barton.

I decided against Loemba because he at least showed early promise and in his limited appearances he did show enough to fans that he could, under the right manager, be a reasonable squad player. In reality he lacked any real end product and he was quickly frozen out by Neilson.

The opposite of Loemba is Christoph Rabitsch. He is someone who works really hard and tries his best but just isn’t good enough technically. Nobody I know dislikes Rabitsch in terms of wanting him to fail or do poorly and that is probably down to the fact that he genuinely did try his best when he played for the club.

I chose Adam Barton because he is the worst mix of the two other players mentioned here. He thought he had great ability (but we never saw it) and he thought he was trying his best (but he never did). Fans NEVER buy into player who seems to not be giving his all. What Barton also did, which in the footballing world is basically unforgivable, was criticise the supporters for “not understanding” football. Even if he thought that privately it should never become public. Barton has history of this and ask any Partick Thistle fans why they hate him so much it is largely down to a similar interview he gave a few years ago whilst he was at Firhill.

I just don’t get it. I understand that football might just “be a job” but to then not try your best at your job and to not take your profession seriously you are entirely missing the point of what ‘work’ means. Many footballers don’t necessarily love football, just like many people don’t love their job but most still give it their best. 

Team Performance of the Season – St.Mirren Scottish Cup

I’ve cheated a little here considering that this was meant to be a league review. The reason I have chosen the cup-tie against St.Mirren is really down to the way that it tied all the positive changes at the club together in one 90 minute match –

  • The supporters were really engaged with the build-up and provided a fantastic backing during the game.
  • The new signings all played very well and showed us their qualities.
  • The overall strength of performance against a team who had our number last year was excellent.

On the whole it just felt like a proper United match where everything went well and we all left very happy and optimistic about the future. More of the same next season please!

League Goals 2018/19

As promised, if you have made it this far here is your treat. This is the first compilation I have put together (so be gentle) but I hope that you all enjoy the goals from this 2018/19 season –