SUCH is the Dundee United influence at Hearts these days that Sunday’s visitors to Tannadice could well arrive on a coach with windows tainted Tangerine.
Craig Levein, United’s former manager, has motioned many old charges to Edinburgh since being appointed Hearts’ director of football 17 months ago. This weekend, they all return to familiar surroundings.
Midfielders Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben, Danny Swanson were all part of Dundee United’s Scottish Cup-winning team in 2010. Gomis returned there for a second spell two years ago. Overseeing them is head coach Robbie Neilson and his assistant Stevie Crawford, both of whom had spells at Tannadice as players. Levein’s willingness to recruit those he knows well has stood Hearts in good stead, and all concerned will likely have an extra edge about them on Sunday.
Adding to the spice of the occasion is the appointment of former Hibs player and manager Mixu Paatelainen. He will take charge of United for the first time after signing a contract until 2018 yesterday. The former Tayside contingent within the Hearts camp are more concerned with what reception they may get from United fans, though.
“I know Prince is really looking forward to it,” explained Swanson. “He asked me yesterday in the gym: ‘Are you looking forward to going back?’ I told him I’d already been back with St Johnstone last year. He’s a bit worried that they’ll boo him. I was winding him up, saying: ‘I think you’ll get booed, Prince. I don’t think they really liked you.’
“Morgaro obviously went back and played there for a second time. We’ve all won the cup so we’ve all done well for Dundee United. I think we’ll all get a decent reception. You always want to do well against your old club and, if selected, that’s what I hope to do. I’ll not try any less because it’s Dundee United. It’ll probably just make me try even harder.”
Whilst United manager in 2008, Levein plucked Swanson from his existence as part-time plumber and part-time footballer with Berwick Rangers. The move north proved to be the making of the 28-year-old. Not least because he no longer needed his trade to earn a living.
“I was a plumber when I was with Berwick. I was up at 7.30am and home at 6.30pm. I’m not going back to that, hopefully,” he smiled. “I obviously still have a fondness for United because they gave me my chance. I always look out for their results, just like I did when I was in England [with Peterborough and Coventry]. It was a massive part of my career. They’ve got me where I am and I’ll never forget that. It’s a great club with great fans.”
It pains Swanson to see his former employers in such a dire league position right now. United sit bottom of the Ladbrokes Premiership with only one win and five points from ten league games. That form saw previous manager Jackie MacNamara sacked last month. Paatelainen’s priority is to start an upturn in fortunes and galvanise the squad.
“I think it’s a brilliant appointment,” admitted Swanson. “Mixu always wants his teams to get the ball down and play and he always has done. I’m expecting a tough game. I played against Mixu when he was at Cowdenbeath, he was the manager there and I spoke to him a few times. I played against him a few times and, even at Cowdenbeath, he got them playing - as well as he could!
“He is a real football man and hopefully he is the change Dundee United need to get back to where they deserve to be. That’s not at the bottom of the league. If you can get the team playing good football, then you’ve got half a chance at Dundee United. They have got good players. They are not down at the wrong end of the table because they have rubbish players. They have quality players - even from the time I was there - it is just about getting the belief back. That’s a difficult thing, but a new manager is sometimes what a team needs.”
Paatelainen even admired Swanson as a player whilst Cowdenbeath manager, although stopped short of moving to sign him for the Fife club. “I never spoke to him in detail about signing,” said Swanson. “I think he did like me as a player but he had his brother, Markus, there at the time and we played very similar positions. We had a wee chat but we never spoke in detail about signing.”
The international break has helped Swanson dramatically improve his fitness levels, something he admits he needed. He joined Hearts last month on a contract until the end of the season after leaving Coventry City. A severe lack of game time in England left him physically short.
“We had three days off during the break, but the three days building up to that was like army camp stuff,” he revealed. “We came back in on the Monday and had a triple session. My legs are killing me but it’s good for me, personally. I do need it.
“The boys find it easier to handle than me because they’re used to it. I’ve got to get used to it because I don’t think it’ll slacken off any time soon. It feels like another pre-season. I’m feeling a lot better and a lot fitter for it. I wasn’t up to it in the first couple of games but I feel ready for it now.”
• Danny Swanson was speaking at the DPS Group-sponsored Hearts holiday courses, a full week of coaching sessions for children aged 4-12, run by the club during the school holidays.