The last few seasons have been undoubtedly tough for Arabs, seeing our team relegated at the hands of our city rivals and losing a play-off final to a terrible Hamilton team being some of the high-profile low points. However, a revamped squad and an unbeaten start to the season in the Betfred Cup – including the penalty-shootout victory at Dens – has brought some much-desired positivity back to Tannadice going into the new league season.
The major complaint the fans had of Ray MacKinnon’s squad last season was the ridiculous imbalance in the midfielder department. After Tope Obadeyi left in December, United had no recognised wingers and as many five “number tens”. The resulting lack of width is probably what cost United promotion. Fortunately, the addition of Billy King, Paul McMullan and the vast improvement of Matty Smith seem to have filled a gaping hole in the United squad. The signing of Premiership-level players does provide a certain calibre of player that was lacking at Tannadice last season. Players that have either won promotion from the Championship in recent years through Billy King, Sam Stanton and James Keatings; as well as Scott McDonald and Tam Scobbie that have proven themselves in the top flight in recent seasons.
There are still issues amongst the squad, however. The addition of two goalkeepers – Deniz Mehmet and shootout hero Harry Lewis – brings the number of goalkeepers at Tannadice up to five. This has been fuelling speculation of club captain Cammy Bell’s future at the club – with rumours of a move back to Killie being extinguished by the keeper sustaining an injury in training, allegedly. United have said that they are now open to offers for the shot-stopper – but only for a fee as he still has a year left on his deal.
In the striking department, there is some cause for alarm, as James Keatings’ injury sustained at Buckie leaves him missing for at least the first four league games, Scott McDonald is not quite up to match sharpness and won’t be for at least a fortnight whilst new signing Patrick N’Koyi has not impressed so far and is also out with injury. This will leave United in most likelihood with Paul McMullan or Matty Smith leading the line for the first couple of matches to the season.
There is also the curious case that United’s highest paid player is centre back Coll Donaldson – who is the legacy of Jackie McNamara’s last season in charge. United have been desperately trying to find any other club for him to go to, with him last being seen on trial at English National league side Barrow, but given his appearance on the bench during the derby on Sunday, it certainly looks like he is here to stay. In terms of new recruits, most would be happy with the addition of one more hard-hitting midfielder as well as a target man – as unfortunately both of those areas are looking rather weak despite Jordie Briels showing some promise in spells.
This season is also a major proving point for two United players – Lewis Toshney and Scott Fraser. Toshney was signed from Raith for £70,000 last season and had a disaster at right back – with him only starting 18 times – and being sent off twice, most notably for two yellow cards after 29 minutes against Hibs in March. Fraser, meanwhile, has been with United for years and has shown that he can be a skilful player, but his lack of effort when it comes to tracking back or even in his urgency on the ball does fill the Tannadice faithful with contempt. Especially when Sam Stanton can play in the same position and do twice the running that Fraser does.
Off the park, United, by all accounts, are more solvent than at this time last season – with the club receiving somewhere in the region of £700,000 from a sell-on clause inserted into Andy Robertson’s Hull contract and the departure of some high wage earners. It should at least keep United afloat for the foreseeable future. This, to at least some extent, has eased the pressure on Stephen Thompson. Two televised games against Dundee will also bring some relief to the coffers at Tannadice. Although the chairman must realise that the supporters will not tolerate a third successive season in the Championship – and that cash must be spent in January to ensure that this does not happen.
A good start to the season is needed for United – as the poor start last season left United playing catch up with Hibs and Falkirk. Despite their best efforts, United’s lack of squad depth prevented them from capitalising on the terrible form that the top two had in the final rounds of matches. Most Arabs would agree in saying that Falkirk and possibly Dunfermline will be our main rivals but knowing the Championship there is always a surprise package every season. In saying that, United are looking a much more robust unit and myself and other supporters are feeling far more confident about seeing a return to the top flight come May.
Written by Alex Marr