Dundee United: Jack Ross pays for club’s ‘breakneck speed decline’

Twenty six days ago, Tannadice reverberated to the sound of a support in thrall to a new and impressive Dundee United, a side good enough to see off a strong AZ Alkmaar team in their first European game in a decade.

It was a mightily impressive occasion and hinted strongly at good things to come for Jack Ross and his players.

Less than a month later, the beleaguered Ross has gone – let the Duncan Ferguson for Tannadice campaign begin – and the men who looked so organised and so driven against the Dutch have been reduced to dishevelment.

The speed of the decline has been breakneck. The 7-0 second leg drubbing against AZ was followed by a limp 4-1 defeat against Hearts and then a dreadful 3-0 loss against St Mirren. In all of those games you could argue that United could easily have shipped more goals than they did.

On Sunday, once Celtic went into overdrive, the United players walked around Tannadice like men heading to the gallows. Ross spoke later of his humiliation and his embarrassment.

There’s a lot of that at United right now. Ross has lost his job – again – and it would be hard to mount a cogent argument in support of him keeping it. His players have been wretched this past month.

Even if you put aside the 9-0 – as David Martindale said, on that form Celtic will dole out many serious hidings this season – the other results have exposed a lack of some of the most basic qualities a professional footballer should possess.

Heart being one of them. A player can be out-classed, but they were too often out-fought under Ross. Accepting their share of the blame when talking to the media is one thing. The supporters don’t care about words at this point, they don’t want to hear players apologising. They want players busting a gut to make things better.

There’s been a dramatic collapse since the AZ victory. Actually, you can take it back further than that. In May, United drew 1-1 with Celtic at Tannadice on the night that secured the title for Ange Postecoglou’s team. That was Tam Courts’ United.

In four league games against Celtic last season, they conceded six goals. In 90 minutes on Sunday, they conceded nine. Courts’ side drew two of those four matches. They also beat and drew with Rangers in the league and finished fourth.

A few influential players have moved on since some of those games – Benjamin Siegrist and Jeando Fuchs among them – but the club added to the squad. You could argue the team now should be performing better than the team of last season.

Courts exited in the summer. A mutually agreed termination of his contract might have been good for Courts – he’s now with Honved in Budapest – but it left United without a promising manager and, seemingly, with no compensation to soften the blow. Although United say otherwise.

He’d been United manager for 47 games. His predecessor, Micky Mellon, lasted 46 games. Now Ross is away after seven. Over in America, the owner Mark Ogren must be wondering what on earth is going on. His conversations with the sporting director, Tony Asghar, must be pretty interesting.

Ogren’s been fantastically supportive. In an attempt to boost the infrastructure of the club and getting it pushing for Europe he’s weathered operating losses of £3.76m, £3.01m and £2.5m in the three years from 2019-2021. The club has had a wages-to-turnover of 133%, 120% and 133% in those years. One SPFL chairman recently described those numbers as “madness”.

United say they are confident they will be in profit in their next set of accounts on the back of player trading and an insurance payout of £1.3m. That was before the sacking of Ross and all its financial implications.

We’ll have to wait a while for the new accounts, but where they are now is a world away from where Ogren intended them to be – or understandably expected them to be given the scale of his investment.

The way it unravelled under Ross has been extraordinary. Four of his signings started on the bench on Sunday, including loan player Jamie McGrath, a proven SPFL talent whose capture was both expensive, in relative terms, and seen as a bit of a coup.

Two of Ross’ senior players – Charlie Mulgrew and Tony Watt – were also dropped.

On paper, United look to have plenty of threat – Watt, McGrath, Steven Fletcher, Dylan Levitt, Glenn Middleton – but in reality there’s almost as much of a malaise up front as there is at the back. Since the 1-0 win over AZ they’ve scored one goal – a Fletcher penalty – and have conceded 24.

While Celtic were coursing them around Tannadice, the television cameras turned to Asghar, who is overseeing all of this.

A few days earlier he’d talked about his intention of working “shoulder to shoulder” with Ross and said there would be no “knee-jerk” reactions to poor results. The dreaded vote of confidence at a club that has none right now.

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