A visit to Tannadice Park. A friendly against Dundee United. An opportunity to reacquaint themselves with a ground which, 40 or so years ago, threatened to become the birthplace of a footballing revolution.
It was here in the Eighties where the New Firm was established - arguably the greatest ever challenge to Glasgow’s dominance of the Scottish game. Together with Aberdeen, located around 70 miles to the north, The Terrors threatened to shift the balance of power from the west to the east. And, until Rangers and Celtic eventually reasserted their grip, it very nearly happened.
Chris Wilder is hoping to effect a similar change in the Premier League, albeit something a little more permanent. Guiding newly promoted United to a ninth placed finish last term, challenging for a place in Europe en route and reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, marked the start of that process. The trip to Tayside, 47 years after appearing here in the Texaco Cup, was supposed to be the beginning of the second. But Storm Francis, blowing in off the North Sea and violently across the Firth of Tay, had other ideas - forcing referee Steven McLean to call at half to proceedings as the two teams, separated by Billy Sharp’s strike during the dying embers of the first and ultimately only half of the contest, sought sanctuary in the dressing rooms. It was, Wilder acknowledged afterwards, the correct decision.
THE FINDINGS FROM THE FRIENDLY
So what did we learn about United and their readiness for the 2020/21 campaign, which is scheduled to get underway in less than three weeks time? The truth, in a purely sporting sense, is very little. The wind and the rain made it impossible for United to hone the strategies they hope will once again prove tough for England’s established elite to fathom. So too did the absence of several key players, either because they are still nursing injuries sustained towards the end of last term or self-isolating after missing Covid-19 tests due to track and trace alerts.
“It’s something that’s quite common right now across the whole division,” Wilder acknowledged, before boarding the coach back to Edinburgh, where United are based until the weekend. “It’s definitely not exclusive to us, by any stretch of the imagination. Lots of people are in exactly the same boat.”
THE BIG BENEFICIARY
With George Baldock, David McGoldrick, Jack O’Connell and Oli McBurnie among those to miss out, a number of players from the Steelphalt Academy were selected for duty against Micky Mellon’s side. But only one - Regan Slater - featured in Wilder’s first choice eleven. A midfielder by trade, the 20-year-old found himself in an unfamiliar wing-back role but impressed with his command of the position.
Admittedly, with Dundee United electing to rest their senior professionals ahead of Saturday’s trip to Kilmarnock, the standard of the opposition must be taken into account. But Slater, who underwent a crash course in the position before kick-off, showed he has cerebral as well as combative qualities by adjusting well. Chris Basham and John Egan, the two centre-halves in closest proximity to the youngster, spent very little time talking him through the match or ordering slight adjustments of position.
THE OTHER EYE-CATCHING DISPLAY
Callum Robinson could be destined to leave Bramall Lane over the next few days, as talks with West Bromwich Albion about a possible swap deal involving Oli Burke continue behind the scenes. But the Republic of Ireland international, partnering Sharp in attack, produced a lively and energetic display which reflects well on his professionalism. Robinson’s willingness to run, chase and hustle rather than simply go through the motions is unlikely to have been lost on Wilder - particularly given that others in his position might have been tempted to simply protect themselves ahead of a potentially lucrative move.
Whatever happens, if he stays or if he goes, Robinson’s enthusiasm here reflects well on his character and professionalism.
A SIMPLE BUT REVEALING FINISH
The strike responsible for settling this encounter wasn’t the most eye-catching Sharp has ever produced in his long and illustrious career. The United captain, who has netted 90 times in 189 league appearances since embarking upon his third spell with the club he has supported since childhood, has also scored more important goals too. Still, the instincts which have made him the most prolific marksman in England’s top four divisions since the turn of the century were evident when, three minutes before McLean called a halt to proceedings, he tapped the ball into an empty net as Dundee United’s Mehmet Deniz lay helpless on the turf.
The ball fell kindly for Sharp when Deniz, forced into action by Sander Berge, diverted it straight into his path. But the subtle adjustment of his body position - and the way, seconds before the Norwegian drew a smart save from the former Turkey youth international, he took a moment to assess how the move might unfold - was Sharp at his best.
Had he not missed an early penalty - striking an upright from 12 yards out - he would have enjoyed an even more profitable afternoon.
SANDER SHOWED SIGNS
By his own admission, Berge made a slow start to life with United following a record breaking £22m move from Genk. Adjusting to the physical demands of the PL, and also the pace, were clearly a challenge. So too, as the acclimatisation process took place, was deciding where Berge could be most effective.
With Oliver Norwood and John Fleck establishing a productive partnership, John Lundstram’s refusal to sign a new contract meant he was often deployed in advanced positions rather than his preferred deeper lying role.
Although Berge conceded earlier this summer that he was more comfortable operating just in front of the defence, he insisted he could make his presence felt going forward. The 22-year-old did that on several occasions here, exploiting United’s ability to drag the opposition out of position by bursting forward into the spaces which frequently opened up.