JUST when some were beginning to question Dundee United’s potential this season, it all fell into place for them at Tannadice.
Not only did they secure their first win of the Premiership campaign, David Goodwillie scored his first goal since rejoining the club on loan from Blackburn Rovers and Jackie McNamara, their manager, saw the first clear signs of what he is trying to build at the Tayside club.
Not that he could have anticipated quite such a convincing breakthrough, especially against the top flight’s form team. United didn’t pummel their opponents from start to finish, but their hunger in the final third combined with a little bit of luck to expose an unusually slack St Johnstone defence.
McNamara said that his team had scored good goals, at good times, which in turn bred confidence. For Goodwillie, in particular, it was a psychological lift. “He took his goal well and his all-round play was a lot better,” said the United manager. “He looked a threat. I’m delighted that he managed to get on the scoresheet. It took a bit of the weight off him.”
If it was a step forward for United, it was a step back for St Johnstone. Only seven days earlier, they had been the ones who were scoring four without reply.
When it was put to Tommy Wright, their manager, that he could not have seen this coming, he replied: “I’ll be honest. I did before the game. I thought we were a bit flat in the dressing room. I said to them, ‘I don’t want to be coming in at half-time and giving you a rattle’.” He gave them one at full-time as well, for lacking zip and energy all over the pitch. Wright had warned his players that United were a better team than results suggested, and that all they needed was some encouragement, maybe an early goal, to set them on their way. It proved to be a prescient analysis.
After a sticky, stuttering start to the season, what United needed more than anything was a break, a slice of fortune that would give them belief in what they are trying to achieve under McNamara. After just three minutes, they got it. Ryan Dow collected possession wide on the right, drifted inside and struck a left-foot shot that spun off a defender’s leg, over the goalkeeper and into the far corner.
An evenly-contested opening half hour was played at an urgent tempo, particularly by St Johnstone, but Stevie May nodded one over the bar, Murray Davidson came off worst in a clash of heads with Gary Mackay-Steven, and before long, they had conceded another.
It was the kind of goal that United have perfected in recent years, a deep free-kick by Dow, returned across the box by Keith Watson and headed into the top corner by Goodwillie.
St Johnstone had responded well to the game’s first goal, but the second left them reeling, so much so that Goodwillie almost grabbed another. His shot, which spiralled up off Tam Scobbie’s leg, looked destined to drop behind Stevie Banks, but the goalkeeper reached back to paw it from under the crossbar.
Banks, who left United in the summer, was not enjoying a happy return to Tannadice. Standing in for the injured Alan Mannus, he conceded another six minutes before the interval. When Andrew Robertson fed Mackay-Steven in the channel, the St Johnstone goalkeeper was fractionally slow in advancing from his line, a shortcoming that allowed the United forward to poke it under his body from a tight angle.
St Johnstone emerged from the dressing room long before the start of the second half, but their determination to reduce the deficit as quickly as possible manifested itself only in a shot by Steven MacLean that was too straight to sneak past Radoslaw Cierzniak.
Instead, it was the home side who scored again. Seven minutes into the second half, Dow pushed the ball wide to Mackay-Steven, who in turn laid it across the penalty area. Lurking thereabouts was Stuart Armstrong, who hit a scruffy, first-time shot into the turf so that it bounced up and beyond Banks.
St Johnstone briefly rallied, but when Steven MacLean somehow missed the target from six yards, their heads dropped and the question was whether United could win by even more. Had it not been for Banks, who twice denied Nadir Ciftci in the closing stages, they would have.