Sunday, July 24, 2011

SPL: Dundee United v Kilmarnock

The second of today’s two opening Sunday fixtures and look at what’s going on with Dundee United and Kilmarnock.

The Game

Let’s quickly gloss over any jokes about how much the early start to the SPL helped Dundee United’s European campaign.

After starting with a flurry on Thursday they eventually slipped out of the competition by the narrowest of margins. Agonising for the team and fans - and the co-efficient - but also a useful taste of competitive action that Kilmarnock haven’t had.

That and home advantage should be enough for United to get underway in the league with a win.

Dundee United

An SPL manager must turn himself into a miracle working apothecary in the summer, somehow concocting a wonder potion that salve the wounds left by the sudden removal of a team’s vital organs.

At Tannadice the departures of Craig Conway, Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben and David Robertson have gone straight to the heart of the team, ripping apart one of the SPL’s most impressive midfields.

Talent, of course, remains and David Goodwillie is still a United player despite a swelter of rumours linking him with a move elsewhere. Can they hold out until the transfer window close? Their ability to keep him will have a telling influence on the story of their season.

Elsewhere Willo Flood returns after a fairly unsatisfactory stint away from Tannadice - amazing the number of players returning to pastures old this SPL season - and John Rankin arrives from an underwhelming time at Hibs. Flood will be tasked with offering some of what was lost with the departure of Conway, Rankin with ensuring a much changed midfield has the ability to adapt and survive.

If Goodwillie does depart then the ability of Johnny Russell to become an integral part of the side will be incredibly important as United’s impressive commitment to youth continues.

I remain unconvinced about Peter Houston’s decision to serve his country at the side of Craig Levein, the feeling persists that even entering his second full season as manager he remains slightly in the shadow of his predecessor.

But now, more than ever, this is his team and the evidence of last season suggests that he’s comfortable in the role.

Comfortable in the league as well. The Goodwillie question might still hang heavy in the Dundee air but with or without their crown jewel United are a top six side.

Kilmarnock

If Peter Houston feels he’s been dealt a dud hand by the transfer fates then pity poor Kenny Shiels, confirmed in the job and immediately charged with rebuilding a side that so impressed last season.

It’s been cheerio to Alexei Eremenko, Craig Bryson, Frazer Wright, Medhi Taouil, Jamie Hamill and Mahamadou Sissoko, a series of departures that would worry any SPL club.

And these were players who contributed to Kilmarnock’s turnaround from SPL relegation favourites to one of the successes of last season.

So an overhaul has been required. And Shiels has stepped up to the plate. In comes Gary Harkins carrying high hopes on the back of his performances for Dundee, Danny Buijis is shipped in from ADO Den Haag, Paul Heffernan will be charged with scoring goals just like Connor Sammon (another missing part of last season’s jigsaw) did before him.

James Dayton will look to build on the fine reputation he was building before injury brutally curtailed last season for him.

When money is tight and players are lost such a rate it makes building on successes a very tricky thing for sides like Kilmarnock.

Kenny Shiels will know all that. He knows too how teams can spring a surprise just like Kilmarnock did last season when was assistant to Mixu Paatelainen. He’s drafted in Jimmy Nicholl as his own number two which looks an astute move.

I can’t see Kilmarnock repeating last season’s success but Shiels has backed himself to build a new team. If he’s right then they should be comfortable enough in the jam packed middle of the SPL.