After what has felt like a long and uneventful summer, the football is back! We’ve had a few friendlies but the first competitive ball was kicked last night and for this fan it felt fantastic to be back in amongst it.
This close season United have changed their approach (thankfully) and that has resulted in a slow but steady stream of news rather than multiple signings and panic buys to fill out our squad. Hopefully this is the start of a more re-assuring period of time at the club. Our future transfer windows and summer spells can hopefully continue to be more measured, rather than a slap dash attempt at building a team (plus this time next year we will be planning for the Premiership anyway…)
The football returned in the glorious surroundings of Tynecastle, for my money the best away ground in Scotland. With a large travelling support and the prospect of a great away trip it felt, for me at least, that last night was always going to be more about the celebration of the football being back rather than the performance on the pitch. It would have been nice to cause an upset but playing Hearts away was, and is, never going to be a fixture that would define our upcoming season.
Also, what about that new kit? Glorious.
So, the game itself…
Well two or three things I want to get out the way in this blog post. First of all, the conditions last night were abysmal. The freak weather was always going to change the dynamic of the game and it is very difficult/very harsh to judge players based on what happened in the monsoon like conditions. We are simply not going to get a measure of what to expect when you are faced with such circumstances. The second point is that us scoring such a good goal early on also changed the dynamics of the game and it resulted in us retreating to defend a lead for the majority of the first-half and then, something we have been guilty of under Neilson, we sat back in the second-half knowing that a draw would be a good result.
I can’t really give out player ratings in a game like last night and it is unfair to single anyone out for criticism. The reality is that every player did some things well but then, partly due to the rain, slipped, tripped or misplaced a pass across the very slick, and then later on, heavy pitch. We were guilty of poor possession and basic errors but when you look at the overall play we didn’t actually concede too many clear chances to Hearts.
Take someone like Reynolds for example. I thought that for 80% of last night he led the defence very well and looked every bit the experienced central defender we need. Then, on one or two occasions, he sliced the ball out or slipped under his feet. Don’t let these isolated moments cloud what was an assured performance.
Someone who has been the focus of much negativity is Adrian Sporle. The Argentinian was playing his first competitive match for United last night and yes he did have a very difficult first half. He looked a bit nervous and positionally he went wandering which allowed Jamie Walker in behind on more than one occasion. In defence of Sporle though –
- The weather (and I know I am banging on about that) will have played a part.
- Having a nervy Jamie Robson ahead of him for the first time didn’t help.
- Coming up against Walker and a striker like Ikpeazu (who cut across him several times) is an unbelievably difficult challenge for anyone let alone a player making their competitive debut in Scotland.
Will Sporle end up being a fantastic left-back? Who knows, but to judge him on last night is unfair.
There were some very, very poor moments last night and we panicked at times. We also sat back for large spells which totally negated Nicky Clarke (who ended up in midfield) and it put pressure on the defence. It was a typical Neilson setup considering we were leading and although it was frustrating it is maybe understandable that the manager wanted us to try and grind something out against one of the biggest teams in the country. I will say again though, games like this will not define our season and last night was a one off to begin our season with. What happens next is the important bit…
Shankland getting his goal was a great positive and it was very well taken (with some fantastic work by Stanton in the build up). Also worth noting that Liam Smith has a good game and looks a massive upgrade on right-backs we’ve had recently.
Two very bright sparks from last night was the continued impressive form of Scott Banks and Louis Appere. For the young striker Appere it was more of a case of causing a real nuisance to the Hearts defence but for Banks it was a stand-out cameo with the playmaker showing maturity and skill beyond his years. Hopefully we see more of him in the other Betfred games.
So, in summary, last night was a mixture of good, bad and indifferent but it was most certainly not a game to judge or season on and one that is a bit of a free hit considering the conditions and circumstances. For me personally it was just great to be back at the football and at such a great venue. We had a fantastic travelling support and in terms of the ‘occasion’ I enjoyed every minute of it. I will certainly take a 1-1 draw with a top-six Premiership side to start our season.
Next Up… On Tuesday we travel to play Stenhousemuir. On paper this is the start of three ‘easier’ games and it would be good to get a win and for the team to be more settled in terms of possession and overall play. This is the first real test of where we are and the expectation will be on Neilson to play with much more attacking intent and for him to maybe experiment with players like Banks and Appere. We should also hopefully see more game time for players like Harkes, King and Butcher.
I can’t wait!