TWO goals down for most of the game, Dundee United looked dead and buried. With 11 minutes left, the corpse twitched and they pulled one back.
Dundee United: Graham 79′ Armstrong 84′ Ciftci 90′; St Mirren: McGowan 20′ Thompson 40′
With six to go, they equalised, but it was deep into stoppage time before the real drama unfolded with a winner that completed the unlikeliest of comebacks.
When Marian Kello spilled a shot by Andy Dow – the substitute whose impact changed the game – Nadir Ciftci turned the loose ball over the line and all hell broke loose. The United backroom staffed charged along the touchline en masse. John Rankin beat his chest at the home support. Ciftci, meanwhile, was booked for his celebration, after which he cupped his ear at a disbelieving St Mirren support.
The Paisley side had been ahead since the 21st minute, two up since half-time, but when Brian Graham, another substitute, gave United a controversial lifeline, the roof fell in on the visitors. From cruising to a win that would ease their relegation worries, they crashed to a defeat that, in combination with results elsewhere, shoved them closer to the trap door.
It was an excruciating finale for Danny Lennon, the St Mirren manager, who admitted that his team had lost control of their emotions after United scored. “It was a key moment in the game,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that three or four players were offside, and more importantly, the player who touches the ball is offside. Sometimes when you are at the wrong end of the league, decisions like that go against you.”
Even Jackie McNamara, the United manager, admitted that his team had been fortunate to secure the win that guaranteed them a top-six finish. “You can’t play well in every game, but you have to keep going, keep believing and keep having that attitude and mental strength to win,” he said. “Watching it is not good for your health though.”
United’s problem, as it is with most young teams, is inconsistency. They have been streaky this season, sandwiching two sequences of five straight wins with a seven-game stretch in which success completely eluded them. Their precocious teenagers have also been prone to punctuating sustained spells of brilliance with the odd howler.
John Souttar is a case in point. There is no denying his potential, but at 17, mistakes are inevitable. When they come in defence, as they have done with the young centre-half, they tend to be costly. Here, in his first game back after missing four games through injury, questions were again being asked.
To be fair, it wasn’t just Souttar who was at fault for St Mirren’s opener. That he and his defensive partners chose not to attack a long free kick by Marc McAusland was inexplicable. When it dropped, unchallenged, into the penalty area, Paul McGowan gratefully peeled off a stationary back four. From a difficult angle, he bent his neck to direct a firm header back across the goalkeeper and into the net.
It rewarded the decision to push McGowan up alongside Steven Thompson. Normally, St Mirren’s diminutive playmaker occupies the gap between midfield and attack, but here he was ghosting into the penalty area at every opportunity. When Conor Newton’s shot was blocked, he had another chance to score, but his right-foot effort from 16 yards was comfortably saved.
United looked unsure of themselves in central defence, where another error, four minutes before half time, handed St Mirren their second. John McGinn applied the pressure by speeding past Keith Watson and cutting a low ball across the six-yard box. Then, when Gavin Gunning tried to clear with his right boot, the ball cannoned off Thompson and into the net.
Thompson and McGowan worked effectively as a pairing. Early in the second half, when the centre forward hooked a firm ball across the box, his newfound partner flashed a header narrowly over. Several times more Thompson had the opportunity to send McGowan clear, but he couldn’t quite pull it off.
At this stage, United could hardly get the ball, never mind start a recovery. As the home support grew restless, they almost conceded a third, this time after a series of failed clearances. Kenny McLean picked up the loose ball, but after easing past a couple of opponents, his right-foot shot was easily saved.
The change came when United brought on Armstrong, Dow and later Graham. First there was a ripper of a shot by Gary Mackay-
Steven, which Kello tipped over. Then, in the 79th minute, came the turning point, initiated by Ciftci’s clever reverse pass. As St Mirren appealed for offside, the overlapping Dow returned it across the box, where Graham sidefooted it over the line.
That, of course, lifted United, who showed more urgency in the last ten minutes than they had in the previous 80. Six minutes from the end, they got their equaliser. When Mackay-Steven played the ball in, McAusland stabbed it only as far as Armstrong, who guided it into the top right-hand corner. It was hard on St Mirren, for whom worse was to come.