FOUR minutes into stoppage time, with almost the last kick of the ball, Rory Boulding yesterday secured Dundee United a place in the top six of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, with a little help from their city rivals.
Scorers: Boulding (90)
With Kilmarnock losing to Dundee, a victory for either of these sides at Tannadice would have enabled them to finish their season in the top half, but it was United who pulled it off.
Seconds from the final whistle, Scott Vernon gave the ball away to Keith Watson, who then picked out Boulding in an empty penalty box. From 12 yards, the substitute, released by Kilmarnock in January, slid it past Jamie Langfield, the despairing Aberdeen goalkeeper.
It was cruel on Langfield, who had single-handedly denied United in a one-sided second half, but crueller still on Craig Brown. This was the Aberdeen manager’s last match before retiring, to be replaced by Derek McInnes, but his slow trudge along the touchline at full-time was painful to watch.
United deserved it though. It was a slow-burner of a game, rotten in the first half, better in the second, and thrilling near the end as both teams, realising the urgency of the situation, went for broke. Jackie McNamara, whose United team had lost a late goal to St Johnstone on Monday night, felt that justice had been done.
“I’m just delighted for everybody connected with the club,” he said. “We have had a couple of disappointments in the last few weeks, but that makes up for it. It will give the lads a lift, especially the younger ones who came in. For a 16- and a 17-year-old [John Souttar and Ryan Gauld] to start in a massive pressure game like that, and handle it the way they did, speaks volumes for them and the future of the club.”
Brown set his team out in a positive formation, with Niall McGinn and the returning Jonny Hayes supporting Josh Magennis and Vernon up front, but he might as well have strung everyone across the back for all the difference it made in the first half. Neither side showed enough quality in that opening period, especially in the final third.
Magennis whistled a low shot wide, and Russell Anderson rose to nod Hayes’ free kick past the post, but appropriately enough, it was a misunderstanding that produced the nearest thing to a goal. When Anderson and Langfield generously invited each other to deal with a through ball, Gauld nipped in to stab it wide of the target.
As they walked off at half-time, the public announcer did his best to motivate both teams by revealing that Kilmarnock were a goal down to Dundee, but it was the introduction of Gary Mackay-Steven, early in the second half, that made the biggest difference. After another of his trademark tricks had left Joe Shaughnessy for dead, the winger’s initials were soon reverberating around Tannadice. Then, he nearly broke the deadlock, heading over the bar after a bewildering episode of penalty-box bagatelle in which Langfield saved Gauld’s shot and a clearance that rebounded off Willo Flood struck the crossbar.
United, now, were by far the likelier of the two sides. Keith Watson twice threatened with headers. The first, after a cross by Barry Douglas, was too high. The second, glanced towards the bottom corner, was pawed away by the goalkeeper.
Gauld also was frustrated twice. After a low cutback, he opened his body a fraction too much, sidefooting the ball wide. Then, the young winger’s header was blocked by Langfield, who also denied Jon Daly.
Realising they were in the last-chance saloon, both sides went for it in the closing stages, with Peter Pawlett and Niall McGinn having shots blocked by the goalkeeper. Radoslaw Cierzniak also got a faint touch on an angled drive by Rory Fallon, which proved to be crucial in light of what was to follow.