Dundee United’s ability to win ugly is proven

Dundee United proved a quality not seen very often this season in their 3-1 win over Hearts at Tynecastle – the ability to win ugly.

Dundee United fans at Tannadice (v Hearts - 18th October 2015)
Watching on: Dundee United fans didn’t see their side’s best form at Tynecastle but the display was enough to see off a spirited Hearts (Picture from Sky Sports)

DUNDEE United have proven many attributes so far this season. Their attacking qualities. Clocking up goals for fun. Improved home form. Shining young talent is moving along the conveyor belt.  

However their battling victory over bottom club Hearts on a wet and windy Edinburgh evening evidenced the ability to grind out three crucial points when languishing in third gear.

Hearts, knowing relegation is on the horizon, were fighting and sparring to avoid the ignominy of being sent down by fierce rivals Hibernian next weekend.

United knew they were in a game but professionally overcame the elements to dig deep and left fully rewarded with only a fifth Premiership away victory of the campaign. A record that might have a glossier look had they improved on their weaknesses and developed a knack to win ugly.

Their ability to steamroll teams has been well-documented this term, effortlessly racking up fours and fives in successive matches during the winter period.

Football is not that simple, though. There are times when you have to show your steel and do the dirty work.

This is where Paul Paton and John Rankin come in. The pair thrive on a midfield scrap. The two unsung heroes were pivotal in winning back possession and getting the likes of Stuart Armstrong and Ryan Dow on the ball quickly to spark attacks, particularly when the scoreline was blank.

United’s comeback strengths were visible at Tannadice just a week ago when trailing 2-0 at the interval to a confident St Mirren.

It was a case of déjà vu in the second period as United relied on their blistering strike force and midfield creativity to get them out of jail and sweep the shell-shocked Buddies aside.

The tables well and truly toppled over but against the financially-stricken Maroons, the division’s second highest scorers have not had it all their own way.

The goalless draw at Tynecastle in September was the result of frustration for United as the Jambos lined up with two banks (one of four and the other of five) to suffocate the attacking triumvirate.

A similar approach was adopted in the early exchanges with Hearts content to sit back and allow United to settle into their passing rhythm.

Even when Gary Locke’s youth-filled side gave as good as they’ve got with a sustained duration of pressure, United stood firm. Tight in defence with Irish duo Gavin Gunning and Sean Dillon rock solid and compact in midfield with Dow tucking in as an extra to combat Scott Robinson, Ryan Stevenson and Jamie Hamill.

As is the case when boasting a skilful, pacy and talented attack, it only needs one moment, one chance, one gap to exploit. And United changed the complexion.

The irrepressible Andy Robertson was heavily involved and the most advanced player for the Terrors at times. The 19-year-old’s driving runs gave Calum Paterson something to think about on his return to his preferred right-back berth.

Dow has shown maturity since being restored to the line-up a couple of months ago and was another key performer, contributing to the breakthrough goal by unlocking the Hearts back four for the first time.

He jinked away from the static Robinson and McGowan to free Robertson, who got his head up and put in on a plate for Brian Graham. A simple construction but highly effective move.

The difference between the two sides on the night was outlined there and then in a nutshell.

It wasn’t work ethic or endeavour. Not defensive errors or lapses in concentration, but quality. Pure and simple. Unfortunately for those of a Hearts persuasion, United had it in the bucket loads despite being unable to display it for long periods.

Indeed, the opportunities to carve open an inexperienced Jambos rearguard came thick and fast after the intermission.

Armstrong was more involved and finding space, Dow was increasingly threatening while Nadir Ciftci pulled out into the wide areas to utilise his agility and pace with Graham roaming in the centre.

Several chances passed them by and holding onto the delicate 1-0 scoreline, McNamara was understandably pensive in the technical area.

But his apprehension was somewhat extinguished twenty minutes from time in stunning style. Cometh the hour, step up Ciftci.

The Turk has been in sensational form of late and continued his rich vein of scoring with a fifth in as many games. He won’t belt home many better in his career, or forget it in a hurry.

The naivety of Hearts defender McGowan was exemplified in a slack pass out to Mark Wilson, starting for the first time in six weeks in the absence of Keith Watson.

The Celtic full-back himself played an inept attempted ball to Ciftci however it did not unrest the forward, who skilfully dodged two challenges before leaving Robinson in his wake.

One touch and bang. From 22 yards, it almost took the back of the net off and had the 901 United fans behind the goal on their feet.

The solo effort was the obvious highlight of a fairly tepid affair in which the elegant attacking play and attractive brand of football normally accustomed with the Terrors made way for the gritty, dogged and resolute merits which can make all the difference in the outcome of games.

The binary opposites complement each other and McNamara will have stressed this on several occasions. Finding the balance between the two has been difficult for United but if they can crack the conundrum, the Terrors can be a force to be reckoned with in the chase for silverware again.

McNamara, a regular trophy grabber during his Celtic playing days, admitted in the build-up his jealousy of Aberdeen’s League Cup success.

In the long term, United can steer themselves in that direction and use the Dons as a model to work towards. The here and now is taking each game as it comes and seeing where it takes them.

Seven wins from their last eight games. The momentum is with Jackie McNamara’s men. Often susceptible to a reality check [see St Johnstone last week], United have the bouncebackability [that newly coined word] which top teams are made of.

United have been accused of throwing away points and failing to close out winning positions in seasons gone by, in which the top six has been a distant ambition.

Danny Wilson’s header gave Hearts belief of completing an unlikely comeback but they dealt with the backdrop of 13,000 roaring Jambos fans thereafter to get over the finishing line.

It was a job well done that has become fairly routine for the Terrors. Another win to consolidate fourth place and another game ticked off the fixture list.

The Rangers cup semi-final is merely three weeks away and their battle for Europa League qualification is firmly alive. Late success in a transitional campaign could be just around the corner for the Tayside boys.

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