Well it is the morning after our playoff defeat and I, like many others, am struggling to put feelings into words. This was our third attempt in the playoffs and out of all three this has left me most frustrated. Against Hamilton we ran out of energy (and were shafted in the first leg by the officials). In the Livingston tie we were just awful and deserved to be nowhere near the playoff final. For this playoff campaign I felt we had the tools to do the job. Against St.Mirren those tools were deployed in the wrong way.
Since the first leg of the playoff semi-final against Inverness it felt like a momentum was building within the club and that United had turned a corner. After yesterday I do still believe that we have turned things around in a broader sense but the loss to St.Mirren on penalties feels pretty damn awful. We will now spend yet another season in the Championship and despite the recent positivity we do have problems that need to be addressed this summer. Recruitment will need to be strong and the club will need to work hard to keep the fans motivated during another period of us all feeling incredibly deflated and let down. Yesterday was yet another example of our team freezing on a big occasion and our manager playing an overly cautious brand of football that supporters, rightly, struggle to accept on such big occasions.
It is difficult to truly sum up my feelings at the moment because I am someone who tries to think about things with a level head and remain as sensible as possible. That level headedness went out the window yesterday and I was left feeling truly scunnered after such a non-event of a playoff final. Whilst I do think that the club is moving in a positive direction the reality is that it is always the performance on the pitch that leaves me feeling either incredibly positive or deeply frustrated after the final whistle. To that end yesterday was pretty awful and it ranks up there with my biggest disappointments in supporting this club.
One thing that I have talked about a lot in this blog is the need to have a team in this league that feels like it is having a ‘right good go’. To get out of the Championship you need to be an aggressive and positive side who constantly try to put pressure on the opposition. Initially we seemed to play like this under Neilson but we have lost a bit of that and it is definitely not what we witnessed over the two legs against St.Mirren. Neilson needs to address this over the summer.
I’ve found myself telling non United fans in recent months that Robbie Neilson is quite similar to Craig Levein in that he sets his side up in a pragmatic and structured way. What Neilson does not seem to have is the vision the current Hearts manager had. Levein managed to take that solid base and then use it to utilise aggressive football and to play as a high tempo side when needed. This was despite playing in the same fairly rigid formation that Neilson uses. Over both legs it always felt like we were playing to “not lose” and to see where that took us, rather than take the tie to St.Mirren. The Paisley side were poor but we let them have time and space in both games without really landing any big punches.
In the first leg it became obvious that after 70 minutes St.Mirren were happy to take a draw. They started to play the ball back to their goalkeeper but we did not use that as a chance to push the game higher up the park. Instead we ourselves started to sit back and accept the 0-0. The same happened again yesterday in Paisley, we sat back during important spells plus we seemed to be happy to accept the potential for a penalty shootout.
The mini celebration by Neilson at the end of the 120 minutes was telling. He seemed very happy to have the fate of the club put in the hands of a penalty shootout. I said during the game that penalties would be the death of us and it proved to be correct, in the most embarrassing of ways. For Neilson to somewhat celebrate this ‘achievement’ felt very disrespectful to the fans who should have witnessed better from their team.
Our changes during the game yesterday were also baffling. We seem to be have some players sitting sitting on our bench whilst a partly fit Osman Sow and Peter Pawlett were introduced. I am not saying that either Sam Stanton or Cammy Smith would have made the difference but it is not good management to be relying on unfit players in the most important of games. We also rushed back Callum Butcher, although to be fair the combative midfielder did at least make a bit of difference.
It all feels like a huge missed opportunity and one that leaves everyone completely deflated, at least in the short term. As I have already said, the club does seem to be in a better place, but yesterday will not be quickly forgotten, and rightly so.
In the coming days it would be good to have some positive news with regards to the squad for next year. This might come in the shape of some players departing the club but it would also be beneficial for United to announce one or two signings. At the recent Q&A the suggestion was that Asghar and Neilson did have players lined up ready to be announced.
Some fans will ask serious questions of Neilson over the summer and I am probably one of them. In general I am a supporter of the manager but he got it badly wrong over these two legs. He needs a good summer and a good start to next year in order to win back the trust of some supporters. It is also going to be a very interesting league next year with the addition of Dundee and the pressure that comes with that. The Dens Park board will be keen to spend in order to be the better side in the city so we could see both clubs vying for top spot through a flurry of signings and summer activity.
What we do have is a squad that is pretty full and one that doesn’t maybe need a huge overhaul but it will certainly need some surgery. We’ve moved past the period of time when we would target 12 players in the summer and that is a positive. What we do need is four or five quality additions and some ruthless culling of the playing staff. Some of our players are decent but they have shown that they aren’t quite good enough and if United want to win the league next year then big decisions will need to made.
The Final Word
The last section of this post is dedicated to the fans and to Pavol Safranko. I have been to almost every game this year and I want to say that the one positive constant was the support. We have a fantastic fanbase and it finally feels like the club is tapping into that again and that the relationship between the fans and the Tannadice board is back to a healthy level. The final few games of the campaign showed everyone the potential in this club and the support in the playoff games has been phenomenal. Things off the park and in the stands are much better, we now need to transfer that on to the pitch next season.
For Pavol Safranko it is just a thank you to my player of the year. We have had a revolving door of mediocrity in recent years but more importantly we have also had a large number of players who, despite giving a bit of effort, never seemed to genuinely settle at Tannadice. That is what makes Safranko different. He loves Scotland, he loves this football and he is a dedicated professional who has a sensibility about him. What he also possesses is the ability to switch from someone who appears humble and balanced to being an ultra competitive footballer who will harass and bully defenders.
He had a brief spell of not finding the net as often as he would have liked but his career is in a very good place and his exposure can only benefit him as a 24 year-old who will undoubtedly be in demand this summer. It looks likely he will not return to United but he will have plenty of options moving forward.
So, whatever happens Pavol, please know that you have made this Dundee United supporter very happy since last August and I know I speak for many when I say a big thank you for everything. You are the type of footballer that we as fans love to support and you have shown us that there are players out there who can bring that passion back to the stands and have that connection to the club.
A final thanks to everyone and anyone who takes time out of their day to have a quick read of my blog, I really appreciate it.
My season ticket has been bought for next year and I already have the fixture release date penned into my diary. I’ll maybe need a couple of weeks but no doubt by the end of June I will be buzzing again for yet another year of supporting this fantastic club.
Scottish Championship Winners 2019/20?
You’d better believe it.