DUNDEE UNITED seem to have the happy knack of timing their regular showdowns with Motherwell to perfection.
Last time out, their young kids swaggered up to Fir Park in the midst of a spell-binding run of form, while their bruised and battered hosts tentatively sent out the thinnest of backlines, hoping that it wouldn't snap. It did, of course, and United produced what the Motherwell manager said was the best performance he had seen by an opposition side at Fir Park.
"I did say that. Then Celtic came not long after and beat us by five," sighed Stuart McCall yesterday.
Loading article content
Since that November meeting, though, there can be no doubt over whose is the happier camp, at least in terms of league form. McCall has presided over a run of seven wins in his last nine matches, while the other two results - a loss to Celtic and an unfortunate draw with second-place rivals Aberdeen - are nothing worth wailing over. United - until a couple of weeks ago - had gone off the boil, struggling to match the dizzy heights of early season. Perhaps they had even been - whisper it - found out.
But a couple of decent victories in the past fortnight have seen the Tannadice club spark back into form. And Motherwell have been hit by the sort of injury crisis that their small squad just cannot cope with. Five players are out injured ahead of tonight's match with United: Simon Ramsden, Fraser Kerr, Paul Lawson, Craig Moore and Lee Erwin. Three others - Keith Lasley, Stuart Carswell and Henri Anier - are major doubts.
"The training, this week, we've trained with seven [players] a couple of days," McCall admitted. "They're desperate to do a little more, to keep the sharpness up. But I'm desperate for it to be the shortest session ever to get them home. They've got to be wrapped in cotton wool."
Reflecting on his side's November loss to United, McCall acknowledged his side were well beaten. "They were terrific," he said. "To be honest, with the quality of the squad they've got, it's no surprise they are back to winning ways. The surprise was that they went six games on the bounce without winning anything.
"But we had three of our back four missing that day with injuries and suspensions and we had to make a change at half-time as well, so there were circumstances why we couldn't really be too hard on our lads."
At least his backline looks in better shape this time around, if not the rest of the squad. Ramsden is out again, but Stephen McManus will be joined by Stevie Hammell, and also by Shaun Hutchison.
The announcement this week of a £184,500 loss at Fir Park last season has put the future of the young centre-back into focus. McCall readily admits that he is expected to sell one player a season, but although Hutchison looks the most likely to move on, he has entered the last six months of his contract and will likely leave for nothing in the summer.
"We'll offer him something," sighed McCall, but without much hope. "The remit was always to be in the top six and sell a player a year.
"If Shaun goes, he goes with our best wishes. Keeping him over the past two seasons and finishing where we did has probably balanced out getting a transfer fee for him . . ."
Moving from one young prospect to another, the player who put the exclamation point on the last meeting between this two sides was Andrew Robertson, scoring the fourth late on, and there has been a lot of other shouting this week after the young full-back was selected for Scotland.
Maybe a few touching moments, too. "I was there in [our] flat when he got the call and Joe McGovern [the youth goalkeeper] was nearly in tears," said a grinning John Souttar, Robertson's United team and flat-mate. "He was so proud. It was embarrassing and we were all just laughing at him! He was an emotional wreck when Andy came off the phone.
"Seriously, though, it is great for Andy as he has deserved it and it is an inspirational story for everyone who wants to make a career out of football. It shows you should never give up. It makes you think that it really could be one of us one day."
Souttar and his fellow teenager Ryan Gauld famously jetted off for a January week in the sun, to refresh their tired young legs for the season's run-in. Robertson is not much older, and has given the pair a bit of stick about dashing off on holiday at such a thick and bloody stage of the season. "Andy is older than us so he didn't need a break," Souttar joked. "I think it has helped us. We have come back feeling refreshed. Before, it was weird as you were wanting your body to do stuff but it just wasn't happening. There just wasn't the spark that was there beforehand but we are getting it back slowly."
The startling emergence of Robertson might have had a knock-on effect on his opposite number today. There is a general acceptance that the young full-back, having barnstormed his way in the national squad, is not going to go away any time soon.
That might seem to close a door, then, for Hammell, the long-serving Motherwell left-back. The full-back, though, does not believe the door has now been slammed shut on his international career.
"I have thought that before," Hammell said, before pointing out he was later recalled. "[But] the young boy deserves his chance, he's been excellent. You've got to include these young boys if they're doing well, it gives them the hope that they won't be overlooked. Hopefully, he goes and gets some game time."