DUNDEE UNITED consider Hearts striker Craig Beattie a major threat to their Champions League aspirations this weekend. Despite United not conceding a solitary goal during three wins against the Edinburgh club this season, the former Tynecastle defender Robbie Neilson is wary of Beattie’s presence and physique.
The Scotland striker has injected many an opponent with fear since joining Hearts two months ago. Three goals in seven games reveals only a portion of the impact, for his influence has reinvigorated a forward line previously lacking a cutting edge. His winning penalty in the recent Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic further endeared him to an increasingly infatuated Hearts support.
Neilson is enjoying a similarly productive return to Scotland after leaving Leicester City. He signed a six-month contract at Tannadice in November, and a series of consistent displays at right-back have helped underpin a resurgence which sees United in contention for a Champions League qualifying place just six months after manager Peter Houston was threatened with dismissal because of poor results.
Victory at home to Hearts on Saturday would further underline their European credentials. Neilson acknowledged the need to stifle Beattie if United’s rich vein of form is to continue. “I think he is the main danger,” said the 31-year-old.
“I’ve known Craig for years. I played against him when he was at Celtic and he used to stay just down the road from me. I know him well and I know what he’s about. He’s a strong lad who is confident on the ball.
“He’ll drive at people and try to get in behind defenders by taking chances. He is probably Hearts’ biggest threat just now. If we can nullify him then we have a good chance of winning this game.”
The size of the task in hand for Hearts is emphasised by the fact they have beaten United only once in the last three years. This season’s results between the clubs make particularly grim reading: United won 1-0 at Tynecastle in August, a match which proved the death knell for then-manager Jim Jefferies. Neilson’s debut at Tannadice in November produced the same scoreline before a 2-0 reverse for Hearts at Tynecastle in February.
“We don’t really think about those results, we just knew we’d won against them this season,” continued Neilson. “We feel confident to win again on Saturday but Hearts have a cup final coming up, so their players will be trying to impress the manager to stay in his plans. They will make it difficult but we feel that, no matter who we take on right now, we can win.
“Hearts are a physical team. It was the same when I played there. You have Webby (Andy Webster) and Marius (Zaliukas) at the back and Beattie up front, these are strong players. You know they’re going to go long to Beattie and he’ll either run in behind us or flick the ball on for other people to run in behind. We know what Hearts are capable of, their tails will be up after beating Celtic at Hampden even though they lost to Rangers at the weekend.”
Buoyant they may be, but Hearts would need to go some to beat United for confidence right now. Their last 11 league matches produced nine victories. The other two were draws. With a three-pronged attack comprising the pace of Johnny Russell, the skill of Gary Mackay-Steven and the presence of Jon Daly, they are now breathing down the necks of third-placed Motherwell with just three points separating the two clubs. When Neilson arrived, United were eighth in the Scottish Premier League.
“It has exceeded my expectations,” he admitted. “When I first came up I spoke to the manager and the main plan was just to get into the top six. United had lost quite a few players in the summer and were rebuilding again with a lot of young boys coming through. They didn’t really know what they were going to get from them. So many of them have come on leaps and bounds. Two of them are nominated for the Young Player of the Year award (Russell and Mackay-Steven) and Jon Daly is up for Player of the Year.
“The manager has played a huge part. He lost a lot of experienced players last summer and it’s difficult to bring young boys through and expect them to hit the ground running right from the start of the season. If you’re losing people like David Goodwillie, Prince Buaben, Morgaro Gomis, Craig Conway – these guys are big players.
“The four of them were mainstays of the team last season. Then Danny Swanson has been injured for much of this season. That’s five players who did so well getting Dundee United into Europe last year, so you end up having rebuild half your team.
“The manager’s asking young boys to come in and play 38 games with the same consistency of guys who are 28 or 29 years old. That’s difficult. You will play well one week and then drop a bit the next week because you just don’t know what you will get with young players. Our young boys have really done themselves proud. They’ve played at such a fantastic level every week.
“If you had said to the chairman and the manager at the start of the season that, with four games left, we would have a chance of getting into the Champions League qualifiers, they would have bitten your hand off.
“It’s been a really fruitful campaign so far. We’ve just been really focused on winning games and the boys are on form. We go into games feeling we can go and win quite easily and that breeds confidence. You feel like you will win before you’ve even kicked a ball.
“Our defence is doing well and we look after that side of the game. We have boys up front who can score goals so they get to go and do what they want to an extent. Gavin Gunning got an injury on Saturday so it’s touch and go whether he’ll be fit against Hearts. If he’s out, we’ve got Garry Kenneth who can come in.”
Neilson, of course, sampled Champions League qualifiers with Hearts in 2006, facing the Bosnians of Siroki Brijeg and AEK Athens of Greece. It was widely expected that those days were behind him when he moved to England in 2009.
“I probably did feel that way. When you go down south you aren’t going to play European football unless you’re in one of the top teams. I missed that side of it so it’s been great to come back and play my part in important games which might get Dundee United into Europe. It’s good to be involved in this part of the season.
“To be honest, it’s just been great to come back and get playing again. I really needed to play football because I left Leicester last summer and there was nothing really happening for me down in England. I’ve enjoyed playing regularly and being involved in important games in front of big crowds.
“I don’t know what will happen in the summer. I’ll need to wait and see where the team finishes and what kind of budget they’ve got for next year. I’ll need to decide where I’m going to be because my family is still living down south. I need to make a decision at the end of the season.”
Neilson’s knows his good friend Craig Beattie could have a major say in how his and United’s end to the season transpires.