DESPITE Willo Flood’s assertion that he is better off with Dundee United rather than Hearts, all is not merely despair at Tynecastle. At least, not in a footballing sense.
The club is up for sale, wages are late due to financial uncertainty, stadium plans have stalled and talk of a senior player clearout remains. Yet Saturday’s performance offered genuine encouragement amidst the ensuing chaos.
Flood claims Hearts were interested in signing him during the summer but believes choosing United guarantees he can “put bread on the table for the little fella”. Those thoughts were uttered with a wry smile, although he was doing Hearts a disservice in a footballing context following a 1-0 defeat in which they dominated for long spells.
Most of Paulo Sergio’s first-team squad are still awaiting their wages – due on the 16th of each month – but there was lethargy in their display. In fact, morale would seem to be notably high at the moment. The manager watched from the stand as his five-game touchline ban began and would have noted that, for most of the 90 minutes, Hearts controlled possession. They played almost the entire second period inside the Dundee United half of the field.
What outdid them was a lack of attacking creativity, not forgetting Scott Robertson’s impressive winning goal on 23 minutes. The midfielder won a challenge near the halfway line and then galloped forward to expertly head Jon Daly’s cross away from Marian Kello into the corner of the net. It was his first goal for three years and he was entitled to celebrate. But Hearts, commendably, regrouped and went in pursuit of an equaliser by playing a possession game which left United languishing.
John Sutton started for the first time since August 13 but – partly due to some extreme physical treatment – he couldn’t fashion a way through the resilient United rearguard. This was Hearts’ fourth consecutive outing without a goal and the paucity of their play in the final third remains a concern. Otherwise they were unquestionably the better side.
“I thought we were the better team, but we were creating our own problems,” said Sergio. “They created one really good chance and scored one goal. We played lot of the game in their midfield, sometimes playing well, sometimes making bad decisions, but we again deserved a result. One moment we are doing great things, then the next moment we are doing the most stupid thing you can imagine. This doesn’t please me. We have to talk and see what things we can change.”
Peter Houston, the Dundee United manager and former Tynecastle assistant, said: “I felt we were against a really good Hearts team. Our attitudes were spot on and it was pleasing to win at home with a clean sheet.
“I don’t think the situation at Hearts had a bearing on the result. Hearts played well, worked hard. Any thought of not being paid was put to bed. Hearts played with great fervour but the final ball let them down. We were camped in our own half at times but it was pleasing that they never got through. When they did, our goalkeeper was good.
“Credit to the Hearts players, these are difficult times for them but they put everything to the back of their minds and we need to be mindful of the fact we were a wee bit fortunate.”
Houston, who granted the former Hearts defender Robbie Neilson his Dundee United debut, considered Robertson’s goal something of a collector’s item. “I’m going to frame it,” he laughed. “I’m delighted with three points, maybe we were a bit fortunate in the end because we had to dig deep. We’ve been criticised a lot for our defending but everyone defended well.
“Robbie Neilson did well on his debut, the pace of the game was really high but he settled down and his experience helped in the second half. We dug in and worked hard and scored a good goal. Jon Daly went down the channel and put the ball in the box, which isn’t something he often does. Scott Robertson is capable of scoring like that and I’d like to see him do it a bit more.”
Robertson agreed with his manager’s sentiments. “It was nearly three years since I last scored, which is far too long without a goal,” admitted the midfielder. “I’ve come close on a few occasions but I’m glad it finally came. I won the ball in the middle of the park and it went out wide to Jon Daly, then I got into the middle and finished it off. I’ve been desperate to score a goal, when I saw Daly wide I really wanted to score so I got myself in the box and thankfully I took the chance.
“The manager has emphasised that we need goals from all areas of the pitch, we can’t just rely on Jon Daly and Johnny Russel. Gary Mackay-Steven has chipped in and now I’ve got one. I can remember numerous occasions when I thought I’d scored but great goalkeeping stopped me. Paul Gallacher did it the other week and Darren Randolph pulled off some world-class saves from me last season.
“Our manager was under pressure recently before the Dunfermline game, wrongly so in my opinion. Now we are on a run, we had a clean sheet and three points on Saturday so we’re turning our season round a bit. Defensively we’re looking a bit more solid.
“We withstood a lot of pressure with a lot of balls into our box but Hearts didn’t have too many clear-cut chances. Hearts did that to us at Tynecastle. We have had four clean sheets this season now and two of them have been against Hearts. Our aim is to be in the top six and we are chasing Hearts.”
Indeed, United now sit just two points behind Hearts in the SPL table after a weekend in which St Mirren leapfrogged the Edinburgh club to move into fifth place. With the likes of Gavin Gunning marshalling their defence, those at Tannadice can surely anticipate moving into the top six sooner rather than later.
“I think it was an error on Blackburn’s part to let him come up here,” said Houston when asked about Gunning. “Gavin’s got pace, he’s very good in the air and I think in a couple of years we can get a lot of money for him. I rate him in the same bracket as Andy Webster because he is also a top centre-back. What he’s got over Webby is he’s quicker. I see Webby as a top player. Gavin can use this as a stepping stone to bigger things if he keeps progressing.”