Dundee United performed below their best but still managed to establish a half-time lead that demoralised their neighbours. All the longing for the return of this fixture after a seven-year absence could not eradicate the difference in the capabilities of these two teams.
The occasion was steeped in nostalgia, and broadcast commentary from previous derby matches was played on the tannoy before kick-off. Supporters revel in their memories, but the sharp edges of a rivalry need to keep being renewed. Perspective can be skewed but these two clubs remain separated by their circumstances. United consider themselves among the handful of leading teams in Scotland, while Dundee only belatedly earned their place in the top flight following Rangers' demise.
"We prepared [during pre-season] as a first division team, but no excuses," said Robert Douglas, the Dundee goalkeeper. "It'll be interesting to see if the wife's talking to me when I get home. We got spanked, there's no other way to look at it."
There was a subversive mood in the stands, and both sets of supporters stood up the moment a message was relayed from the police asking them to sit down. Mostly, though, fans demand that derby games reflect the frenzied mood that they bring into the ground.
Senses were scrambled, but Nicky Riley ought to have been more decisive when he met Jim McAlister's cross. His close-range effort was drilled straight at Radoslaw Cierzniak, United's Polish goalkeeper, and the attacker then did the same with the rebound.
Composure was a victim of the event, but the consequences were not suffered equally. United's carelessness disrupted their ability to construct periods of possession. The passing tended to be rushed and inaccurate, but it posed little harm when the ball was being conceded in the bustle of midfield, where it could soon be regained. For Dundee, the hapless moments were often critical.
Douglas ought to have been unfazed by the contest. He has played in enough Dundee derbies and Old Firm games to understand how calm judgement can be the rarest and most crucial quality. He suffered from impulsiveness in trying to claim Willo Flood's free-kick when the ball was clearly out of reach. It came instead to Gavin Gunning, and the United defender headed in at the back post. "I went for it, but I don't think it was mine to take," said Douglas. "I have to take that on the chin."
The course of the game could still have been altered, particularly when the rashness was being displayed by both sides, but Dundee did not have the means to take advantage of any sloppiness. Faults were evident in much of United's play, but they could still call upon an individual of Johnny Russell's instinctive flair. There was a sharpness of thought at the way the striker peeled away from his marker to make space to receive John Rankin's pass. He mis-hit his shot, but it was deflected by the diving block of Davide Grassi, which carried the ball up and over Douglas.
The defender's touch was inadvertent, but that was a rare guilt-free moment for a player who was forever on the edge of calamity. He only exacerbated the notion that Dundee were toiling to cope at the back. Midfielder Stephen O'Donnell often remonstrated with his defenders, and the team still appears patched together. Nobody would reasonably expect Dundee to be immediately competitive in the league, and there is still time for Barry Smith, the manager, to add to his squad, but self-improvement will be more important.
The visitors briefly complained that a free-kick was awarded rather than a penalty when John Baird was upended on the edge of the area. It was cleared and United broke upfield and added a third when Russell lashed a fierce shot beyond Douglas from 20 yards out. "I don't know if I would have saved it with another goalkeeper on top of me." Douglas said. "But we had a free-kick, then we lose a goal out of it. That's criminal."
The extent of United's lead allowed the players to be unforgiving at half-time, and they criticised each other. That self-demanding nature persisted, with Flood and Cierzniak sharing angry words and shoves with each other after disagreeing about how a Dundee attack should have been defended.
O'Donnell might have been in the mood for hostilities, but that angry exchange appeared to have more aggression than the tussle with Russell that led to both players being sent off. Having collided on the ground, Russell pushed the Dundee midfielder away with his leg, and O'Donnell responded by shoving him back with a clenched hand. The referee's mind was made up in the heat of the moment, though.
Grievances about the decision were shared. It was a rare moment when both teams were equal.
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