• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

McNamara: cup clash with Rangers feels like Old Firm game

HE has been there.

Jackie McNamara trains with his squad ahead of their Scottish Cup semi-final. Picture: SNS
Jackie McNamara trains with his squad ahead of their Scottish Cup semi-final. Picture: SNS

The thought of a trip to Ibrox for a match of extraordinary import does not disturb Jackie McNamara. At 40, his new life is as a football manager but he played for Celtic for 10 years from 1995 so the prospect of facing a hostile crowd on the south side of the river in a big match is not one that has him searching for a darkened room for a wee lie down.

He stands on a patch of grass in St Andrews in shorts and T-shirt, oblivious to a Fife wind that would cause even a Junior centre-half to wince, and plays down the hype and expectation of Dundee United's semi-final meeting with Rangers in the William Hill Scottish Cup.

McNamara is intelligent, polite and articulate. He is also as hard as a bag of nails left behind a shed in Siberia.

This toughness has the added sheen of not having to be displayed before a gaggle of pressmen. His will and drive, though, were evident as a player. They are clearly visible and audible on the touchline.

As McNamara was assessing his team's chances against Rangers tomorrow, he was also the subject of a Scottish Football Association disciplinary proceeding in which he was banned for five games, two of them suspended, for an argument he had with Tommy Wright, the St Johnstone manager, during a match last month.

McNamara does not step back from confrontation. He has also been formed by it. It is why tomorrow's tie produces an observation rather than trepidation. "It reminds me a lot of my playing days when an Old Firm game was coming up - everybody would come out and give it the big build-up," he says.

He knows many of his players lack a profound experience. He is quietly but resolutely passing it on. "They shouldn't let it worry them," he says.

"I know there has been a lot of attention this week but they have to go out there and enjoy the occasion.

"They have to make sure they don't freeze and that is the crucial part of it. It is important they stay relaxed. I remember I used to worry coming up to Old Firm games but as I got older I tried not to think about it and just turned up on the day and played."

This is the crux of the matter for United. They have better players, they are in a better league and they have been playing better football than Rangers. McNamara, though, knows that the essential truth of football is that there are no certainties and that Ibrox may very well be a nervous place for the home fans tomorrow but it could also form a tide of support that could carry Rangers to the final.

The Ramsdens Cup final defeat by Raith Rovers has placed Rangers in a footballing crisis that mirrors the club's travails off the pitch but McNamara talked of the "thin line" in football and accepts if his team strays from it then they could stagger to defeat.

"Because Rangers have had a bad result, people have turned on them and their manager. For me, nothing has changed," insists McNamara.

The enduring element for McNamara is that he must not only organise his side but keep his squad - replete with young players - relaxed and confident.

He pinpoints precisely his gameplan. "It's for us to go down there and take the game to them," he says. "For me, it's a great occasion for the players to go and play there. The young team that we are, it's exciting, so go and enjoy it."

The idea that this is some kind of party day for a side that contains such precocious talent such as John Souttar, Andrew Robertson, Stuart Armstrong, Nadir Ciftci and Gary Mackay-Steven is, of course, one that McNamara does not countenance, let alone promote.

But he is aware of the possible internal malfunctions that can stall a team that lives on the quick, sure pass and surfs on a wave of confidence.

The imperative is for his team to play without fear or tension but they must also have a discipline and concentration.

The latter deserted United against Celtic last week when the champions won the match in the first half.

"We got deeper and deeper, got nervous," says McNamara of a first period that was dominated by Celtic after an early goal. "So that's something we need to make sure we don't do on Saturday."

A buccaneering full-back, McNamara also learned how to play it safe. Both qualities mark his managerial ethos. His team is talented and enterprising and has been given both a confidence and a steel by the manager. But he is also far too cute to underestimate Rangers in his dressing room talks or invite controversy with his assessments of Ally McCoist's side.

He confirms he has watched Rangers "a few times" but sidesteps adroitly any observation about his opponents' quality beyond pointing out that Rangers have not lost a match over 90 minutes this season and disposed of Motherwell handily, though this was in September 2012.

He makes the obligatory noises about Rangers looking at this match as the opportunity to come back from the dispiriting loss to Raith Rovers. But he must know that the burden of expectancy is on the shoulders of his side.

"We know there is a lot riding on it, a lot of pressure to get to a cup final. That's why we try to keep the approach the same," he says, surrounded by cameras and pressmen who would not normally attend a Dundee United press conference.

The management and team schedule may adhere to some kind of normality but the match does not. A third-tier team are playing a home match for a place in the cup final.

A young United are facing the biggest test of their composure, discipline and physicality.

McCoist, McNamara and Lee McCulloch, veterans of such clashes, know what these occasions demand. Others will find out tomorrow.

Contextual targeting label: 
Football

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

225776