In January 2013, Peter Houston left Dundee United under a bit of a cloud. In a press conference he called shortly before his departure, he stated that with budget cuts on the horizon, he didn’t want to be the man responsible for taking Dundee United back to the bottom six. Now most fans knew that this wasn’t all that likely, and that Houston’s main gripe was probably to do with his own personal salary being cut more than anything else. If you were to take him at face value though, then a top four finish and a Scottish Cup final in the first full season under Jackie McNamara should be considered a huge success. Right? Well yes and no.
In some respects, this has been a frustrating season for United fans, as it will go down as one of missed opportunities. There could have been a second placed finish and a Scottish Cup triumph. That didn’t happen, and it’s disappointing. When looking at the role the playing staff has had in United’s season, you can see that the squad has its strong points and weak points. Those weak points have cost them at times, but with a close season to address the obvious problems, there’s a real opportunity for the team to kick on next time. Stuart Milne writes
Radoslaw Cierzniak – There are two sides to the Polish keeper. Most of the time, he’s a consistent and reliable figure between the sticks, and is capable of pulling off some fantastic reflex saves. The problem with him though is that he’s inclined to make costly blunders on big occasions; you’ve only got to look at the goal we lost against Rangers in the semi-final and especially the opening goal in the final to see that. When it comes to next season, I’d be fine if he was to stay or go.
Marc McCallum – The young keeper made his United debut in the penultimate game of the season against Aberdeen, and unfortunately for him it wasn’t the best of starts. All I can judge him on is what I saw of him in that game, where he was very nervous and looked as though he wasn’t going to save any decent shot that came his way. On the plus side, he also looked strong and had great distribution. McCallum has been given a new deal and will hopefully be given time to develop further. There’s a good keeper in there, but he needs to mature first. Possibly a loan move could be an option?
Andy Robertson – In a defence full of inconsistent players, the one real success story among them – and probably Scottish Football’s greatest success story of the 2013/14 season – is Andy Robertson. To go from playing for Queen’s Park to representing your nation within a year is just a fantastic achievement. While a reliable enough player defensively, Robertson’s real strength lies in his ability to get forward and join in with the attack. He’s been a pleasure to watch, and is a player I desperately hope United hang on to next season.
Gavin Gunning – Part of me feels that to heavily criticise the departing Irishman would be akin to a scorned ex slagging off his former partner – i.e. it might look like I’m having a go just because he’s left us. But what summed him up for me was that moment in the cup final when – with time ticking away and the team a goal down – he tried and failed to perform a fancy trick in a bid to skin a Saints player when a simple pass would have done. It was a stupid thing to do. Gunning has the ability to be a solid defender, but his best games for us came when we were already comfortably winning. His mentality meant he was not the sort of leader you need at the back when the chips are down. We’re well shot of him.
Sean Dillon – I’ve been one of Sean Dillon’s fiercest critics over the past couple of seasons because I don’t think he displays the organisational skills of a centre back or the leadership of a captain, and he always carries the potential of making a costly error. But in fairness to him, towards the end of the season – especially when he played at fullback – he rediscovered some of his form. Well… either that or the other defenders were doing so badly that he just looked better. While Dillon is capable of covering anywhere across the back four, I don’t think he’s worth keeping and would prefer his wages be spent on bringing in a better defender. Seeing as he still has a year left on his contract, that might not be possible.
John Souttar – Undoubtedly a talented footballer, the John Souttar of May 2014 is not looked upon with the same positive light as the one from last November. While he was strolling through games with the proverbial cigar out before, a combination of a loss of form, a loss of confidence and the opposition forwards putting him under extra pressure saw his performance level dip. He’ll come back stronger, but he needs to improve his heading and decision making. Definitely one to keep though; that should go without saying.
Calum Butcher – The forgotten man of the Dundee United defence, Butcher started the season well before missing a few games and then suffering from a bout of illness which led to him missing out on a recall in favour of Souttar. Since then, he only made one more appearance – in which he was unluckily sent off – and then broke his foot. I like Butcher though; he has something about him that you want in a centre back. He’s dirty and aggressive but also capable of seeking out a pass and putting in strong tackle. Hopefully we’ll see more of him next term.
Curtis Good – The Newcastle loanee was a breath of fresh air at the back for United before injury in his Australia debut ended his season. Strong, sensible and talented, Good also brought an attacking threat on set pieces, which is something United struggled badly with otherwise. Unquestionably a player I’d like to see back at the club.
Mark Wilson – Lots of United fans seem to be critical of Mark Wilson and consider him a poor signing. I disagree. United’s results in games Wilson started have been good, and though his lack of pace can be exploited, his experience helps the rest of the back four out. No doubt he’ll be a bit-part player next season, but he’s still an important part of the squad on and off the pitch.
Keith Watson – Here’s a player who just doesn’t seem to progress as he gets older. Our main right back for a few seasons now, Watson is no more than average. He lets far too many crosses come in to the box and his attacking threat is minimal. Without question, United need a new right back for next season, and though McNamara has said he sees Watson’s future at centre back – a role he performed well in at Celtic Park in the last game of the league season – you’d have to wonder if trying to sign a proven player for that position might be a better idea.
Paul Paton – The definition of a limited, but solid player. He lacks pace, doesn’t carry much of a goal threat and it extremely one-footed, but I still think Paul Paton is a hugely important part of the Dundee United team. His role as the midfield spoiler who sits in and protects the back four, while also allowing the front four to attack is a tough and thankless task. But he does it well. He also brings a bit of grit to a team that sometimes might be considered a little soft.
John Rankin – Tends to get more praise than Paton, but each player is as important as the other. What sticks out about Rankin though is his passion and intensity. He should be our captain next season.
Morgaro Gomis – Some United fans still have a big… erm… thing for Morgaro Gomis, based entirely on the rose-tinted memory of his first spell with us. But Gomis this time around only played well in two games – both against Celtic at Celtic Park where their style has always allowed him time to thrive – and apart from that looked a player incapable of forcing his way into the starting 11 ahead of either Rankin or Paton. He’s not a player whose contract should be renewed.
Stuart Armstrong – When Armstrong plays well, Dundee United play well. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s our most influential player when on form. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee which Stuart Armstrong will turn up on a game by game basis. Against Motherwell towards the end of the season, he was head and shoulders above the rest, but in the Cup Final he was anonymous. If he performs to his ability with more consistency, he’ll soon become one of the nation’s best midfielders in many a year.
Gary Mackay Steven – There’s no denying he’s a talented player, but I can’t help but feel that GMS’s chances of moving to a higher level in the game are dwindling. On his day he’s very good, and he’ll always be a key player at Scottish Premiership level, but as the season progressed, I felt he was beginning to be surpassed by the likes of Armstrong, Gauld, Ciftci and even Ryan Dow in terms of what he brought to the team on a good day. The chances are that he’ll move on at the end of next season, but I have my doubts it’ll be any higher than mid-Championship in England. Some United fans think we should cash in now, but I reckon the sort of money we’d get for him would mean we’re better off keeping him for the remainder of his contract.
Ryan Gauld – Another player who fell away a little bit as the season progressed, but that’s to be expected from an 18 year old who is only playing in his first full season of first team football. Supremely talented and destined to go far, Ryan Gauld has shown time and time again that he’s probably the most naturally talented player Dundee United have produced in a long time. I anticipate he’ll be back to his best at the start of next season.
Ryan Dow – Fast becoming one of my favourite players, Ryan Dow is the quiet man of the Dundee United attack. While Ryan Gauld is identified as a key threat by opposition players and is sometimes marked out the game, I think people don’t realise quite how good Dow is. He may not have the technique of Gauld, the flicks and tricks of GMS or the power of an on-form Armstrong, but he is probably a better all-rounder than all three of them. A local lad who has got where he is through hard work and perseverance, he has been a key player for us this season, and will be again next time.
Chris Erskine – I feel a bit sorry for Erskine. One below-par performance in his home debut and he was instantly written off by some sections of the United support. In all honesty, he’s not as good as the other attacking midfielders we have at the club, as he neither has the technique or the physical attributes to surpass them. I think he’s decent, but unless he dramatically improves, he’s never going to be a nailed on starter for the club.
Nadir Ciftci – Sometimes, Nadir Ciftci can be a pain in the arse to watch. He’ll be petulant and selfish and spend time moaning at his teammates when he should be getting on with things. Sometimes. Most of the time, he’s a fantastic player with strength, skill, pace and movement above the standard a team in the Scottish Premiership could expect to attract from abroad. I would imagine if anyone is likely to attract bids this summer it’ll be him, but I desperately hope we can retain his services for another season at least.
Brian Graham – A player who comes under fire from a lot of United fans and takes a disproportionate amount of blame when things don’t go well. I don’t think that’s very fair, but at the same time, I’d be lying if I said I rated him. Brian Graham lacks the strength and aerial threat that should come with a player of his size, he thinks he can take a free kick, even though I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that’s the case, and although he gets into great positions to score, he regularly misses sitters. I wouldn’t be upset if he was moved on, but if he stays, it has to be as backup only.
Farid El Alagui – Much like Brian Graham, Farid El Alagui looked like a man playing at a higher level than he should be. He just lacked the cutting edge we needed. Having already left the club, he won’t be missed next season.
David Goodwillie – Hmmm, perhaps we should just say it didn’t work out and move on, eh?But that’s a shame, because he once looked like he’d be a star. Now it looks like his career is in tatters.
This season also saw United give debuts to players like Scott Smith, Scott Fraser, Aiden Connolly and Kudus Oyenuga. I would suggest that Oyenuga will probably never amount to anything at Premiership level, with the latter half of the season spent on loan at English giants Boreham Wood, but the other kids – along with Darren Petrie who spent the season on loan to Brechin City – have a chance of progressing next term.
Meanwhile, decisions will have to be made on the futures of the the likes of Michael Gardyne, Dale Hilson and Mark Millar, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see all three of them moved on.
Stuart is the Scottish team researcher for Football Manager and can be followed on twitter. He also does a fair bit of his own writing over at Stuart Milne Reviews Stuff, which we would urge you to check out.