Heart of Football

Ross Graham – From loan hell to Dundee United’s rising star

Full disclosure: I’m a Dundee United fan, so I can’t promise that this is going to be a particularly unbiased account of young Ross Graham. I’m not going to be silly about it; I’m aware that he isn’t the second coming of Franz Beckenbauer – as a club we had that in Séan Dillon! We’ve had more eye-catching players come through our academy in the past, with John Souttar springing to mind. It is rare to see a player fail on loan in lower divisions only to come back and put in a genuine Player of the Year claim, yet that is just what Ross Graham did.

I didn’t get to see as much of my team as I’d like last year. In my younger days I held a season ticket at Tannadice and missed only a handful of games between 2006 and 2016, but I do my best to follow them from afar. It’s easy to watch highlights of the team and wax lyrical about Ross Graham’s talent, but for the purposes of this ‘glow-up’ article, it felt a little anti-climactic.

I assume the vast majority of those reading this are United fans, therefore having a guy who has only seen the lad play a few TV games plus any highlights he can get his hands on, preaching to those who watch him play week-in week-out felt fairly out of touch. To remedy this, I have spoken to a few fans who have watched this lad play fairly consistently over the past year.

Graham celebrates putting United ahead against Hibernian at Easter Road [image: Skysports.com]

The Ross Graham story is a really uplifting one. After steady loan periods in the lower divisions at Elgin City and Cove Rangers, the young centre back was awarded a three year contract before being sent on loan to Dunfermline Athletic in the Scottish Championship. This was a higher level than he had played before, and would also see him play in front of larger crowds in bigger stadiums. He was highly rated and ready to take the league by storm, in the hopes of staking a place in the United team upon the completion of his loan. What happened next was fairly disastrous.

Things started out okay. He was getting a lot of minutes of first team action, but results on the field were poor and they were letting in goals for fun. The Pars didn’t keep a clean sheet until their fifth match of the season and they didn’t earn their first win until mid-November. The player was being used as part of a back three and didn’t look wholly comfortable, and then-manager Peter Grant used suspect tactics that did Graham, and the rest of the team, absolutely no favours.

After being dropped in mid-September, he only made one further appearance for Dunfermline, coming on late in a win against Inverness in November. Things were grim for the youngster and in early January Tam Courts elected to cut the loan short, bringing Graham back to Tannadice. John ‘Yogi’ Hughes took over the dugout for Dunfermline in November and didn’t give Graham one minute of action, so cutting the loan short felt best for all parties.

I spoke to Ben Crawford, a Dunfermline Athletic diehard and the person behind this iconic Dundee derby video.

Were you aware of Ross Graham when he signed for Dunfermline?

Yes, but not massively. I heard he was doing well at Cove Rangers and perhaps, with it being during Covid, I didn’t keep up with players in that league as much as I had previously.

What were your expectations when you signed him?

His signing was met with light positivity I’d say. Don’t think many Pars fans had much knowledge of his abilities at all, just hoping that his good experience with Cove would stand us in good stead.

He’s been fantastic since his return to Dundee United. Why didn’t it work out for him at Dunfermline?

Early doors in the League Cup group stage games, it seemed to be going well. He was played in a 3 at the back system by then-manager, Peter Grant. It’s fair to say now, looking back in hindsight, that Peter Grant definitely didn’t help his development as a player. I did think he wasn’t up to it, but you simply can’t have the turnaround he’s had without being a good player deep down. The issue was the manager, I believe, rather than it being down to any fault of Ross Graham.

Ross Graham playing for Dunfermline [image: Dunfermline Athletic FC]

The club had offered the player a three-year deal prior to the loan, so he was obviously well regarded, but few fans would have expected Graham to feature much, if at all, for United during the back half of the season. At most he might get a couple of cup appearances and be a bench option. What happened in reality was remarkable.

Graham was thrown on towards the end of a frustrating late defeat to Celtic at the end of January and from then on, he barely looked back. He worked hard and cemented his place in the back line. He was lucky enough to have experienced pros Charlie Mulgrew and Ryan Edwards around him in those early games and the centre-back went from strength to strength.

He peaked in a game versus the Newco Glasgow Rangers in February. He gave Dundee United the lead in this match at Tannadice and went on to put forward a commanding display. Rangers salvaged a draw late on, but this game showed that he wasn’t just a decent young player, this was a guy that had the ability to go far in the game. While cup success wasn’t to be in 2021/22, Graham helped ensure that the club finished in the top six and earned European football for the first time since 2013. He also earned himself Dundee United’s Young Player of the Year award, earned a place in the SPFL Team of the Week three times and won a call up to the Scotland U21s, scoring on his debut.

Ross Graham wheels away in celebration after scoring against Newco Rangers [image: Dundee United FC]

I spoke to two United fans, Angela and Sean, about their thoughts and feelings over the up-and-coming centre back star.

What is Ross Graham like as a player?

Sean: I’d say he is a bit of an all-round defender. I love how aggressive he is in the air, he’s fairly comfortable with the ball at his feet and appears to be good at 1-on-1s. I believe he came through the youths as a left back so that might explain why. The fact he is left-footed helped give our back 3 some great balance towards the end of the season. In terms of pace, he isn’t overly fast, but seems to have good awareness of where he needs to be to get the better of whoever he is up against.

Angela: A unit! He is a big laddie but for someone so young he has a good football head, and passionate too! He is a solid defender, good reader of game and he doesn’t seem a big headed lad either; seems very grounded.

Dundee United are known for giving youth a chance, but what did you expect of him when he came back early from his Dunfermline loan?

Sean: I watched the highlights from most of his games at Dunfermline and there were certainly some matches where he was the direct cause for a goal or two which is never nice to see for such a young player. He did have solid loan spells at Elgin and Cove Rangers previously so I gave him a bit of clean slate to be honest. The club gave him a 3-year contract extension before he went out on loan to Dunfermline, so I trusted their opinion of him more than anything I was seeing in the highlights. 20 is very young for a centre back so I figured he might just need a bit of support and time to get to grips with this level of football. I’ll be honest I never expected to see him in the first team at all, let alone be one of the success stories of the entire season.

Angela: He was a bit of an unknown quantity, I had never heard much about him at Dunfermline. Peter Grant didn’t seem to rate him but Tam Courts, or someone at United, obviously saw something in him.

How vital has it been for him to play alongside experienced players like Charlie Mulgrew?

Sean: I don’t think you can underestimate how important Edwards and Mulgrew have been for him. We’ve seen it previously with young players, if you put an experienced head beside them it can really improve their game. Andy Webster alongside Garry Kenneth being the prime example at Tannadice in recent years. I think the fact that we played a back 3 helped him too.

Angela: I don’t think you can underestimate how much these young boys learn from pro’s like Mulgrew. You can see that in how much he has grown this season. I definitely think playing in beside Edwards and Mulgrew has helped him but he’s grown into a good player in his own right and was rewarded with a Scotland U21 call up.

Graham scoring on Scotland U21 debut against Kazakhstan [image: Getty Images]

Obviously we don’t want to lose our best players, but how far can he go? What sort of fee should we be demanding for him?

Sean: I’m never a fan of getting excited about how much a young player is worth to the club in terms of transfer fees etc, but if we were to sell him tomorrow for anything less than £2m you’d have a lot of unhappy fans, especially when you consider the kind of fees that Aberdeen and Hibs have picked up for their young defenders recently. Ideally, he’d be a player that goes on to make 150+ appearances for us and (hopefully) achieved some success during that time before moving on if he wanted to.

His trajectory is hard to figure out because he’s just slowly built his way up through the leagues on the three loans he’s been on. Compare that to Lewis Neilson and Kerr Smith who both made their debut for us at 16 and were being touted for big things straight away. Graham has maybe 7 or 8 years before he is at his peak as a centre back so you never know how far a player can go if they’re given the right chances. If he keeps improving then the sky is the limit for him.

Angela: Who knows what kind of fee we could get. Fees for footballers baffle me, I don’t think they make any sense! If he has another good season with us and another few Scotland call ups then think he will be on a few radars. It is good to see young lads going abroad (likes of Josh Doig this season and Hickey and Gauld previously), hopefully more players see the bigger picture and realise that they could go and have a career outside Scotland.

How important is it for clubs like United to produce these players and sell them on for big bucks?

Sean: Very important. It is probably the same for a lot of clubs at our level. Mark Ogren has made it very clear during his time here that this is the business model we are working with. I think what United fans get frustrated with is when young players are sold to other clubs for minimal fees before they get a chance to show what they can do for us. Scott Banks and Harry Souttar being two recent examples. I think we barely got £500k for both combined and to the fans that just seems like pennies against what we could have gotten for them down the line, OR the impact they could have had on the first team if they’d played for us for a few more years.

Someone like Ryan Gauld is an example of it working well. We got a great season out of him in the first team and then made something like £3m. For a club of our size, you can’t really grumble at that. Kerr Smith’s transfer to Aston Villa is probably similar. No one grudged the deal United got for him as it made business sense as well as not impacting us too much on the park. We need to keep producing these players and giving them chances when it makes sense, there is no hiding from that.

Angela: I think it’s the world we live in now, raising your own talent and selling them on for megabucks is how some teams survive.

What are your best memories of Ross Graham?

Sean: I think I’d have to say the Rangers game back in February. Not only because he got his first goal for the club, but he also got away with 1 or 2 dodgy referee decisions that probably should have resulted in penalties. That really seemed to rile up the Rangers fans online which is always a good laugh.

Angela: His goal against Rangers is definitely up there. I was at home watching as I had Covid and was feeling grim. I celebrated by jumping about my living room, smashing a glass in the process! Apart from that, just his passion, he always seems up for it.

What areas of his game does he need to work on?

Sean: As I mentioned earlier I do see him as a bit of an all-rounder, but the one area I’d like to see more from him is coming out from defence with the ball and spraying the passes around. I’m not overly sure if he has this side to his game and I know that when he was at Dunfermline he was being asked to do this and it didn’t always work too well. But playing alongside Charlie Mulgrew can only do him good when it comes to this area of his game.

Angela: That’s a hard one, I just think he needs to consolidate what he learnt and continue to learn from the more senior players.

I’ll be serious for a minute. Ross Graham isn’t going to be a world beater. When future generations talk of the world’s best defenders, Beckenbauer, Maldini, maybe even a Sergio Ramos might make the list. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t a special player. The Arabs have had a rough ride over the past few years and are only recently finding their feet in the top flight again.

Given some of the dross that we’ve seen in our back line over the last decade – I’m looking at you Col Donaldson – it’s thrilling to have a young talent like Graham. If he stays to play 400 games for us I’ll be delighted. If he goes on to emulate Andy Robertson or Ryan Gauld then again, I’ll be ecstatic for the boy. It pains me to say it, but even if he is poached by the Old Firm, I’ll hate the decision, but he’ll have earned it. I truly hope most of all that under the stewardship of a new manager in Jack Ross, that Ross Graham can go on to reach the same levels he performed to last year and, ideally, go even further.

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