Dundee United – Season 2021/22 Preview


On Tuesday afternoon I sat in front of the WordPress portal/dashboard for what felt like an eternity. I was having a bit of an existential crisis because for weeks, WordPress had been emailing me with reminders that the Perennial Underachievers domain name, site and all the contents, had to be either renewed or removed. Like any other self respecting man, I ignored the problem for as long as I could in the hope it would go away without me needing to do anything. It didn’t, and Tuesday was the deadline…

Hovering over the ‘delete all content’ button, I swung between having the confidence to just do it and move on, but also the fear that everything I had written since 2014 (yes, it has been that long) would be lost and I would have nothing to show for the, some would say very sad, hours upon hours spent typing away about Dundee United. Ultimately I couldn’t do it. I suppose some of it fell to the side of at least me just keeping, for posterity, an archive of the 350,000+ words that I have written in seven years (for those that don’t know, for about three of those, this site was just a very seldom read blog about football in general), but I also have the notion that one day, when my three year old is ready to be embarrassed by his dad (literally nothing I do right now is embarrassing, which does wonders for my self-esteem) I can say – “Look son! Look what I did!”, to which he will undoubtedly respond with what I can already assume will be a shrug of the shoulders before walking off to look at something much more exciting.

So, Perennial Underachievers lives on, for now…

What next? Well more on that later. For now though, I thought I would dust off the keyboard (although it has only been six months to be fair) and get going with some kind of 2021/22 season preview, which will more than likely descend into a random, meandering stream of consciousness…

Let’s get this out of the way first. Last season was totally and utterly shite. It was easily the most detached I have ever been from United, but also football in general just felt a bit pointless and incredibly soulless. Despite some early season novelty of being able to watch games in your house, the whole experience was just absolutely tragic. Regularly it felt like you were watching some weird pre-recorded training session that just never felt ‘live’, or like it was actually taking place. If I previously didn’t know, or took for granted, just how much impact football, and the ability to see friends/family at games, has on my mental health, last season really hit home just how big a part of my life, and my identity, football actually is. Once upon a time I also used to fairly regularly play football but I haven’t even kicked a ball in anger (and believe me, it was always in anger) in about 17 months, another rubbish by-product of this ridiculous time we are living in. I just want it all back!

Anyway, the actual football on show last season was pretty erratic and largely forgetful. We had very, very small glimpses of the energetic and enthusiastic play promised to us by Micky ‘We are Dundee United‘ Mellon, but those moments were all too fleeting, which further added to the frustration of sitting in the house not being able to properly boo or have a moan. I would like to think that Mellon and the players may have reacted differently if fans were there in the stands but overall the season fell flat in about October and never really recovered. We eventually ended up having the manager and the squad just trying to see it out and remain in the top-flight (which given the circumstances was fine, if a little underwhelming). I actually don’t really remember most games that well, and was a little embarrassed when I featured on the Dode Fox Podcast in May, realising that some of the games Ronny, Paul and Joonas were talking about – I had simply forgotten. It made me feel quite sad and it further hit home just how strange and horrible last season was. My forgetfulness was in part due to the nature of the viewing but also the brand of football, which although functional, did nothing to energise my interest in watching United. Looking back it was strange – I thought that United would give me the distraction I needed at such a difficult time, but as the season went on it felt like the opposite. Regularly I ended up finding other things to fill my time and distract me from Covid (and the world falling apart).

I liked Mellon, and was always very honest about his persona being the type that I want in my manager. The football never lived up to his early passion but a hard-working, down to earth football lover who tries his best to identify with the club and the local area is something I always admire in anyone who works for Dundee United. Although I have to admit, one of my big weaknesses has always been players/managers who show an interest in Dundee and then me somehow inflating their ability simply because they said something nice about, what is admittedly, the greatest city in the world – “You are telling me that Cristoph Rabitsch said on Instagram that he enjoyed his visit to the McManus Galleries and then had a pint in the Phoenix? Sign that man on a six-year deal, immediately!”

I think Mellon was the type of person who would have really thrown himself into all the off-pitch and community work, and in some ways it is sad that he will never experience a Dundee Derby or a packed Tannadice (I do genuinely think he is the type of manager who thrives in having that connection with fans). A functional coach and probably just about what we needed last season, I felt sorry for him as you could visibly see his enthusiasm drain as the season went on (something mirrored by many of us at home).

That was all a bit of a ramble, but what else is there to say about last season? It was rubbish for so many reasons but we ultimately remain a Premiership side, and we have (hopefully) just about navigated our way through Covid as a club and a business. Mellon’s departure felt inevitable as we approached the final few weeks of the season, certainly based on the chat coming from Twitter etc, but I was probably on the side of being fairly comfortable at the idea of giving him another go. Sadly, in the final months it felt like he was a man losing his drive and commitment to the cause (and I will let others maybe speculate as to why that was the case…)

I personally wish Mellon all the success in the future, but we move on…

I’m going to use a terrible example here, but years ago I remember being a big advocate of clubs in Scotland thinking outside the box and appointing Head Coaches that lay beyond the usual merry-go-round – Then Hearts gave Ian Cathro the manager’s job and I tried to ignore that I ever had those thoughts and deleted all of my Tweets praising Hearts for having such vision.

This is the most difficult part of this season preview to write because we are in the midst of a step into the unknown and none of us really know what we are about to experience. We are still suffering from cabin fever, and this summer at Tannadice has not really helped to ease that anxiety. This is Dundee United after all, and even at the best of times we never do things the easy way.

I had a friend contact me after Tam Courts was appointed, he told me he was on the same ‘A’ License group – “Great guy, talks a great game…..but….”, and the fear he had (which is maybe the fear that many do) was not Courts as a coach but the step up, the size of the challenge, and the dynamic at the club relating to the ‘Head Coach’ and the relationship with our Sporting Director. On this post I want to avoid going down that rabbit hole but safe to say, the general (on my timeline) consensus seems to be that a lack of trust regarding Mr Asghar is currently in the air (and given what United fans have been through, it is maybe a natural and understandable fear at times).

In terms of our new appointment I want to start by saying that I’d personally LOVE for United to have some kind of progressive structure in place that allowed a pathway for not only players but also coaches. I do still want to see Scottish clubs develop their staff and increase the quality of coaching in this country. My worry? Right here, right now, is this something we are actually ready for as a club, and is this plan being implemented as well as it needs to be for such a big shift in emphasis? You see many, many leagues in Europe create structures that allow for this kind of development and progression, most notably in Germany, but these are clubs that cannot only throw everything at these plans financially, but are also in a comfortable and strong enough position to see it through and implement it with the planning and preparation it needs.

We were told when Mark Ogren arrived that money would be spent on the Academy, and it has been. It seems like this part of the club continues to grow and the links across the city (and beyond) are there. This is great, and very few people would argue that this isn’t a good policy to have. It is however a HUGE leap from that focus on the Academy drip-feeding players, to this new direction for the first-team and the management team to focus so heavily on youth and trying out coaches untested at this level.

I will probably mention this again, but we as United fans are not used to progressive, consistent stability, and a change like this is easily met with suspicion and worry, with many of these fears totally justified based on previous experience. This is not, and isn’t intended to be, a critique of Tam Courts, Liam Fox or any other coaches at the club, I don’t know them, or how they operate daily with players and each other, this is more about the judgement and implementation of a fairly substantial and decisive long-term plan at the present time. I wish Tam Courts all the success in the world and want nothing more than for him to make my team one to be proud of. Maybe this is all just the Covid talking, and the internal anxiety many of us still have.

There are exciting elements to this new focus and for years we have bemoaned the lack of youngsters given chances, or the lack of freshness on the pitch and the systems we use. However, despite the chat about blooding youngsters and pushing a pathway via the Academy during the early stages of the Ogren era, this is different – this is substantial and it is a decision appearing in the middle of not only the most turbulent time in Scottish football we can all remember, but at a time when the Premiership is suddenly much stronger (we now also have the added challenge of beating and finishing above Dundee – again) and despite our history and size we are maybe not quite yet in a position to call ourselves a well-established Premiership team, post-promotion, having spent a few torturous years in the Championship. If we had finished 9th last year, then this season carried on with Mellon and finished, let’s say 7th, and then the season after finished 5th, if the club then said – “Right, this vision of pathways, youth and promotion of staff from within that we’ve talked about for years is now ready to be implemented”, you would be a little bit more at ease and ready for a new direction. Are we ready for that now? I really hope so, and would like nothing more.

My worry, and may be unfounded, is that it all seems a bit sudden and (possibly) haphazard, and at a time when we really, really need to become a stable and improving Premiership team. The way in which it all unfolded over the weeks after Mellon’s departure also didn’t help (and it probably hasn’t helped Courts either). We only really had one man linked with the job and we are all still stuck, largely, on social media, meaning there is a reliance on the club and journalists to help us out with a bit of clarity and it never really came our way. Then, all of a sudden, it happened and we got a very (in my opinion) odd unveiling interview with, bizarrely, David Tanner. It all felt a bit forced and it begs the question, if this was the plan, why didn’t it happen almost immediately after Mellon leaving?

Again, maybe some of this is just the Covid talking – the isolation and detachment from the club has meant a real shift in how we all process information, and much of it not in a good way either. Basically, after these last 17 months, I don’t have a scooby what is going on, and maybe most of us don’t. I certainly haven’t enjoyed the resurgence of rumour and counter-rumour via all the social media platforms, and I’ve been guilty of soaking it all in. That probably hasn’t help me (or maybe others) with their ability to positively process information about United and it is why this post is possibly verging into unnecessary negativity or scepticism, but I’m just absolutely desperate for my team and for my club to be fine. Maybe things will be okay, maybe things will work out and everything is under control? Unfortunately, all of the recent upheaval and online chat has been a huge distraction from the ultimate and immediate goal – getting us all back to Tannadice to support our team. It might be a bit misguided but when all is said and done, that is my only real focus at the moment.

I absolutely wish Tam Courts and Liam Fox all the very best. I will be there, as soon as we all can be, and they will get my full and unwavering support. We are all desperate for anyone who represents United, be it on the pitch, or off it, to do well and improve us. This is no different.

I’ve tried to watch all the little training videos posted to DUTV since the players returned to pre-season. Normally this is the time of the year that we are all desperate for a bit of new content to get us all excited for the upcoming season. One thing that stands out from me viewing these clips, is just how young the squad suddenly seems. It isn’t that different from last year but there are so many very young faces on show, and training with the first-team, that it fills me with a mixture of excitement (you always want to see young talent break through) but it also brings on a fair bit of fear too. Suddenly the dynamic of the experienced first-team group looks unbelievably thin on the ground if we were to lose one or two players, either to injury or transfer. If Jamie Robson, for example, leaves the club then we have Adrian Sporle as the only ‘experienced’ genuine left-back/left wing-back at the club (with the words genuine and experienced doing a lot of heavy lifting there). There are other areas around the pitch that fall into the same category, and there are also aspects of the team that have needed strengthening for some time that haven’t been as of yet. This still needs to be addressed. We may have a lot of young talent to break through, but expecting four or five to suddenly force themselves into the team at once, and make a very positive contribution over the course of a full season in the top-flight, is maybe expecting too much. Ultimately a lot will depend on the systems used by Courts but this is a squad that right now is still three or four signings away from looking a more balanced, more experience group that is also flexible enough to cope with a mini injury crisis or players leaving.

It is easy to look on at other clubs doing a lot of business and to then feel paranoid and worried about our own lack of activity but like everything else, we have no real control here, and we just have to hope that the club know what they are doing and that it will all work out. It doesn’t help when you are losing out on targets to other teams, and this kind of thing does increase the anxiety amongst the support (although that anxiety, like my own, exists in the fairly huge echo chamber of social media at present). The club say they are working in the background and have some things planned, what else can we do other than trust that this is happening?

There is a lot to be said about the positive outcomes in pressing ahead with a policy of blooding youngsters but that needs to be balanced with a squad full of experience and a sprinkling of players that are genuine difference makers (sadly we possibly still only have one or two of those in the entire squad). This kind of plan focusing on youth and a change of staffing also ideally needs to be implemented in the context of a club that have enjoyed a bit of stability. If a St.Johnstone or a Motherwell come out this week and say – “This is now our plan”, their fans would maybe have some fear but they would be able to at least feel comforted in the fact that their owners and their hierarchies have been consistent, dependable, and reliable for some time now. Despite us achieving our goals of promotion and then remaining in the Premiership, there is still the worry that we don’t really yet have that same kind of stability, despite all of the money Mark Ogren has invested, and his commitment to the club.

Not that long ago we were relegated after a poorly managed and poorly assembled squad that lost all direction. Although I am not suggesting that this will happen again, it has happened to us in the recent past and we have since seen a long line of managers with unfulfilled promises and unsuccessful tenures. A poorly implemented plan in the top-flight can end in disaster very quickly. You can maybe understand why some fans are worried. Me? I just want a manager, and a staff team behind him, that can stay for a number of seasons and provide us with progression and positive changes. Maybe it is just the case that many of my own worries are not necessarily directed towards Tam Courts, Tony Asghar, or the Ogrens – they are maybe instead based on my own experiences and the conditioning of fear and worry I’ve been subjected to for quite a substantial number of years (it is the life we choose following Dundee United and Scotland!)

Is the squad good enough? Well if everyone is fit it then depends on Courts and Fox, with their vision, tactics, motivational skills and man management. It also depends on – good enough for what? For top six? For another year of survival? The second scenario shouldn’t really be an option, we must be pushing further up the league. Maybe Courts can elevate the team beyond what we achieved last season, I desperately hope so, but I just feel that as a squad we are really tight on numbers and although a fully fit eleven under the right manager may just about have enough to improve our standing a little from last year, we are still at least two or three key signings away from that being much more comfortable.

I like the acquisition of Charlie Mulgrew and I think that for Kerr Smith, Lewis Neilson and Ross Graham they now have Mulgrew, Reynolds, Connolly and Edwards as their mentors and will learn so much from that group. I’d like to see us replicate that in other areas too. If Logan Chalmers is going to be key this season and we are expecting Kai Fotheringham to break through, why aren’t we identifying someone who can work with them on being an effective wide player? We have been desperate for additional width for an eternity now, and if we brought in experienced recruitments to play on the wing, it could help the team but also assist in developing these young talents. Similarly, if Archie Meekison, Chris Mochrie and Declan Glass are the big hopes for the crucial Number 10 slot, again, why aren’t we pushing the boat out for someone to fill a role that has been sorely needed for quite a few seasons now.

Without wanting to sound like a broken record, the ultimate hope for 2021/22 is me, and everyone else actually getting to games. Once that happens I can then return to either being deliriously happy or utterly devastated with the actual football.

It is beginning to dawn on my wife that I might be disappearing most weekends again and I can’t wait (she is unavailable for comment on the matter). Having a date in place for the lifting of capacity limits gives us all a focus. Get me in the car up to Dingwall, get me on the train to Perth, get me into Frews, The Snug and The Hegarty Suite. Get me in amongst it all again, through the good and bad (even when I’m raging in the stands it is still a positive thing for my mental health, honest).

On the pitch we need to improve, that’s the point isn’t it? We need to be better on the pitch and when it comes to communication and engagement, we need to be better off it too. I was lucky enough to meet with the DUCT recently, in connection with my job, and the enthusiasm and energy for them to keep improving is what you want replicated across the footballing operation too. They keep going from strength to strength, and that is what we need from the people running the club and all the staff.

A bigger points tally, a better league position, better cup runs and improvements across the board. If not, then what is the point? We are seemingly committed to a very different way of doing things, and asking for all of the things I’ve listed isn’t going to be easy, but if the club are committed to this being the best way forward and the way to drive forward positive change then all I can do at the moment is get behind this project and hope for better things. It will not be easy, and the Premiership is as strong as it has been in a long time (with the added pressure of Dundee being here), so it is now up to Asghar, Courts and all the staff to show us that this is the best way forward and that this new direction will work. They have nailed their colours to the mast and have told us this is the way. We will be there to support them, they now need to step up and show us what they can do.

So, this blog, what’s the story? Well, I don’t really know. I, like many other United supporters, need to do a bit of fan-healing over the next few months before I can think about blogs – some pints, some away trips, some banter, some meltdowns and some manic goal celebrations with all the hugging, smooching and falling over seats that goes with it would be a start. After that I actually do hope to return to some kind of semi-regular frantic typing but in what form is yet to be decided.

One set of ideas that I think I want to run with – This blog becoming a combination of a ‘United in Review’ style posts from me, maybe recapping each month of the season, or each quarter, with a mix of opinion, player analysis and random pieces of information. The days of weekly blogs are long gone and won’t return but I do want to keep going in some form. I also hope to maybe add some contributions from fans who want to write something about United, or about football in general. It could be one-off things – maybe you have a burning desire to write a 2,000 word blog post about what the generic buzzwords on the United Season Ticket Card actually mean (‘Relentlessness’ being my favourite), or it could be more regular contributions (no living wage here though, I can only pay in pints if that is of interest).

Some kind of collaborative I think might work, and I am happy to host the content, with me doing all the images, graphics etc that might be needed with it. I mentioned something like this on the Dode Fox Podcast and was then contacted by a couple of people who said they might be interested in doing some specific tactical analysis type posts, or ‘United memories’ style contributions. It could also be match reports if that is your thing, I am totally up for absolutely anything (including the smooching after a last-minute winner – I’m double vaxxed and will be a few pints of terrible Hegarty Suite Carling down, so bring it on).

Anyway, 2021/22, let’s do this. I won’t trot out Micky’s favourite – ‘We Are Dundee United’ line (I’m a total pap and admit that I loved a bit of that chat). Instead, I will just sign off by saying that I CANNOT WAIT to see other fans again, and all the drama, anger, excitement, debate, weirdness and nonsense that goes with it.

Now, get us back in our seats and get me a Macaroni Pie – with mustard!