WHY did the football team cross the road?

To play in the Dundee derby. The shortest away day in world football comprises a journey by foot of a mere 270 metres up and across Tannadice Street but the distance between the city's two clubs has seemed far greater than that during the last seven years.

It is a spell in which Dundee were rooted in the Irn-Bru First Division and twice in administration, while Dundee United have been winning cups and playing in Europe, but those long years of purgatory for Dundee fans will be forgotten in an instant if United are left making a walk of shame back to their own ground after the final whistle this afternoon.

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Having said that, United have previously had little problem making themselves feel at home on the other side of the street. They have won three of their major honours at Dens Park – Ralph Milne's famous chip clinched the 1983 Premier League title in front of the best part of 29,000 supporters, and a couple of league cups were secured there.

United even won 3-0 at Dens in pre-season, a result duly repeated at Tannadice in the clubs' only competitive meeting this season thus far.

In his six years at Tannadice, that pre-season encounter was the only occasion on which United manager Peter Houston has crossed in the direction of Dens. He was accompanied by Paul Hegarty, who made the walk as captain on the day 19 years ago when United tasted championship glory.

"It's really weird, but it's a tradition and it's unique," Houston said. "I'd rather get a minibus. The only time I've done it was in pre-season on a nice summer day. Heggy told me that the day they won the league here they came out of Dens and walked down the road to Tannadice.

"It was a new experience for most of us when we did it in the summer. Jon Daly led the way and the coaching staff were at the back. When we left Dens the only people who were still there were a couple of United supporters with their kids, looking for autographs.

"The derby may have been away for a number of years but, believe me, there have been people at every level of our club desperate to have it back. I've been desperate to take part in them because I've heard all the stories about how passionate it is and it is even more than I thought it was going to be.

"I drive up the street past Dens Park and there's a bar at the corner – if I get stopped at the junction I'm praying the car in front moves because I'm getting slaughtered by the guys outside."

While Houston is based in the central belt and United train in St Andrews, Dundee manager Barry Smith lives in the city and oversees training there.

The supporters who stepped in to save Dundee after the most recent financial crisis are now hugely involved in the day-to-day running of it, making Smith, a former Dark Blues player, even more acutely aware of just how much his team's fans yearn for a victory.

He said: "I find it quite funny that you can just walk down the road: the fans are there but there's no viciousness to it, just a bit of banter, and that's how it should be. But when you're on that park you want to do what is best for your club.

"It's great for the supporters to have a first competitive derby at home because those fans have waited a long time for a bit of payback for all the hard work they put in to keep the club alive. It was all hands to the pump in the darkest days.

"I think it worked both ways, because the team went on a good run and the fans stuck behind us. They were doing their bit and we were doing our bit. As I've been here for so long, there is a unique bond there, given the things that have happened. And although I'll guarantee they'll never put their hands up and admit it I know that United people helped along the way."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, because they did not know until the last minute whether they were going to inherit the mantle of Club 12, Dundee have struggled to acclimatise to the SPL.

However, wins against Hearts and Hibernian in the last month are a sign of improvement for a club that are unafraid of a fight, having clambered back into first division contention despite being marooned on -11 when their 25-point penalty for going into administration kicked in two seasons ago.

Smith's exposure to this fixture as a player came in the Ivano Bonetti and Jim Duffy era, in which the team contained such luminaries as Claudio Caniggia, although even they bought into the derby day spirit.

"These guys just wanted to play football," Smith says. "To be honest, I don't know if they knew what these games were all about but after one of these games Caniggia went out and was serving pints behind the bar in a Dundee pub.

"But he was a true gentleman. He had won World Cups but he always spoke to the kids. Steven Milne probably learned so much from him, simply because Caniggia took the time."

Straddling those two eras is Rab Douglas, Dundee's 40-year-old goalkeeper. The former Celtic shot-stopper – he had a great penalty save at his old club earlier in the campaign – seems as fit as he did in his younger days, something Smith puts down to Douglas's masochistic approach at training.

"He is important for me and not just for his performances on the park," Smith said. "It is about being there for players off the park as well and in the standards he sets.

"It can be just wee things like if he makes a mistake in training he will give himself a punishment. He'll do maybe 10 press-ups if he drops the ball. I've not seen him have to do many to be fair, but that's professionalism and hopefully it rubs off."

In the opposing goal this lunchtime will be an outsider from Poland in the form of Radoslaw Cierzniak but the fixture's odd claim to fame has stirred up interest back home. Although his father, Eugeniusz, and other family members have been prevented from coming to see Cierzniak play today – due to icy weather in his home country grounding many flights – his father has been quizzing him on the nuances of the situation.

"This is the famous thing about Dundee: I read that they are maybe the only two clubs in the world who have two different stadiums on the one street," Cierzniak said.

"My father as well asked me about this. 'Two stadiums on one street? That is not a normal situation in the world.'"

Rather surprisingly considering he has played for no fewer than 13 clubs, mostly in his home country, Cierzniak's first on-field exposure to a derby fixture came on Tayside. The closest he ever got in Poland was taking a seat on the bench in the Krakow derby between KS Cracovia and Wisla Krakow. "Polish derbies can be lively, but there are some horrible fans over there, and maybe the atmosphere in these games is even harsher than it is here," Cierzniak said. "But I think all players like this type of atmosphere, where there is a big crowd and everybody is shouting. It is lovely when it is like this but of course it is also very stressful because we know it is a big derby and we need to win."

Having kept a clean sheet in his first Dundee derby, Cierzniak has already gone one better than his friend, countryman and predecessor Lukasz Zaluska, now back-up goalkeeper at Celtic.

"Lukasz always asks me about the Dundee derby, he is very interested in it because he never got to play in one," said the Pole. "He has experienced big derbies with Celtic against Rangers, but not this one."

A total of 12,000 fans have spurned the option of watching this match on television and have decided to experience it in person. United may have won the last two without playing particularly well but if Dundee get their way this will be anything but a walkover.