United in the Press
By Michael Gibson
The season reached its conclusion with a win for Hibs at Tannadice on Sunday, but frankly more than one mind was on the game that would follow six days later – and accordingly, we’ll ignore that ultimately irrelevant defeat. It seems like eons since the victory over Raith last month, and with United having secured third place before April was out, the wait for Scottish Cup final day has been an agonising one. That day is, finally, nearly here though - just two more sleeps to go - and this week’s newspapers have offered a feast for followers of the famous Dundee United. Pages have been plastered with seemingly ubiquitous mentions of the ‘road to Hampden’, the now traditional player diary, and photographs of superstitious managers and coaches appearing uncomfortable as they tentatively hold the hallowed trophy - all, of course, secondary to the banalities of Old Firm hearsay. Anyone else just a tad excited?
That Hampden will be at near full capacity this weekend hasn’t escaped the attention of a rather hypocritical press which openly scoffed at the idea following Ross County’s humbling of Celtic in the semis. The Daily Record, having previously predicted at least 17,000 empty seats, seemed to take great pleasure in reporting this ‘surprise sell-out’. Anyone with even a passing interest in Scottish football would know that the absence of Rangers and Celtic in no way clouds the occasion – on the contrary, ticket sales enjoy a sharp rise when the Old Firm are otherwise engaged. Of course, the Glasgow-centric media, or the ‘Weegia’ to borrow a more direct phrase, will never understand this.
Assistant manager and all-round legend Paul Hegarty was out and about this week, offering his own Hampden disappointments as an instrument in motivating the players – Arabs of a more nervous disposition may look away now. The Sun’s Roger Hannah wrote: ‘The gut-wrenching agony of never winning the Scottish Cup still lives with Paul Hegarty every day. The pain of going so close to completing the full set of winners' medals as Dundee United captain. The regret of leading his heart-broken team-mates up those same steps to be handed losers' gongs. Hegarty admits his quartet of Hampden horrors still "eats away" at him a generation after the defeats. And the Arabs coach will use his personal pain to drive this United side to Scottish Cup Final glory on Saturday. He said: "It's going to be a great day - if they win it. But I can assure you, talking from my own experience, it's not nice losing and coming away without the Cup. We played Celtic twice, Rangers and St Mirren in Scottish Cup Finals. I would like the players to go away having the feeling that I never had. The experience of coming away from Hampden isn't great. It does eat away at me, still. We played four Finals. You'd like to think the law of averages means we would win one of the four. I'd have loved to have won a Scottish Cup at Hampden. But it wasn't to be. On the other side, I won a couple of League Cups and a Championship, so I've experienced that fantastic side of it as well. But you can't really explain that feeling when you lose a cup final. I think they know it because a lot of them have been to cup finals before. You just hope the players do what they've been doing for the last two or three seasons because the ultimate prize is the Scottish Cup. What they want to experience is being a winning team and the Cup coming back to Tannadice. I'm sure they'll give it their maximum."
Craig Conway was in similarly reflective mood in a piece by Stephen Halliday of The Scotsman: ‘Craig Conway began his only previous Hampden cup final on the substitutes' bench and ended it in despair after missing a crucial penalty kick. The Dundee United winger is seeking a far more fulfilling experience on Saturday. Two years ago, Conway was restricted to the role of late replacement as United twice threw away a winning position against Rangers in the Co-operative Insurance Cup final. His frustration intensified with failure to convert his team's second kick in the penalty shoot-out which would have given them a potentially telling 2-0 advantage at that stage Rangers took full advantage, recovering to win 3-2 on penalties and leave United struggling to comprehend how they had lost a final in which they were widely recognised as having been the better side. It remains a vividly bitter memory for Conway and one which will ensure he takes nothing for granted in this weekend's Active Nation Scottish Cup final against Ross County. Anyone who watched the game would say we dominated," recalled Conway. "We were so unlucky not to win it. I hit the post with my penalty and it went across the goal. It was agonising. It hurt for weeks. We all came back to Tannadice afterwards for a pre-planned function, but everyone was so down and didn't even want to have a drink. We were deflated and it was a horrible experience I don't want to experience again. If it goes to penalties, I'll take one, but I don't want it to come to that. We want to get the job done before then. There are a few boys like myself who want to go the next step now and win one. We don't want the heartache of losing out in such a big game”.
But enough of the naval gazing, and let’s look at something that bit more uplifting. Lee Wilkie has accepted Peter Houston’s offer to lead the team on to the park before kick-off, a terrific gesture from the club for a player who gave his all for United. The Daily Record’s Euan McArthur wrote: ‘Lee Wilkie last night revealed he was left speechless after being told he'd lead Dundee United out in Saturday's Scottish Cup Final. The recently-retired skipper was stunned as Tannadice gaffer Peter Houston invited him to take his position and lead the Tangerine troops out on to the Hampden pitch before kick-off. Still coming to terms with having lost his brave battle to save his career Wilkie admits he's hugely indebted to Houston for the gesture - on what is sure to be an emotional day for the former Scotland star. Wilkie said: "When Peter Houston phoned me and asked if I wanted to lead United out at Hampden on Saturday I was lost for words. Other than 'yes' there was nothing I could say. I can't thank the gaffer enough for what is an incredible gesture. To give up the chance to lead the team out himself says everything about Houstie as a person. To pretend I'm not hurting a bit would be a lie. When we get to Hampden though all I'll think about is seeing United go out and win the Cup. A long-term knee injury forced Wilkie to hang up his boots last month. Houston said: "Lee is our captain and obviously everyone wishes he would be out there playing. For me, giving him the chance to lead the boys out is the obvious thing to do." If only the big man was playing.
Former United manager Craig Levein nailed his colours firmly to the mast in a frank and delightfully partisan interview with Roger Hannah in The Sun: “I'm really excited already about the Cup Final. It is quite a strange feeling. I feel part of it but I'm not part of it. I was speaking to Gary Kirk on the phone the other night and he asked if I was coming back up to Dundee on the Saturday night. This competition started after I left United. I have had no input in it at all. I feel really this is Houstie, Kirky, Paul Hegarty and the players' doing. It's nothing to do with me. I want them to get all the plaudits they deserve. I want to maintain a bit of distance. "Nobody would be happier than me if they manage to lift the Cup, especially after what happened when I left. My wife and I are going to the final as guests of SFA president George Peat. I'm claiming no impartiality whatsoever - I'll be right behind Dundee United from first to last."
And another ex-United man, Willo Flood, offered his thoughts in the same paper: ‘Willo Flood reckons a Dundee United cup win would be a fitting tribute to Eddie Thompson. The Irishman was in the United side beaten on penalties by Rangers in the 2008 CIS Cup Final. It was billed as the Eddie Thompson Final in honour of the United chairman, who tragically was to lose his battle with cancer months later. Flood still feels the pain of Gers' late comeback and knows his former team-mates will have Eddie in their thoughts. The ex-Celtic star, who followed Gordon Strachan to Middlesbrough, said: "Losing that final was the worst moment of my career. We had the beating of Rangers and came so close, but it wasn't to be when it came to penalties. We were desperate to win for Eddie Thompson. He had done so much for the club and all of us. People were in tears and none of us really knew what to say. We had all wanted to see the chairman with the cup. Two years on it still hurts and I know all the lads who were involved that day feel the same. A lot of them will be playing against County. If they manage to win I'm certain they will all be thinking of the chairman when they get the Cup.”
Once an Arab, always an Arab then, exemplified further by Erik Pedersen, Kjell Olofsson and Lars Zetterlund’s interviews in the Evening Telegraph’s cup final pull-out, a supplement, while obviously a cash-cow to increase advertising revenue, was a brilliantly put-together piece which brought a lump to the throat. Erik the Viking, who will be at Hampden on Saturday, amplified his hero status among the Tannadice faithful by confirming the rumours about his United tattoo: ‘It takes the most passionate football fan to have the badge of his beloved team permanently inked on his arm. Yet that is what Erik Pedersen has done. “I wanted something that truly meant something special to me – and that was United”, he declared. The Norwegian defender was delighted to be coming back – and hopeful of a United win. “I’m really looking forward to coming over. The last time was back in 2002 or 2003. I’m really hoping we are sitting in with the fans as I’m really looking forward to seeing them again. I just want to have a big celebration back in Dundee. We don’t know what our plans are yet if we win but we just want to spend that time with the fans. I have some great memories of my time at United. I love the Scottish people and their attitude to the game. The celebrations after games were great and that is something I really miss.” Olofsson said: “We are all really looking forward to coming over for the game. I’m not sure whether we will be sitting with the supporters or not, as the club is organising out tickets. Hopefully, but we will be singing in the pub at least. I think United will win. I try to follow how they are doing and they seem to be playing very well. I have a lot of good memories from being at Dundee United – both for myself and my family. We had a great time in Dundee.” And Zetterlund added: “I’m really looking forward to coming back. Playing for United was the best time of my whole life. I really loved the city and the club. I have so many happy memories. When we finished third in the league it was brilliant. I really think United will win the cup. I don’t know much about Ross County but United should win if they play to their best.” Stirring words from genuine legends of United’s modern era.
Let’s hope the class of 2010 can award themselves such legendary status by winning the cup on Saturday. If not, next week’s column will be the longest suicide note in history – however, I’ve a feeling it will be a joy to write, that is, of course, if I’ve managed to miraculously sober up.
Bring it on.