Dundee United's John Rankin keeps eyes on the prize

By Richard WilsonBBC Scotland
Dundee United midfielder John Rankin
Rankin wants to mark his career with a "major trophy"
League Cup semi-final: Dundee United v Aberdeen
Venue: Hampden Park Date: Saturday, 31 January Kick-off: 15:00
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Scotland & online. TV highlights: BBC One Scotland 22:30

John Rankin has found some aspects of last season's Scottish Cup final easier to discard than others.

"I don't know where my loser's medal is," he says curtly. "[The defeat] still hurts, though. It really hurts."

The disappointment was spread throughout the Dundee United squad after their loss to St Johnstone, but Rankin's is made more acute by his perspective.

He is, mostly, surrounded by players embarking on their careers. Some have moved on already, others might not remain at Tannadice beyond the end of this transfer window, but he is one of a handful of members of the United squad who consider their time in the game by the seasons they have left.

Rankin is an irrepressible figure. There is no sense of melancholy about the events of last May, when St Johnstone won 2-0 at Celtic Park to deservedly win the Scottish Cup.

At 31, and with an ambition to keep playing for another decade, Rankin does not feel he is on the verge of running out of time, either.

Even so, opportunities to win trophies are not routine, and Rankin does not want his career to end without at least one triumphant moment. In that context, Saturday's League Cup semi-final against Aberdeen feels like a pivotal encounter.

Dundee United midfielder John Rankin
Rankin and United suffered disappointment in last season's Scottish Cup final

"I've been in the Premier League for nearly 10 seasons and all that work counts for nothing, it's the winners' medal that everybody wants," Rankin insists. "I don't want to finish my career without one.

"You can go down levels and maybe win a [lower league] medal, but that's not what I want. I want a major trophy.

"I'm a believer that it will happen, it's just a case of how much I want it and when will it happen. I'm not going to give up trying, because I'm desperate to win that medal. It's just that one time.

"[Losing to St Johnstone] hurts, and it's an inner drive now. You're thinking, 'we've tasted that, we've seen the failure and we want to achieve, to win a trophy'."

Selflessness comes naturally to Rankin. His game - in the very heart of the midfield - is based on industry, vigour, competitiveness and personal responsibility.

He tends to work there in tandem with Paul Paton, who has spoken of his team-mate's worth to United's overall cause, while manager Jackie McNamara once spoke of the promising young talents in the squad and remarked that "if they have the work-rate and application of Paton and Rankin, then they will make it to the very top".

Attention tends to gather round the graceful energy and style of Stuart Armstrong, the instinctive guile of Nadir Ciftci, and the exuberant, elusive running of Gary Mackay-Steven. Last season, it was Ryan Gauld and Andrew Robertson who drew the plaudits and, ultimately, transfers.

Rankin is self-assured enough to be content with his own status. The team cannot function without players who carry out different roles, and the same is true of the squad.

John Rankin and Gary Mackay-Steven
Rankin and Mackay-Steven have celebrated many victories together

Rankin started out at Manchester United, then worked his way back up to the Scottish top flight from Ross County to Inverness Caledonian Thistle, then Hibernian and United.

He is wise and experienced enough to offer counsel if it is sought. He is also happy to take satisfaction from playing a small part in the development of careers that will reach beyond Tannadice.

"When I was younger I always spoke up in the dressing room and tried to help young and older ones," he explains. "At times, it's difficult because you're maybe having a bad game yourself, but if you can help others they might help you in the end and you're better together.

"I like going to talk to the younger ones and trying to help them through it. I've played with Gaz (Mackay-Steven) for four years now and I remember his starting debut at Ibrox when he was hyper. Since then, he's never looked back.

"To help to guide someone through that - Gaz has done it all by himself - gives you some pride. When I first met Gaz, he was a wee boy. Andy [Robertson] came in and he was a wee boy as well.

"Playing alongside these younger ones and seeing them improve and achieve something great is good for me as well.

"And if you're not looking over your shoulder then there's something wrong with you. That's the drive behind each individual training session.

"On a daily basis I'm constantly looking over my shoulder at the younger ones pushing and pushing you."

Rankin is "100% certain" that Armstrong, Ciftci and Mackay-Steven will be in the United squad for Hampden, but concedes that the final two days of the transfer window that follow could still see them leave.

Mackay-Steven has signed a pre-contract agreement with Celtic, and could yet move to the champions this month, while Armstrong and Cifcti have been widely linked with other clubs.

Rankin cannot affect the decisions that are made, and his focus for now is on Saturday and the opportunity it presents. Most of the attention has been on the following day's Old Firm semi-final, but that "makes it easier for the players to focus".

United and Aberdeen are evenly matched, with one win apiece in their meetings so far, and they are both vying to reach a major cup final for the second successive season. For United, who are often identified by the worth of their individuals, there is only one way to approach the tie.

"We're all in it together," Rankin adds. "And everybody keeps one another going."