2020/21 Season Preview

Hello! Welcome to the Scottish Premiership ‘Not’ Siggi Jonsson, Perennial Underachievers, 2020/21 preview!

With just a week before our league opener I thought it time to have a bit of a ramble on this huge season for the club. As always there will be plenty in here that you will quite possibly disagree with but maybe you will also find a few things to nod along to. My usual disclaimer applies – this is just one fan’s opinion. Regardless of where this lands in the dedicated Dundee United section of your brain hopefully it will do a job in passing a few minutes of your time, and as always it would be great to hear from people and get opinions.

Next Saturday, finally, I will return to my usual weekly match review format (I would have started this weekend but sadly we can’t watch the friendly against Kilmarnock)

Below I have tried to add a few different sections covering the current situation and what we might experience during 2020/21. Some of these little segments will veer into ‘stream of consciousness’ territory so for that I apologise (it is much easier doing a singular match review). As you may also see from very early on, I have literally no idea what to expect during this coming season but I suppose none of us do!

For a breakdown of summer news, squad details and contracts you can have a look at the ‘Dundee United Summer 2020’ page – here.

Let’s start with question that plays out on constant repeat in all of our minds at the moment (made all the worse given that we can’t see any real pre-season action). After a long break from the Premiership, are we actually ready for this?

The answer is a complicated one. In some respects we definitely are – the club is in secure hands, the leadership model off the pitch is good and we have rebuilt our youth system to a very high standard. Furthermore, and this is massive, the mood amongst the support is great and we have some truly fantastic Season Ticket numbers leading into the campaign. United are certainly in the right place as a club to move forward. However, two hugely important indicators are very much upon us (as in, we will start to find out next Saturday) –

The Manager and Coaching Staff – Let’s not dwell on what happened earlier this summer, we’ve all spoken enough about our former manager. As we all know United were left in a position that none of us anticipated whilst prepping for a return to the Premiership. I have written plenty on Micky Mellon and I will once again say that I am really looking forward to seeing what he can bring to United. We maybe still need to make some adjustments to our backroom team but with Stephen Frail confirmed as Mellon’s assistant things are beginning to take shape. Ultimately managers are always judged on results and performances but the pre-season feeling I have about Mellon is overwhelmingly positive and he will be given plenty of time by fans who have been impressed with his demeanour and interviews so far. I believe he is the right man to lead us.

The Playing Squad – Truthfully? A cop-out opinion – Yes and No. I have a real affinity for this title winning squad and it is probably the most well liked collection of players we have had in a long. The squad carry themselves well and say all the right things, with many of them now settled in the city.

I know that being ‘well liked’ isn’t a recipe for three points every week but in football we see title winning/promotion winning sides being dismantled far too often. If someone achieves something in any workplace they are often given the right to then go and prove themselves at a higher level. I think we can see there are undoubted weaknesses in the squad but we also have a strong cohesion in the team and the players have earned the right to give themselves a chance in the Premiership. We also might see Mellon elevate some of our players to a standard higher than we have seen previously and fans may also see a system/shape that squeezes the absolute most out of who we have on the pitch.

However, it is a gamble to go into the season with the same squad. I want to say that many of the players will be good enough for the step up but I suppose the supplementary question might be – “Good enough for what exactly?”

Will they be good enough to push for the top six? I think even the most optimistic supporter would be hard pressed to say yes to that. We are, I think, some way off that. Are they good enough to see us compete with ‘the rest’ over the course of a season and give us what we need in the short-term – survival? That’s not as clear, and we won’t know the answer until games start to come thick and fast. What we do have is a small core group of good players but a general squad with a lack of depth and experience in key areas. We also need one or two real quality additions. Most good sides have three or four ‘carriers’ who elevate the team beyond its individual capabilities. It is the case we are a bit short of this calibre of individual.

My own opinion is that we are probably four, maybe five strong signings away from having enough in the squad to feel truly comfortable about the season ahead (but I know that we have to be patient). One or two in the next fortnight would help get things going but I understand some might come later in the campaign. Siggi’s wish-list would include a central defender, central midfielder, two wingers and another striker but given how things are progressing it might be a case of playing a waiting game until we see much movement. The waiting around is helped a little bit with the extension of the transfer window but there is pressure on the team to get two or three early positive performances and results under their belt so that fans don’t become too anxious about the lack of activity. Every point earned will be massive and we need to give Mellon the tools to cope with a long campaign.

I do feel excited by the apparent eagerness to give youth a chance. Ideally we would always be doing this but competitive circumstances can sometimes curtail things. If the Championship season had finished we would have probably seen players like Chris Mochrie and Lewis Neilson given some time to impress.

We need more youngsters in the team and it is always nice to see a youth player have a strong breakthrough season, like a Louis Appere-esque emergence from last year. Mellon has talked about giving younger players confidence to go and play so we might see two or three feature fairly regularly to help bolster the first team squad.

It’s a difficult one though. I’ve seen wildly different opinions online but I think that in general fans do have a bit of understanding on where we at the moment. There is a nervousness about the size of the step up in quality and it is okay to be concerned about the lack of depth in the squad. We do definitely need to bring in quality. At the same time though I think most of us are also mindful of what external forces the club must be working with. If this had been a ‘normal’ pre-season ahead of a ‘normal’ campaign then I would be edging towards a bit of an internal (plus maybe public) crisis of confidence, but given the circumstances, the court cases, the arbitration, the change of manager and the fragile financial landscape then I’m content that things may not happen as quickly as we would like them to.

As I said earlier, the players do deserve a chance to prove themselves and I am excited to see the club give more opportunities to some of our young players but this is a higher standard and we need quality brought in to supplement what we already have. If things don’t start well and Mellon identifies areas of weakness then we must act and we must bring in the right calibre of player. The money and commitment needs to be there to help the manager when he needs it. My optimism tells me that Mellon can push everyone to their limit and give the players enough confidence to be the best they can be but we need to invest if we are to successfully navigate this first season back.

Trying to research Championship sides was always an enjoyable challenge for me doing this blog. I liked delving into club sites that were designed during the birth of the internet. Some teams below the Premiership are pretty shy in sharing information on their sites and social media channels but being in the top-flight removes any mystery and it is a little strange to once again have all this access and media attention now that we are back.

What can we expect from our fellow Premiership sides? Well, it depends on where you pitch United in comparison to others in the league. Can we expect to compete with teams like Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen? No chance. Can we slot ourselves into the next batch of sides – Hibs, Motherwell and Kilmarnock? If we can then it will be a very successful year. What about the others? In St.Mirren, Hamilton, Livingston, St.Johnstone and Ross County you have a cluster of sides that you would pinpoint as being the types of teams we can target regular points against. We do want to get back in amongst the upper end of the table but this year it is initially about survival and a bit of forward planning.

Transfer wise it has been a chaotic summer for many. The pandemic coincided with large numbers of players being out of contract and subsequently being released. We have seen several clubs lose anywhere between 6 and 10 players (some would have of course been released in a ‘normal’ summer anyway). It means that a few of our opponents will be heading into the start of the league with a very new squad, a large turnover of players and a host of unknown quantities in their starting eleven. We at least have a bit of stability in our own group.

It feels like United have been left behind a little in the transfer market so far, with only ourselves and Celtic bringing in practically no-one. How much of a disadvantage that might be, remains to be seen.

So, who are our direct rivals this year? For me, and I will mention this again later, we need to be looking at the five clubs I put together in a group of ‘lower’ end teams. We need to see games against teams like Hamilton and St.Mirren as the really vital ones to pick up points in. Anything against sides like Aberdeen would be a welcome bonus. The plan, and hopefully it will happen soon, is for us to see a team of United players regularly compete with Hibs, Motherwell and the clubs who have made the top-six their home since our relegation season.

One common anger point with recent United managers has been the fascination with a single system and formation. Couple that with the stubbornness to not deviate from a solitary ‘Plan A’ approach and you are left with a pretty boring and frustrating experience. To not adapt or to want to try drastic things regardless of how a match is unfolding is, certainly for me, a weakness in a manager.

As United fans we have been so used to a 4231 that it feels as though we have been playing the same way for decades. I am not necessarily against a 4231, and if used properly it can be a fantastic way to play (it is still a default formation for many, many teams around the world). However, all three of our Championship managers – McKinnon, Laszlo and Neilson seemed to be so infatuated with the most boring version of the 4231 that to even utter those four digits in that order makes us all wince. This shape remains, for all three, a sticking point when fans look back to their time at the club.

Not content with this same rigid shape, all three played fairly structured, fairly boring and fairly uninspiring football. The only real time of change came at the start of last season and we do need to give Neilson credit as he seemed to change systems a little bit more often and the players re-appeared from the 19/20 pre-season with an energy and excitement about them. The problem? We always reverted to type and this shift in intent (and system) was far too seldom. Early last year Neilson seemed to have found an energy level within the players that allowed us to go on an amazing run of form during these early games of 19/20. Fans were very much behind this new, energetic style of play because it is what we crave. Unfortunately you always got the impression Neilson felt much ‘safer’ playing more defensive football.

Can we expect a different Dundee United side under Micky Mellon? Can we hope for some players to be transformed? Well, the early signs are very positive. Before his appointment we heard from Tranmere Rovers fans who talked about Mellon being a manager who had no issue in changing shape or tactics mid-match to suite the situation. We have also been changing styles of play during our pre-season games and Mellon has spoken about the demand he has for his players to be flexible in that manner. This is great news.

Since his arrival, Mellon has also mentioned on a few different occasions that he simply wants to win football matches and although that sounds a bit basic and obvious he was talking about this in the context of using different tactics and different approaches depending on circumstances, score or the opposition. Again, this is great news.

The final, and most exciting bit for me, is the emphasis Mellon seems to have on the football fans dream – hardworking players who utilise a high press with high aggression. I might not stand for all football supporters but I think that most of us want to see their team go out and play with pride and passion. These are the basics but so often in the past we have seen a real lack of this in our play. As a fan there is nothing better than seeing your team give it their all. Thinking back to the most memorable games of last year, the ones that stick out all involve us playing with a really high tempo. It also makes defeats and disappointing results easier to swallow if you know that you at least watched your team give it a right good go. This was another real frustration point with our previous managers. Losing is part of the game but losing without a fight, without energy or without intent is unacceptable.

Make no mistake, this season will be tough but if Mellon can get us playing with a bit of intensity, strength and tactical flexibility then he will have the backing of the fans.

This is the optimistic part…

As with any new season I am eagerly anticipating the first game and I dare to dream about what the campaign might bring. The start of the footballing year always brings with it certain hopes but of course, and without wanting to sound like a broken record, this is going to be a season like no other.

From a purely footballing point of view my hope for this year is that Mellon manages to build an identity in how we play and that we become a difficult to beat unit whilst having a ‘promotion bounce’ like other teams have had in the past. In previous years we have seen clubs get promoted and then use that to slingshot themselves into the upper end of the table. Taking the league by surprise, causing some upsets and having a decent cup run would be a fantastic start to life back in the Premiership. We can hopefully utilise the confidence in the group we have and the new manager to allow us to catch everyone off-guard as we have a strong return to the top-flight.

It would also be nice to start adding to the playing staff once again. We have built a strong Championship winning team but we now need to elevate some areas to allow us to compete in the Premiership regularly. As I touched upon in an earlier section we all know that the squad needs a few quality additions but we may have to wait a while for that to happen.

Off the pitch the obvious, and really important hope is that we can get over this horrific pandemic and that we can return to the football as soon as possible. For many of us, the weekly footballing routine is a big part of our life. The removal of attending games, meeting friends, spending time with family, having pre-match drinks and travelling across the country is something that for me personally hangs quite heavily over this current pandemic.

I also hope that financially we can continue to navigate our way towards a bit of security and that our revenue streams begin to open up again. This is a critical time for every team in Scotland. The sooner we can start moving money back into the business the better.

In short, the ideal season would be – fans back as soon as possible, revenue opening up again, a competitive team on the pitch, a few new signings and a pre-match pint or two in the Hegarty Suite. Easy…

Now for the slightly less optimistic part (you can skim over this if you want!)

The unanswerable question – What will actually happen over the next 8 or 9 months?

Well, let’s start with the obvious – COVID-19.

Realistically we will have to wait a bit longer before attending games, which affects us as fans but also affects the business. The news of potential vaccines by the end of the year is great but we are still looking at further spikes in infection as lockdown continues to ease and we head towards the winter months. This will potentially have two major knock-on effects for football. The first is that large gatherings will be the first to be removed if things get worse again. The second is the possible postponement of games if players or staff test positive for Coronavirus. Personally I am amazed that the SPFL/SFA think that they can play a full league season and both cup competitions given that we may have situations where teams are having to postpone games if there are positive test results (we have already seen incidents of this during pre-season). The footballing calendar is always very, very tight a the best of times without these inevitable complications.

As for the football? Well, we do have a squad in need of improvement and the footballing landscape makes it difficult to go and find players if you don’t have reserves of cash or a list of pre-prepared targets (ours is now maybe blank given the change in manager). We are a little bit behind other teams given the court case and arbitration but also with the Neilson departure and Mellon arrival.

I think we are all expecting a very tough season. We will be heading into every game as relative underdogs and with very little Premiership experience in the squad. The dream of course would be to hit the league with a good run and be a side who can cause others problems but the short-term goal has to be simple – remain in the league whilst planning for the future and longer term success. If we can navigate our way through this season relatively unscathed from the pandemic and we have our Premiership status secure for 2021/22 then that would be enough for me.

This is still a ‘project’ in a relatively early stage. The first bit was to win the Championship but the next bit is the most important – consolidation in the Premiership. Beyond that I think the planning for top-six, European places, cup runs is potentially very exciting, but we need to ensure our Premiership future before all of that.

So, what will actually happen over the next 8 or 9 months? Much like the rest of 2020, your guess is as good as mine.

Are you ready for the cheese?

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. In the case of football and Dundee United, this has certainly been true.

There have been many, many difficult moments for us all over these last few months but one real constant positive has been fan engagement. The work that has gone on to ensure we are still very much together in all of this has been phenomenal and it has kept everyone’s spirits up. United fans at the moment all feel very connected despite the physical distance.

You may not be on social media but if you are on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook then you will know the effort people have made to keep the mood up, keep the discussions going and to keep things positive as we navigate our way through this. Since March, different fan forums, podcasts, blogs, goal clips, photo edits, match re-runs and old Tannadice memories have contributed to a wonderful array of United themed content and discussion points. For many, this has been the only real constant, and as a social media participant myself (maybe a little too much based on my weekly screen time report) it has been a huge help to my own mental wellbeing during lockdown.

One singular event that brought all of this to a wonderful focal point cannot be missed. The fundraising walk from Tynecastle to Tannadice by Andy Crichton, Paul McNicoll and their small army of volunteers. It was a truly inspirational thing to witness and it brought so much positivity to the United support and wider football community (not forgetting the Cove Rangers and Raith Rovers walks). The fan footage, social media comments and walk stories were all brilliant to follow and although the money raised was a phenomenal amount there was, for me, another element to it all. After such a tough few months the symbolic nature of the walk itself and especially the video footage of them approaching Tannadice, flags out, with the piper playing is something that will not be forgotten. Superb.

So, a big thank you. A thank you to anyone and everyone who has tried to make things a little bit better for us all. To anyone who has taken the time to engage in anything United related over these last few months, thank you. To anyone has shared things, created things or contributed, thank you. We have all needed each other and the value of what everyone has done cannot be put into words.

I suppose the very last thing I will say is – remember this positivity. We are embarking on a very, very difficult next step and this season will be unbelievably tough (on the pitch and off it). We will quite possibly not see each other at a match for a while yet so we will need to keep the positivity going.

We need to do two things – firstly, support Micky Mellon, Tony Asghar, the Board, the players and staff. But more importantly, we also need to support one another. (Cheesy, eh? Pass the sick bucket!)


^see what I did there?