Hearts scored three times to no reply as United toiled in attack
Dundee United's players are gathered in the home dressing room at Tannadice preparing to face Hearts. Without a win in three, it is a game with the capacity to dictate the perception of their campaign so far. Three wins in six and poised near the summit or four without a win and slipping down the division?
The team has been named. Gary Mackay-Steven is absent again through injury; captain Jon Daly is on the bench but realistically fit enough to play for only 20 minutes. Johnny Russell, the third member of the club's feted attacking triumvirate but without a goal in the previous three matches, surveys the scene. Suddenly, the hitherto carefree 22-year-old is burdened not only with the responsibility of reviving his own form but also that of his team. Today there is no Daly or Mackay-Steven to make something happen; today a decent display and maybe a goal is not enough; today he must do more than his own job.
The demands, perhaps understandably, proved too much as United slipped to a demoralising 3-0 defeat. Yet within that another suspicion was confirmed: with Daly, Mackay-Steven and Russell all fit and on form, Peter Houston's side are among the best in the division, but without one or two of them, they become no better than almost every other team in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League.
Houston knows it, so do his players and the supporters but, more importantly, so do United's opposition. Hearts, for example, knew that Ryan Dow would not offer the same searing pace and trickery as Mackay-Steven; that Michael Gardyne would not bring the same physical confrontation as Daly. Furthermore, they knew this was a XI that finds it difficult to cleave open defences, so scoring first would likely be decisive. Once they did so, they were able to settle, secure in the knowledge their hosts would struggle to breach their defences.
Houston will, justly, point to the financial constraints that have prevented him constructing a squad to deal with such eventualities – even if Keith Watson and Stuart Armstong will sign contract extentions today– but his pool does appear unbalanced. Take Mark Millar. The midfielder, signed from Falkirk, had to sit on the bench awaiting his debut while 16-year-old Ryan Gauld was asked to come on and change the game.
Equally, it remains unclear why United spent much of the afternoon launching long balls to Daly despite the fact the captain was on the bench. The sight of an exasperated Russell and Gardyne throwing their arms in the air after losing another aerial challenge became familiar.
That particular issue might disappear should Daly be fit enough to start in the Scottish Communities League Cup tie against Queen of the South tomorrow but suddenly the trip to Palmerston is fraught with peril. Anaemic in attack and unsettled defensively, United will travel to Dumfries accompanied by doubt. "For me, I'm very happy that we are playing again so soon," said goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak. "The worst thing is to wait all week for the next game after a result like this. I know we will play better."
Hearts, too, face obdurate lower-league opposition in Livingston but do so having emerged from the cloud of gloom that had threatened to envelop them since the moment David Templeton scored at Anfield. In the intervening days, the winger left for Rangers, the Tynecastle side endured consecutive defeats without scoring and the manager and several members of the squad were late in receiving their wages.
It's amazing what three points can do, though. "We've got a few less points than we thought we'd have but we've won here, could be in the quarter-finals by the end of the week and then have Kilmarnock on Saturday," said defender Danny Grainger. "We could turn a disappointing start to the season into a good one."
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