THERE aren’t many cup ties that will witness the fans of a Premiership club stage a mini pitch invasion – alright, a spilling on to the track, to be more exact – in celebration of a goal scored over League One hosts they largely appeared to have the measure of.
It said everything about where Dundee United find themselves such a scene ensued from the brilliant Blair Spittal free-kick in 79 minutes that proved decisive as Mixu Paatelainen’s men more than held their nerve at Airdrie. As Scottish Cup successes go this was a necessary to United as oxygen. It could be no other way when it ended a suffocating period that had led to the Tannadice men finding themselves 11 points adrift at the foot of the table following nine games without a win in all competitions, and 11 matches on the road without usurping opponents.
These howling stats – which had left the Tayside club victory-less since Halloween – had we journos descending on the Excelsior Stadium like hounds scenting blood. Aside from a shaky start by Paatelainen’s men, none looked like being spilled. Maybe Stephen Thompson’s slaughtering of sacked manager Jackie McNamara for his summer signings was telling enough in this respect.
It is perhaps an irony that Spittal, recruited by McNamara two summers ago, provided the respite from the club’s horrendous run, then. His sumptuously flighted free-kick from the edge of area that he curled into the top corner had strong parallels with an equally well-crafted set piece score in the derby loss the previous week. These strikes have made the 20-year-old appear a practised master of the dead-ball art. A perception partly right, the midfielder conceded. “Last week was the first free-kick I think I’ve ever scored. Put that one down to luck and this week it happened again. I hope I can keep on doing that,” Spittal said modestly. “We work quite a lot after training. I work with Luis [Zwick] a fair bit who stays out with us. More or less every day we do it.”
For every free-kick there has to be a foul, and Airdrieonians manager Eddie Wolecki Black contended an injustice had been perpetrated against his side with “the boys adamant” that no foul had been committed when David Cox challenged Scott Fraser. The Lanarkshire club’s manager felt the entire course of events across the afternoon did a disservice to the efforts of his side, though that seemed a rather one-eyed reading of a tie that United took a grip of after the interval. However, there was no question that 18-year-old keeper Ruan Ferguson was deserving of his coach’s commendations. The youngster only featured because of a failed appeal to have regular first choice Neil Parry available.
Following a raft of saves to deny such as Billy Mckay, Fraser and Spittal, Ferguson became subject of a curious tale post-match when Wolecki Black admitted that pre-match the keeper had been the subject of a bid from a club the Airdrie manager would not name. “He’s only 18-year-old and he’s put another few thousand pounds on the bid that has been made for him,” he said. “We are determined to keep our best players but if a team is making a bid that we think is acceptable for this club then we’ll talk about it.”
All very mysterious, local press later reported that the bid, apparently rejected, had come from United, who have recently taken on former Airdrie goalkeeping coach Stuart Garden. Airdrie were believed to be narked at what could have been perceived as a tactic to unsettle a player with only two previous senior appearances.
Although Wolecki Black claimed that “disappointment can’t begin to cover it [as] we didn’t deserve to lose”, aside from United keeper Eiji Kawashima saving a point-blank header from Bryan Prunty early on, they had no real opportunities ahead of a few scrambles at the end.
Paatelainen’s assessment seemed nearer the mark as to what unfolded across a game he hopes can breathe life into a miserable campaign that will bring Celtic to Tannadice on Friday. “I hope it can give us a lift in the league,” he said. “The spirit is high. We are passing the ball better and we are getting there. Today we were solid at the back and all credit to the players because Airdrie tested us. It was a very professional performance.”
With yesterday marking only a second win the 12 games since he took charge in October, Paatelainen has had few causes to use that phrase recently.