Dundee Derby Retrospective: The Gary Mackay-Steven show

The Dundee Derby is finally back.

Granted, maybe not in the circumstances most people would’ve wanted it to be back, but still, after 2 seasons since both clubs played each other in the Betfred Cup, and 5 seasons since the last league game between the two. It will also be a different kind of derby, with both clubs expected to be title challengers instead of hoping to avoid relegation or being the best of the mediocre. It’s a scenario that should definitely throw up moments that both sides will lord over the other regardless of who finishes above who in the league.

The Dundee Derby is a match with a rich history, and there are plenty of games I could talk about. However, being a United fan, I’m inevitably going to talk about games United won (yes, this article IS a Craig Wighton free zone), and especially games United utterly dominated. So of course, my mind immediately went to the rainy Thursday afternoon of January 1st, 2015.

Neither fanbase was that optimistic going into the game, considering both team’s recent form. Dundee’s last win was a 3-1 victory over Kilmarnock at Rugby Park. That was exactly two months ago. While defeats to Celtic, Inverness and Hamilton could be forgiven considering the good seasons those three were having, a home defeat to St. Mirren, who were bottom of the league before kick-off could not. Their top goalscorer, David Clarkson, hadn’t scored since in a month since scoring the last eight of his goals in the same amount of games. Paul McGinn getting himself sent off as he gave away the penalty suspended him for the derby, putting him into the stands alongside injured Kevin McBride and Simon Ferry, though those two wouldn’t be missed as much as Scott Bain, who injured himself sometime before the Partick Thistle game. Dundee had also been troubled off the pitch, as Paul McGowan was accused of assaulting a Police Officer, his trial set for March.

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On the other hand, United’s form was symptomatic of the kind of team that Jackie McNamara had built at Tannadice. Full of bright young talent and ability but also woefully inconsistent. Dominating St. Mirren then losing to managerless Motherwell, Being 3-0 up away to Ross County in 50 minutes before conceding twice in the last 15 and almost throwing it all away. Though by far the worst case of this was the run of three games where the club lost to Aberdeen 2-0 at home, then beat Celtic 2-1, before embarrassingly losing 2-1 to St. Johnstone after Callum Morris was left limping around the McDiarmid Park pitch for a good 10 minutes. By the time he came off, Chris Millar had already tied his legs around in knots about five or six times and had sent the ball past Radoslaw Cierzniak.

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Both teams fanbases were, therefore, frustrated. United needed to start winning big games regularly, while Dundee just needed to start winning again.

The last time these two clubs had met, it was on a Wednesday night for a Last 16 Scottish League Cup match at Tannadice. It was a close match despite Dundee being down to ten men for most of it, but United prevailed in the end. In the second minute of added time, Jaroslaw Fojut rose to meet a Gary Mackay-Steven corner, beating Kyle Letheren to the ball and burying it right in the centre of the net.

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Picture by Riki Grauer

Despite the result, Dundee did actually play well, considering the man disadvantage and their poor performance against the same team only three days beforehand (a 4-1 defeat at Dens Park), they also should’ve taken the lead in the first half but Greg Stewart couldn’t beat Cierzniak from the penalty spot.┬áThis game had made it 8 matches and 9 years since Dundee had last won a derby match.

Finally, there was the case of Gary Mackay-Steven. The winger hadn’t been having a good season for United, a good performance against Aberdeen in the first game had paved the way for a season filled with mediocrity, a decent 30 minutes here or there aside. This was best exemplified by his performance from the bench against Ross County, where after coming on with 18 minutes to play and his team 3-0 up, his teammates didn’t look like they wanted to pass to him. With only 6 months left on his contract, he clearly felt that 4 seasons at United was enough, but his performances hadn’t necessarily merited a contract with a good club, he would need to show improvement. Quickly. A good performance in the derby would be the perfect way to start attracting interest. Live on BT Sport no less.

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Picture by Riki Grauer

New Years Day. Gameday had come, and at 11:30am, the teams were announced.

Mackay-Steven started, Blair Spittal being sacrificed to the bench in his place. He would line-up in the front 3 of the midfield on the right-wing, Chris Erskine on the left with Stuart Armstrong taking up the number 10 role, cult hero Nadir Cifcti upfront. Behind them, John Rankin sat in defensive midfield. Calum Butcher, who had been having a resurgence since McNamara moved him into midfield, partnering him. Paul Paton, the regular partner to Rankin, was still banned for allegedly spitting on Jonny Hayes (despite the Aberdeen winger himself saying that no such thing had happened). At the back, Radoslaw Cierzniak was in goal as per usual. Conor Townsend started on the left, the Hull City loanee, while not being anywhere near as good as the man he came in to replace, had proven himself to be a stable young head on that side of the defence. United captain Sean Dillon started at right-back. The only real surprise in the United 11 was the centre back pairing, with the big Polish wall that was Jaroslaw Fojut being partnered by Right back Keith Watson. Young players Aidan Connolly and Charlie Telfer all waited on the bench ready to impress, while United fan Ryan Dow would be desperate to come on and make an impact. Michal Szromnik, Euan Spark, and Mark Wilson made up the rest of the numbers on the bench.

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The Dark Blues lined up in the same formation. David Clarkson stood alone upfront. Starman Greg Stewart started on the right with Paul McGowan playing on the left. In between the two was club legend Gary Harkins in the number 10 role, a midfield partnership of box-to-box midfielders Jim McAlister and Iain Davidson sitting behind them. Captain Gary Irvine started on the right, with Thomas Konrad and James McPake continuing to be the trusted centre back partnership, while Willie Dyer started on the left. There was plenty attacking options from the bench, with Peter McDonald, Luka Tankulic, Martin Boyle and Phillip Robers all ready if needed, while young prospects Andrew Black and Canadian Dylan Carriero were highly rated at the time. The goalkeeping spot would prove to be the final surprise before the game.

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Arvid Schenk was a german goalkeeper brought in by the club in October to provide extra cover after Kyle Letheren got injured and the club was only left with Scott Bain as a first-team goalkeeper. He spent most of his first two months either on the bench or playing for the reserves, and he was seemingly never expected to play a game. But, during the warm-up, 40 minutes before kick-off, Kyle Letheren pulled a muscle in his thigh, and Schenk was playing. Even from the stands, the Dundee fans could see that the player was nervous as McPake and Hartley tried to build him up for the match.

 

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As the rain came pouring down, the fans roared and cheered as both teams left the tunnel, led by referee Kevin Clancy and his assistants. Hands were shaken, coins were tossed, and photos were taken, Sean Dillon looking miserable with his small army of mascots being a particular highlight. Dundee United would spend the first half attacking the goal in front of a packed Dark Blue filled Shed.

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Picture by Riki Grauer

In the opening seconds, Nadir Ciftci drifted out wide and collected a pass from Mackay-Steven. Konrad, who had clearly been told to man-mark the Turk, went out to challenge but he was easily out strengthed and bounced off the striker. His low cross into the penalty area missed everyone but Conor Townsend was upfield to chase onto it, hitting it first time back into the area. Both Irvine and McAlister failed to block the cross and Erskine attempted a volley. He failed to get the shot on target, but the ball hit off the back of Stuart Armstrong and drifted into the bottom left corner of the net, Arvid Schenk caught out by the deflection. United had taken the lead in the first minute.

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Picture by Riki Grauer

Dundee United, in typical fashion for the season so far, immediately fell out of the match, and Dundee took the control of the early stages despite going behind. Paul McGowan beat Fojut to the header just outside the penalty area, sending a looping through ball into the path of Stewart, who successfully evaded Watson and Townsend but couldn’t keep the ball under the crossbar. Greg Stewart soon after sent a header over the bar. Iain Davidson failed to hit the target and Gary Harkins attempt was well held by Cierzniak, to sound of jeering and abuse from the United support.

In the 23rd minute, Harkins tried to send Paul McGowan through on goal. The pass was blocked by Butcher, but his block sent the ball high and short, and he immediately went to head the ball away for good. He failed to do so, instead taking out Harkins who had went to challenge him for it. Dundee had a free kick about 30 yards from goal, and the United centre midfielder went into the book.

Greg Stewart lined up to take the free-kick. despite the angle being somewhat tight and being from a fair distance away from goal, he decided to go for goal, ignoring the second man alongside and sending a curved shot past the wall aiming for the top-left. Cierzniak had been tricked by the curve, stepping left for a split second, and despite doing his best to get back in position, the ball flew past his flailing arms and body and into the top corner. Greg Stewart ran straight for the Dundee Dugout, his teammates crowding around him.

Dundee United v Dundee, SPFL Premiership at Tannadice

Unfortunately for Dundee, the equaliser was exactly what the Arabs needed, and they came roaring back. Three minutes later, a United corner was cleared, Sean Dillon picked up and sent a through ball down the line onto the feet of Mackay-Steven. Taking the ball, he contemplated going down the line, but instead did a few stepovers and cut back, giving himself space from Paul McGowan, before firing a cross into the box.

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Picture by Riki Grauer

None of the four outfield players in the six-yard box rose to meet it. Instead, the ball kept going. Arvid Schenk leapt up and stretched both of his arms as best he could but he couldn’t reach it and the ball found it’s way into the net, to the stunned shock of the Dark Blues and the stunned delight of the Everyone of in tangerine and black.

Gary Mackay-Steven ran along the touchline, cheering and shouting along with the fans, only the arm of linesman Douglas Ross preventing him from leaping into the stands. Rankin and Townsend lept on him in delight, and he was soon joined by the rest of the team.

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Picture by Riki Grauer

United wasn’t going to let control of the game get away of them again. GMS picked up the ball on the touchline, after dragging Willie Dyer into the centre, played a sideways pass into space on the left-wing. with Chris Erskine also on the right-hand side, Conor Townsend picked up the ball. After spotting the winger in space, the English loanee sent a cross/through ball across the pitch towards just inside the penalty area. Somehow, despite Konrad, McPake and McAlister all being in good positions to header or kick the ball away, the cross met its man.

The man from Rutherglen, who had been having a much improved second season at Tannadice compared to his first, easily tricked Thomas Konrad out of his line of goal, all the while looking like he was playing football in slow motion (The Chris Erskine special). As soon as he got space, he struck the ball with the inside of his foot. both McPake and McAlister tried to their bodies in the way, to make amends for their earlier mistake, but they just laid on the floor and watched the ball, but they just had to lie on the floor and watch as the ball took a deflection off the midfielder and into United’s favourite place, the bottom left corner of the goal. If McAlister had left it, Schenk would’ve likely saved it.

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Picture by Riki Grauer

United was playing with full confidence now, and it wasn’t just the attackers that wanted to get involved. John Rankin had a decent shot from thirty yards just sail past the right post, Schenk left completely stranded. they would grab the fourth three minutes from half time. Mackay-Steven took the ball midair from Dyer, passed it ahead to Armstrong, before sprinting down the right-wing. Armstrong waited for the right moment, then released the ball. The Dundee backline was all over the place, and Mackay-Steven easily found himself onside and through on goal thanks to the right side of the Dundee defence being far deeper than those on the left. Mackay-Steven ran into the box, and with the inside of his foot, lifted the ball just a wee bit over Schenk. Once again, the German debutant looked in despair as the ball nestled into the bottom left corner.

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Picture by Riki Grauer

Mackay-Steven dropped his shoulders and spread his arms out wide, his palms open. He knew how good of a game he was having, and whether he was trying to hide it or not, his face was showing it. Scouts from Sheffield United, Celtic and other clubs watched on from the stands. Behind him, Nadir Ciftci smiled and laughed in the face of the despairing Dundee fans. for Paul Hartley, half-time couldn’t have quickly enough.

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Picture by Riki Grauer

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Picture by Riki Grauer

15 minutes passed, and the teams came back out the tunnel. Though there were some empty seats, most Dundee fans had decided to stay for the second half. One change was made, Martin Boyle coming on to replace Gary Harkins, the fan favourite had struggled to impose himself on the match and been taken out the game by United’s defensive midfielders. with the switch, Dundee moved to a 4-3-3, with Stewart and Boyle going on the wings. Though the intended formation was meant to be 4-2-3-1, it had more resembled a 4-3-1-2. despite his impressive free-kick, Greg Stewart had been getting abuse the whole game for his refusal to trackback and leaving Willie Dyer without backup in defence. Paul McGowan meanwhile, had dropped back into the central midfield after the early goal and had seemingly forgotten that he was meant to be a winger

Once again, Dundee started the half brightly. early on, James McPake decided to go it alone, running into United half and, seeing the keeper out of position, took a shot forty yards from goal. The shot moved quickly, and Cierzniak was quick to dive to his right and palm it away. the ball landed into the area of Greg Stewart, but Dillon was able to just muscle him out of the way but Watson was too late to stop David Clarkson from taking a point-blank hit. Luckily for the newly made centre back, Cierzniak’s stuck out leg deflected it back into the feet of Clarkson before hitting off him and out for a goal kick. Thomas Konrad had two chances to as well, a right-footed shot from a corner but was just wide, then a header from a Greg Stewart taken free-kick hit off his head, then Watson’s, but Cierzniak was able to tip the ball onto the crossbar, the ball cracking off the frame before being cleared by Townsend.

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Picture by Riki Grauer

But Dundee clearly still thought there was a faint glimmer of hope, and striker Luka Tankulic came on for centre back Thomas Konrad. The Dark Blues once again changed formation, moving to a 4-2-4 with Iain Davidson moving back into central defence and Tankulic partnering the poor on the day Clarkson. Dundee had gone all-out-attack. It was to their downfall.

64 minutes played. Ryan Dow, who had just come on after Chris Erskine had picked up an injury passed to Gary Mackay-Steven. Thirty yards from goal and clearly fancying his chances today, he went for the hat-trick, but Schenk got down well to his left to save the shot and put it out for a corner. The winger went over to take it.

He aimed right for the six yards box. and the Polish centre back Jaroslaw Fojut rose above his challenger James McPake to meet the header and bury it, uncharacteristically for United on the day, in the bottom right corner. If the game wasn’t over before, it definitely was now.

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Picture by Riki Grauer

After that goal, Hartley admitted defeat. bringing off Clarkson to give young midfielder Dylan Carreiro some game time. the former Motherwell striker’s barren run would continue until his release from Dens in May. Jackie McNamara also decided to blood some youngsters, Aidan Connolly coming on for Nadir Cifcti, and Calum Butcher being replaced by Charlie Telfer.

But United wasn’t done yet. Luka Tankulic’s first touch was poor, and the resulting slide tackle from Watson accidentally ended up being a through ball that sent Mackay-Steven sprinting down the wing and towards goal. However, he couldn’t get full control the ball, bouncing on the surface which the rain had been beating down on all through the game. he instead tried to send Connolly through but his ball deflected off Davidson… right into the path of Charlie Telfer. the former Rangers midfielder wasted no time, hitting it with his first touch past Schenk into, yes, the bottom left corner. It was the first time ever that Dundee United had scored 6 goals in a Dundee Derby

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Picture by Riki Grauer

To be fair to Dundee, they did manage to get one positive from the game, they scored the last goal. Some good build-up play from Tankulic and Stewart sent the German striker through on goal. Outpacing Watson, he chipped Cierzniak and the ball landed in the middle of the goal, to the somewhat sarcastic delight of the few Dundee fans who had remained till the end. At least they had something else to cheer.

And that was that. Kevin Clancy blew the full-time whistle, and the United fans erupted in cheer. All the fans stayed till the very end to applaud their heroes, who had just given them some new songs to sing.

I don’t think fans on either side would’ve expected both teams to be in the championship only four years later. Despite their poor performance on the day, this was the best Dundee side in a long time, finishing 6th in the league at the end of the season for the first time since 2001. They would also finally beat Dundee United, winning 3-1 at Dens in April, a Paul Heffernan tap in securing their first victory over street rivals for the first time in ten years. It would only get better for Dundee fans the season later. After a series of terrible decision making in the transfer markets, tactical errors, poor management and poor on-pitch performances, the Arabs were relegated, their demise being secured by Dundee in the final minute thanks to a goal from Dundee fan Craig Wighton. But Dundee failed to capitalise on their opportunity to establish themselves as the biggest team in the city, and after finishing 10th and 9th in the following 2 seasons, were relegated last season.

of the 30 players involved on the day, only 3 will take part in the derby this season. James McPake is now the manager of the club, and Paul McGowan has remained the first-choice midfielder at the club through 4 managers. On the Tangerine side, Calum Butcher is the only one that remains, having left in the summer of 2015 and returning in January of this year.

A lot has changed for both clubs since New’s Years Day of 2015. But there’s still history to be made and, with both clubs competing for the title, these current players have a chance to be remembered, for better or for worse.

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