Dundee United – The State of Play 2020

This has been a blog post started, stopped, started again and revisited many, many times over in recent weeks.

Although I ended my regular match reviews a number of months ago, it remains the case that I want to produce something United related every so often. It allows an opportunity for me to release some football related ramblings (and relieve the pressure built up in my overly analytical brain), but it also means that people didn’t forget about me! Also, I’ve accidentally paid for the website for another year due to me not cancelling my Direct Debit, so I need to at least get my money’s worth.

Unfortunately, and this is why I stopped and started so often, it isn’t an easy time to be writing about football. The obvious and immediate piece of devastating news for all of us is something that I will touch upon later, but the footballing landscape (and picture across wider society) still leaves us all a bit scunnered, and fairly hesitant to make plans or look too far ahead into the future. With no real hope of anyone returning to football soon (unless you are George Galloway), it is easy to still feel very pessimistic about what is to come. It means that what will follow is a mix of hesitancy, cautious optimism and possibly, to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld’s famous speech – “some unknown, unknowns. There are things we don’t know, that we don’t know.”

So, with a decision made and a post started, what is the aim of this New Year’s Eve-Eve article and what will it cover? The short answer is – a bit of everything.

I hope to summarise where we are as a club right now, and to maybe offer up some positive, wishful thinking, for 2021. Sadly it isn’t a particularly easy piece for me to write and truth be told I actually feel quite disengaged with football at the moment. This is maybe something that rings true for many of us. Yes we watch the games, and yes the season is now well under way, but it all feels a bit disconnected. We are kept in touch via social media and we can still engage with fellow fans, but everyone is still so very distant from one another. An immediate post-match rant has less of an impact when you are just angrily typing short sentences into Twitter, rather than being able to discuss on a car journey home with friends or whilst several pints deep in the pub after a game. I actually just want to be able to shout and vent inside a stadium. I want to do that standing up, head turning thing we do where you jump up, release a tirade of frustration and then look around to see if people agree with you or not. Doing it on my sofa in front of a confused and beleaguered wife and three year old, doesn’t quite have the same sense of satisfaction.

Back in August, the novelty of sitting in your living room, post-‘first wave’, finally witnessing United in the Premiership after years of Seaside League football was actually quite thrilling. You had Tannadice looking magnificent with the flags and banners, the intrigue of teams emerging from random bits of each stadium and most importantly you had Sean Dillon’s new hair (although I am disappointed he seems to have trimmed it down, rather than just grow it out for the whole season just to see how long he could get it. Just let it grow Sean).

I spent the first few matches trying to convince myself that being able to eat and drink what I want, whilst watching United, whilst being nice and warm in my own house, was a good thing. The reality though? It was, and still is, absolutely shit.

With some more Covid related fan angst on the way later on, let’s get cracking with a summation of all things Dundee United as we approach 2021…

I like Micky Mellon.

However, can I clarify that I do at the moment see a difference between Micky Mellon the football mad, passionate, enthusiastic and engaging person who joined the club and won many of us over with his “we are Dundee United” line in the press, and the Micky Mellon who has been trying to ensure that we are simply avoiding defeat and as such, putting us through some fairy dull and frustrating experiences.

After his early enthusiasm and excitement over taking the United job and leading us into the Premiership, the reality of our squad being a bit patchy and unable to carry out the football Mellon craves means we have seen a duller and less engaging style and one that has left most of us, for each passing 90 minutes, feeling a bit ‘meh’ (made all the worse having to view it so remotely). Thankfully Mellon has been honest recently and admits that he has had to be a bit more defensive and structured than he would have liked. Optimistically Mellon has said he does eventually want to abandon this and move towards the bombastic, all action, all energy style he so feverishly promised us when he arrived in the summer.

Early in the season we seemed to be playing with a bit of cut and thrust, which carried us through the opening games with some cause for optimism. We were then dismantled by Kilmarnock at Rugby Park and it all seemed to change. We became more cautious, less aggressive and the football became very one dimensional. It yielded a few positive results and some clean sheets, but my goodness it was (and can still be) very boring. Would it have been different if fans were allowed into games? I’d like to think so. If Mellon had seen a positive reaction from a few thousand United fans during these opening weeks then he may well have stuck with his early combative system.

Recent games have been a little better, we seem to be keen on a more straightforward 442 and it has allowed us to open up a little more.

I do believe Mellon wants the right things and I think if you listen to his longer interviews, like the one recently recorded with Sean Dillon, you can see that he is a grounded and motivated individual with the right intentions. He also seems to share the same attributes I want in a football manager and in the messages he wants to give players – integrity, determination and a will to win. What remains to be seen is the ability to transfer the intent of his words into action, and the results we then see on the pitch.

His sound bites and reflections on the passing of Jim McLean have again shown him to be genuine and heartfelt. I don’t think anyone has ever really doubted that aspect of him as a person. As a football manager? Well, we still have a way to go.

Social media is only a small cross section of the fan base and it is difficult to see how supporters now see Mellon and their views regarding if he is the right man for us. I’ve certainly seen more than few who very much need convincing, but I suppose we all still do. This is a season like no other and we have a new manager operating within an environment so unique that it is maybe not possible to truly see what Mellon is made of. He has maybe been caught out by the league and his lack of experience in Scottish football but what we really need is a season in front of fans, some packed Tannadice fixtures and large travelling supports. You would then see how Mellon would react to different scenarios and the fan responses to either the style of play or the results. How would he react with 12,000 in the stadium against Aberdeen, with the game at 1-1 and only 15 minutes to go? How would he react if he had 1,500 United fans at an away game in which we are really struggling and the fans begin to voice discontent?

Ultimately this season was always going to be about survival and I think privately the board would accept any final placing that ensured our Premiership status over performances in the pitch. Mellon will undoubtedly be given time and he has the freedom of this season in the eyes of the board. As long as he uses it as a way of establishing a path forward and identifies the areas we need to develop, then hopefully we will see the real Micky Mellon moving forward.

Going back to that personality thing, Mellon is someone who I feel a bit more ‘connected’ to in comparison to most managers we’ve had in recent seasons, I know that managers are not judged on their a ability to be nice and genuine, but it is something that helps me as a fan feel like the person in charge does at least carry themselves with integrity and a sense of understanding on how big a job this is.

As I have already mentioned, we seem to be in a period of hesitancy with regards to performances. Despite an early flurry of quite engaging and physical displays we have reset our style and have become an, apparently, “hard to beat” team, although games like Livingston away have reminded us that even in that respect we still have some way to go.

I have always been quite a pragmatic person, and I have a reasonably high tolerance for boring but effective football (I blame watching Serie A on Sunday mornings during the early 90s). However we have an issue currently with United in the sense that we aren’t quite good enough to replicate the Italian ‘Catenaccio’ style of defensive, physically impressive brand of football, so we have been guilty of attempting a really poor version of this kind of ideal. Football Italia, this is not.

I can buy into a season of ‘shitehousery’ football (that’s the Scots translation of Catenaccio). It only gains support if it is effective though. When Craig Levein first arrived we became quite physical and direct, in order to plug the leaks we had. It worked because we took no prisoners and we tried to physically engage with every opponent. Maybe we just lack the personnel to pull this off under Mellon, and it might be that our strengths are actually in opening up a little more and using shape that can get the most out of our three main attacking threats in Clark, McNulty and Shankland.

Results have actually been okay by and large. The reality is that we are in a reasonably comfortable league position and when you identify the two or three teams who might be up against it this year (Hamilton and Ross County being the obvious), then you can reflect on being 12 points ahead at this stage and it should give you a bit of reassurance.

The age old debate about ‘Points vs Performances’ has been on everyone’s mind this year and again we need to think about the context of how we are watching the games and the lack of a proper venting process. I normally like to think of myself as having two personas when thinking about how to process performances and results.

I have the ‘Saturday Evening Siggi‘ mode of an immediate, Twitter scrolling, gut reaction regarding what I have just seen. Most of the games this year have seen me probably come away feeling quite negative and frustrated about the 90 minutes (but again, I wonder if the confinement of having to watch United whilst stuck in the house has played its part psychologically). Then there is the ‘Monday Morning Siggi‘ who maybe has a chat with someone at work, and they ask – “what was the game like on Saturday?”, and by that time I might still be a little frustrated, however I’ve then had the chance to look at the table, the upcoming fixtures and the broader picture, so at least I’m a bit more relaxed.

What I am trying to say is that in an ideal world, both the Saturday evening and the Monday morning personas would match up and agree with one another in a positive way, however it is actually okay if they disagree from time to time. Does that make sense? It sounded okay in my head but to be honest the longer this analogy goes on, the less I think it makes any sense and I am fearful of slipping into Csaba Laszlo territory so I will just stop…

Basically, some of the performances have been totally crap, and some of the results have been poor. However, most weeks, by the Monday morning, I feel frustrated but at least a little satisfied by where we are right now (especially in the context of this truly bizarre season).

I don’t want to focus on anything too negative (it is still the festive season and everyone deserves a break), but the current squad has a few gaps and some fairly big weaknesses.

One thing we have had in recent times is a very settled core group, and I do still believe that the current team should have been given the chance to prove themselves in the Premiership after such a successful campaign last year. What we have seen however is the step up maybe being a bit too much for some. There is nothing wrong with that, and I don’t feel any ill will towards anyone in the squad who has struggled this season, but we can see where we need to strengthen. Mellon will undoubtedly need to have some difficult chats between now and the summer with three or four who maybe need to be moved on.

If I had the freedom to pick and choose what I would like to see from us, a lot would depend on what kind of shape we actually do want to play. If we are to press ahead with a 442 then we still need to overhaul the midfield. Adding some quality out wide would help but we also need either another Fuchs type player to allow for two sitting players and the wide men to bomb forward, or we need a number 10 who can allow for a diamond midfield and provide ammunition to the strikers. Regardless of how we want to play, we desperately need some footballers who have the confidence and technique to control and maintain possession. I think that many of our issues this year have not been the shape or the system, but our dreadful use of the ball and the inability to maintain meaningful possession.

Player of the Season (so far) –

It can only really be Benji Siegrist.

It has been quite the transformation for Benji. From being someone who had to serve as understudy to Matej Rakovan, he is now essentially our most important player (and at the moment, the player with the highest market value).

Siegrist was probably quite close to the exit door 18 months or so ago, and if you had asked 100 fans back then if they would want to get rid of him, most would have said yes.

Now? He has saved us on countless occasions this year and he has pulled off some miraculous moments. The media (and possible transfer) attention has been justified, and at present he is probably our biggest asset given Shankland’s form this season.

Signing of the Season (so far)

Slim pickings for this one, and to be honest we haven’t really seen the best of any new arrival, however early signs point to the fact that Jeando Fuchs is basically amazing.

This team was absolutely (and maybe still is) crying out for a midfielder who could scuttle across the park, whilst putting in tackles and then actually, wait for it…………..completing a pass.

In Fuchs we have found that man and I shudder to think about the tracking data Bill Gates will be getting once Fuchs has been vaccinated for Covid (you would assume his movement might frazzle the chip and render it useless!). That’s just a bit of Covid satire for everyone, I hope you liked it.

Fuchs has shown great technical ability so far and he looks way ahead of some others on the pitch for United. He covers so much ground and is someone who seems adept at the key elements needed for a central midfielder – work rate, technique, determination and defensive awareness. The club need to use Fuchs as the benchmark for future signings.

What do we need in January?

Well, as I might cover in the next segment, there is a bit of a disparity between what we need and what me might actually be able to afford. I doubt we will see much movement over the next few weeks and sadly it might be that the only activity is for one or to to leave the club, rather than anyone being brought in.

Cammy Smith is out of contract in January, so you would assume he will will be released, but we might also see the departure of Benji Siegrist, given recent paper talk and his agent giving interviews about possible interest in the goalkeeper. The unfortunate position we find ourselves in means as a business we might be quite happy to sell Siegrist if it meant a sizeable transfer fee to help fight the financial implications of Covid.

Talking of finances…

Well, I don’t know. I want to make this less bleak than it might be but the the impact of Covid has been brutal, for everyone. Financially I really don’t know just how precarious we are, but there have been some honest and blunt conversations had recently between Mark Ogren and the DUSF at their AGM, and then subsequently with the Federation. These conversations are important and it is vital that supporters know, or at least are given an understanding as to, where we are as a business. Our revenue streams have been decimated and there is no guarantee when it might pick up again. It is a harsh truth but it is one that needs to be part of the wider view we all have when thinking about United at the moment (and why survival in the Premiership is a must).

The uncertainty is what worries me the most. We’ve had uncertainty in every aspect of our lives since March of this year and I think we can all agree that this pandemic has taken more twists and turns than any of us could have imagined. We have had points when it looked like the return of fans was imminent and then that was taken away. We’ve had points where it looked like the virus was under control, and then it wasn’t. Then, once we all started to feel a bit more optimistic about the first vaccines, we were hit with news of new variants and new strains. It is exhausting, it is damaging and nobody can predict what might happen next (although, at the time of writing the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine has just been approved and my social media timeline is full of – “GET IT IN MA VAINS!!!” chat, so hopefully we are turning the corner).

I don’t want to focus solely on finances but it is is a scary time and we need to be realistic about what the club can and cannot do right now (and over the next few months). Yes we all want a few new additions in January, and yes we all want some kind blueprint for the club’s strategy between now and next year, but it is just not possible. I don’t know if the club are planning on using the Government loans to help but the business does need money and some regular injections of cash to help it get through this season (and that goes for ALL football clubs – professional, part-time, junior or amateur). My own view is that football needs to be protected as a national interest. Football is intrinsically linked to every fabric of Scottish society and it provides a social, mental and physical lifeline for so many. However, I don’t want to start a rant on that and the Government’s response, because I will be here all day!

What we still do have is a very dedicated and very strong fan-base who are willing to stick with it and do whatever is needed to help the club. On that note I would encourage every one to consider joining the DUSF. I have been a long time member and advocate of the Foundation and I still truly believe that a community membership type scheme (similar to those in Germany in particular) can benefit the club over the longer term. I previously put together an article on this very issue here and it would be great if you could have a read. It has been fantastic to see the Foundation smash through the 1000 member mark these last few days but we need to keep that number rising. They are going to be balloting members again about another lump sum to be possibly given to the club, and it is is scenarios like this that show where are and how fragile the landscape is.

Our fans continue to be amazing, and although we are not physically together, the online community is still strong and is still a big part of my daily scrolling, listening and reading. From the continually amazing Dode Fox Podcast, to the number of new blogs that have appeared this season, that connection is so, so important for fans and supporters who, maybe like me, have felt a bit isolated. For those keen to read anything new then please have a look at – (the very funny) “Madness is Tangerine In Colour“, “The View From The East Stand“, “East Stand Spectator” and a new, young blogger who writes his (very detailed) match reviews via Facebook – “The George Fox View“.

Football fans love a moan and that has continued on social media this season. I think we all secretly LOVE the drama and the arguments on Twitter/Facebook regarding United. It makes us all feel involved and it is (quite often) hilarious, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. That is a big part of following your team, isn’t it? The secret love you have for a debate and a falling out. Who wants to have a team that wins every week and has it easy? Not me. Give me petty and nonsensical debates every single time. The unfortunate difference right now, is that it all happens online rather than in the stands, in the pubs or on the way to the game.

Which brings me to…

It is simple – a return to ‘normality’ for wider society, a Premiership team to watch in August 2021 and a Playstation 5 chance to spend time with friends and family at the games. I miss it so, so much and I just want this huge part of my life back. I know that for some, the thought of sitting, freezing cold, on a December afternoon watching your team limp over the line after a dull 90 minutes is a vision of hell, but for me and thousands of others, it’s the dream!

One personal hope for 2021 (and when we can get back to some kind of reasonable normality) is to not take things for granted. We are all guilty of taking the little things and maybe just assuming that a drink with some friends or a car journey through to a city for the day to watch your team is just part of life and that it all happens so easily. This year has shown that it doesn’t and that in the end it is the wee moments in life that you end up missing the most. How many of us watched the equaliser at Easter Road and reacted in the way we would normally, before then quickly realising not only how mental the scenes might have been in the away end, but that it is this little moment you miss the most?

For a general look ahead into 2021 here are one or to wishes…

In my job I need to plan things out and my brain has always been quite logical when working through different tasks (I am an uber-geek in terms of making lists, I love a list).

I always work in three different timescales when making my work lists (you should see them, they are beautiful), so I thought I would use that as a way of mapping out my hopes for 2021 –

What can be achieved in the next few weeks?

For United it is to pick up some important points, and to have a fairly stable January window (which might mean cashing in on our goalkeeper). I would also like us to emerge into February with some positivity about fans returning and the turning of the corner for Covid.

What can be achieved in next few months?

Premiership safety. Honestly, it could be us finishing anywhere between 6th and 10th, just as long as we are in this league next season.

I would also want, by the end of the campaign, to have some of us able set foot inside Tannadice, even just the once, to watch a game.

What can be achieved in the next year?

Back in my seat, back in the Hegarty Suite, back in the car travelling to away games, back moaning in the stands, back freezing my wee balls off watching a 0-0 draw at home against Livingston, back to seeing friends, back to eating Macaroni Pies (with Mustard). Also, some financial stability for the club, some squad building by Mellon and Asghar to make us an established Premiership team and a Playstation 5 for everything to be back to f*****g NORMAL.

I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year for when it comes, and I truly hope that 2021 is a little bit better for all of us. As for 2020? Get to f**k.

Just before I finish writing, a big thank you to anyone who continues to engage with me on social media, and I apologise for maybe not being as active in terms of writing the blog as some had maybe thought I might have been. I’ve really enjoyed putting this end of year stream of consciousness together. I have flirted with the idea of maybe doing a monthly blog, summarising things every few weeks but we will wait and see how January goes!

And so we finish on Jim McLean. It is actually quite daunting trying to put into words just how much ‘Wee Jim’ means to everyone connected to Dundee United. The outpouring of emotion, the lengthy tributes and the media coverage means there is little I can add to what has already been said.

I’ve had friends, family members and non-United supporting colleagues all share interviews, archive footage and compilations. It has been, in equal measures, both inspiring and incredibly emotional. This football club means the world to me and it only really exists in the form that it does because of Jim McLean. Literally everything connected to United can be linked back to McLean and his legacy.

One truly heart-breaking aspect of this whole situation is the inability to give him a proper send off. Anyone who was in attendance at the Eddie Thompson game after his passing would have been hoping for something similar for Jim McLean. Tannadice was as magnificent as it has ever looked that afternoon, and it it is very hard to think that something similar cannot happen for our greatest manager. To those who have taken the time to visit Tannadice, thank you for trying to create something symbolic in remembrance. I’m sure when the time is right we can do something as a wider support, but sadly that might take some time.

There are hundreds of McLean anecdotes and stories to tell, many of which have been covered in recent days. It would be remiss of me however if I didn’t mention one connected to the namesake of this blog – Siggi Jonsson.

For those that don’t know, Siggi Jonsson was always a fairly sensible Icelandic person (I assume most of them are), that was until some of the United players took him for a night out in Broughty Ferry. After a few too many, Jonsson got a bit lost in the dark and fell asleep in someone’s garden, only to be then picked up and flung in a cell by the Police. The only person he could think of when asked by the officers if someone could come and get him? Jim McLean.

So, very early one morning, McLean appeared at Broughty Ferry Police Station to meet with Jonsson. Apparently, in the wee hours, Mclean walked to the station to get Jonsson, wearing his slippers and pyjamas! What a sight that must have been (and goodness knows what was said).

What does Jim McLean mean to me? Well, I started going to United games shortly after he stepped down as manager. So, I was part of a generation who had the joy of learning about United and learning about the success McLean had from a distance. The man, the myth, the legend. I got to watch the ‘Jim McLean Years’ on VHS with little or no prior knowledge of what had gone on at United, which meant I could view it (again and again) with an innocent thrill. I would often attempt to recreate some of those glorious moments with my (fairly limited) Subbuteo set and with the footage on in the background to act as the atmosphere.

I think I only ‘met’ McLean once, and even then it was a passing in the corridor when I was a ball boy for a Dundee Derby in 1993.

On Saturday, as news broke, my thoughts about McLean’s passing naturally started to drift towards my future and my son. He is only three and is still a bit too young to understand what United are all about, but one thing that does make me feel a bit emotional is the thought of me teaching him all about Jim McLean and all about what he did for United. I can’t wait.

Micky Mellon is often quoted on social media for his proclamation early on that – “We are Dundee United”. It is something that can be used as a bit of a stick to poke him with when we limp over the line after a defensive and cautious 90 minutes. It has been used as a bit of a dig and is seen as a bit of a false promise from Mellon, but I have always viewed it more as an ideal held up by him, and a proclamation as to what Dundee United are as a club. I don’t disagree with Mellon’s sentiments.

On the day of the announcement of McLean’s passing, Tom Cairns (the always wonderful Tom Cairns) gave a pre-match interview talking about the legacy of Jerry Kerr and the foundations (quite literally) that he built. There wouldn’t be a Dundee United without Kerr. What McLean did was take those foundations and create something amazing, something unique, and something that will never be replicated.

So, when someone says “We are Dundee United” and it carries the weight that it should, the gravitas that it should and the nostalgia that it does, they can say that because of one man.

We ARE Dundee United.

And for that, we thank you, Jim McLean.