Nestled on the banks of the River Tay lies one of football’s finest institutions, something of a sleeping giant of the modern game and a club that is best placed to challenge the established order this season.
With the all too documented demise of Rangers, it would appear that the Scottish Premier League is Celtic’s to lose after their fierce rivals where banished to the graveyard of Scottish football. Few, if any, have speculated about who is best placed to challenge the Hoops and that is very disrespectful to the likes of Motherwell, Hearts and Dundee United.
It is the latter which would seem best placed to challenge Celtic.
After a decade of relative unease around Tannadice the fortunes of this famous club began to change. The year was 2006 and the Arabs opted to appoint 14 year Hearts veteran Craig Levein as their new manager. It was an opportunity that seemed viable to both sides, the club required stability while Levein was an upcoming manager who wanted to make the next step up after a brief period at Raith Rovers.
Levein began restructuring the club, overhauling its youth system and bringing a new generation of young talent into the first team. The club comfortably avoided relegation in Levein’s first season in charge, and then managed two successive fifth place finishes, the first time they had managed successive top-half finishes since the days of the legendary Jim McLean. By late 2009 the club were in second place in the table, and looking to have an outside chance of mounting a title challenge.
Levein’s achievements had not gone unnoticed however, and in November 2009 he accepted the job of the Scotland national team manager. The club searched high and low in their attempts to sound out who was the best candidate to replace Levein. After a lengthy search it became apparent that his successor was right before them. After a successful spell as caretaker manager Peter Houston, Levein’s assistant was given the job on a full time basis. The shift from Levein to Houston was smooth and culminated in a third place SPL finish and a Scottish Cup victory, the second in the club’s history.
After two successive fourth place finishes, Dundee United look set to challenge Celtic to the title, having been able to keep their side relatively intact despite the current doom and gloom surrounding Scottish football. The foundations of this Tangerine side is based around a mixture of talent, a blend of youth and experience, which includes no fewer than six Irish stars.
Scottish football has become synonymous with an influx of Irish stars in recent years and one only has to look to Tannadice, where a club originally formed as Dundee Hibernian, boast some of the finest Irish talent on offer. The free scoring club captain Jon Daly, the ever consistent Sean Dillon and the combative Willo Flood make up the established Irish guard at the club. In recent times they have been joined by Irish under 21 star Gavin Gunning, Sligo Rovers midfielder Richie Ryan and young gun Paddy Barrett.
At the time of writing it is a matter of hours since Dundee United opened the new season with a three nil rout of Pat Fenlon’s Hibernian. Ironically the Arabs had tried in vein to lure Fenlon from Bohemians after the departure of Levein. The Tangerines raced out of the blocks on their return to SPL action and their entire Irish contingent featured with the exception of Barrett, who has yet to make his first team bow despite making the bench last year.
While it is wrong for one to judge a team by its first look, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the chemistry within this Dundee United side provides a severe threat, one which Neil Lennon should heed. The very future of Scottish football can benefit from the success of this United side with names like Johnny Russell and Gary Mackay Steven bound for international recognition in the near future. Houston’s side possess a solid threat to Celtic yet their title tilt may struggle should they qualify for the Europa League, something they are reasonably well placed for.
The Tangerines seemed set to record a 2-1 home win in their first leg encounter with Dynamo Moscow only for Alexander Kokorin to snatch a draw with a last minute strike. The tie is well poised although the Russians will fancy themselves given their away goals. But perhaps Dundee United would benefit from bowing out of Europe. Financially it could be crippling, given the lack of finance in the Scottish game at present. However in the long run a lack of European exertion may well be the very thing Peter Houston requires to turn his side into serious title challengers.
No Scottish club has been oblivious to the financial plight that has struck the game in the light of the punishment handed down to Rangers. Every club is desperately clutching at whatever finance is available and the windfall arising from European qualification is something few if any can afford to miss out on. But should Dundee United and their Irish contingent bow out of Europe they may well find their league fortunes reach unparalleled heights. This exciting and free flowing side are a team on the up and one well worth watching. There is a very fine line between success and failure and Peter Heuston has the makings of a man who can bring back the glory days of the McLean era.