FOR long enough, the theory has been that John Rankin’s defensive qualities provide the platform for Dundee United’s feted youngsters to perform, but yesterday, the team’s unsung hero stepped into the spotlight with a winning goal that upstaged them all.
Scorers: Dundee United: Mackay-Steven 5; Good 65; Rankin 72; Kilmarnock: Eremenko 42; Boyd 63
Rankin has scored a few sweet ones in his time, many of them head-scratchers like the famous “squiggler” that deceived Celtic’s Artur Boruc, but this one, late in a game that United could easily have lost, ranked up there with most of them. Nothing appeared to be on when Nadir Ciftci burrowed his way in from the corner flag and touched the ball inside. Then, from the most ridiculous angle, Rankin thrashed his first-time, left-foot shot high across the goalkeeper and into the far corner.
When the teams walked off at full-time, Rankin’s name was being chanted by the home support. His intervention had earned United their first league win since 21 December and lifted them to fourth in the Scottish Premiership.
Not that Jackie McNamara seemed to notice. So distracted was the United manager after a terrific, head-spinning game that, when the press asked him later about the winner, he set about congratulating Ryan Dow.
McNamara apologised to Rankin for that, but really, all that mattered was the three points from a riveting match in which Kilmarnock overturned United’s early lead and looked all set to emerge from Alexei Eremenko’s first full 90 minutes with a win.
The Russian-born Finn, back at the club where he excelled three years ago, played in the hole behind Kris Boyd with all his old wit and imagination. He is short of fitness, of course, but wasn’t he always? “He was different class,” said Allan Johnston, the Kilmarnock manager. “His ability was there for everyone to see and we passed the ball really well with him in the team. I was delighted to get 90 minutes out of him. He is a quality player who sees passes that others don’t.”
Eremenko’s trademark vision quickly manifested itself in the shape of an early backheel that prompted an admiring gasp in the stands, but he was sluggish as well. After being booked for a late challenge on Mackay-Steven, the Finn was caught in possession just outside the United penalty area, a mistake that led to the home side’s opener. From there, Ciftci delivered a long ball that caused Jackson Irvine to come up short with a pass-back to Craig Samson. Mackay-Steven then stepped in to slot it past the goalkeeper.
If there was an element of fortune about United’s breakthrough, it was not unmerited. Ciftci had already cracked one off the base of a post after neatly rounding Irvine. Mackay-Steven then threatened again with a low shot wide. Ciftci hit one into the side net.
Kilmarnock, though, grew into the game. When Irvine picked out Boyd in the box, the striker’s low shot was palmed away by Radoslaw Cierzniak, who was on the ground when Jerome Tesselaar struck the loose ball against his right-hand post. United were soon warned that Eremenko, however short of stamina, was capable of doing damage. When MacKenzie dispossessed Andy Robertson and skinned Curtis Good, his cutback fell to the Finn 14 yards out. His first-time shot was low and firm, but Ciernziak gathered.
Then came the goal that confirmed the value of Kilmarnock’s returning hero. When MacKenzie headed a ball down on the edge of the box, Boyd made an angle in search of the pass, but Eremenko instead saw only the corner of the net, which he found with a crisp right-foot shot. Eremenko was enjoying himself. Early in the second half, there was another backheel and a spot of keepy-uppy – which Mackay-Steven later tried to match – but it was Boyd who emerged as the biggest threat. He looked a tad ambitious when he took Tesselaar’s long ball first time, and on the turn, but it was a clean volley, lacking only precision.
Then he put Kilmarnock ahead, although United’s defending left much to be desired. Boyd beat Ciernziak to a ball over the top, but his lob over the goalkeeper’s head took an eternity to come down. When it did, it dropped under the bar, where Rory MacKenzie was on hand to ensure that it crossed the line. At that point, Kilmarnock had the upper hand, but instead of consolidating their advantage, they conceded twice in a mad ten-minute spell.
First came the equaliser, glanced in by Curtis Good after a corner by Mackay-Steven. Then came Rankin’s bolt from the blue, a brilliant climax to a breathless game.
Teams, subs, goals
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Watson, Robertson, Rankin, Good, Souttar, Armstrong (Dow, 56), Paton, Ciftci (Gomis, 85), Mackay-Steven, Gauld (El Alagui, 57).
Subs not used: McCallum, Graham, Dillon, Wilson.
Goals: G Mackay-Steven 10; C Good 56; J Rankin 71.
Booked: G Mackay-Steven.
Kilmarnock: Samson, Tesselaar, Clingan, Ashcroft, Muirhead (Johnston, 76), Pascali, McKenzie, Irvine, Boyd, Eremenko, Slater.
Subs not used: Brennan, Nicholson, Moberg-Karlsson, Maksimenko, O’Hara, Kiltie.
Goals: A Eremenko 40; K Boyd 64.
Booked: A Eremenko.
Referee: J Beaton