It isn’t always the case in derby matches, but for the fourth time in succession the team with more quality in their ranks earned victory in the cross-street fixture in Dundee.
Scorers: Dundee - McAlister (19); Dundee United - McLean (11); Mackay-Steven (35)
Bookings: Dundee - Irvine, Grassi, Riley; Dundee United - Watson, Mackay-Steven
On this occasion, the reward is a semi-final berth at Hampden Park in April, as United, for so long hampered by a supposed Scottish Cup curse, continue in their bid to lift the trophy for a third time inside 20 years.
For Dundee and, perhaps more significantly, their fans, the remaining months of the season are a rather less appealing.
The standard deteriorated markedly as this game wore on. As far as Dundee are concerned, the damage had been done in a first-half where they allowed their opponents to re-establish a lead that had been cancelled out by Jim McAlister’s excellent equaliser.
Brian McLean put United in front with a header that again exposed Dundee’s defensive frailties. There might be a new manager in situ, but he can do little if his defenders and goalkeeper make the wrong choices. It left the already unfancied Dundee facing an uphill struggle after just 11 minutes of this Scottish Cup quarter-final clash.
There came an aggrieved howl from the home dressing-room afterwards and television pictures confirmed that the ball had run out-of-play in the build-up to the opening goal. Gary Mackay-Steven appeared to drag the ball over the line as he made progress up the wing but Andrew McWilliam, the assistant referee, decided against raising his flag. Mackay-Steven was then brought down by Ryan Conroy, and from the resultant free-kick United scored.
There was outrage at the time from Dundee players, and interim manager John Brown later lamented with some degree of bitterness the failure of the assistant referee to act. However, the hosts still had plenty of opportunity to clear their lines, and patently failed to do so. Indeed Brian Easton had been guilty of gifting the ball to Mackay-Steven in the first place.
After seven years without a competitive derby, the third in a matter of months provided thrills but, as expected, not much in the way of composed football. What quality was on show was provided by United, for whom the duo of Stuart Armstrong and Mackay-Steven proved to be the game-changers.
The home team’s game-plan surely hinged on avoiding the concession of an early goal, a feature of their last two league meetings with United. This again proved a forlorn hope. As in the two previous derby clashes, the opening goal was a header from a set-piece, Dundee’s Achilles’ heel. The ease with which McLean was allowed to steer a header into the net meant there was an early inquest held in the Dundee defence.
Questions were directed at Robert Douglas among others. The ‘keeper made an early decision to charge to the edge of the six-yard box to try and collect Barry Douglas’ free-kick, awarded after a trip on Mackay-Steven by Conroy but he floundered, and McLean profited. So long as he got his head to the ball, there was an unguarded net to aim at. McLean managed this unexceptional task and United were in front.
Dundee were shaken and might have conceded a penalty just minutes later, after Easton’s clumsy challenge on Mackay-Steven. Iain Brines proved reluctant to see any fouls in the box all afternoon, and turned a blind eye here. It was a break Dundee badly needed and they began to take control of the midfield.
After 20 minutes, they drew level. Steven Milne flicked on a throw-in with his head to John Baird, who played an intelligent lay-off into McAlister’s path and the midfielder steered the ball into the corner of the net from just inside the box. It was joy unconfined in the home stands, as fans celebrated a first goal against their rivals since 2005. The trick for Dundee was to avoid losing another goal before the interval, leaving them with something to build on in the second-half. Ideally, they would have reached half-time in front after a spell when they had the upper-hand.
The home fans thought they should have had the opportunity to take the lead from the penalty spot after Nicky Riley fell to earth in the box after a challenge by Willo Flood. Brines, however, booked the Dundee player for simulation. Having a more significant bearing on the final outcome were a pair of misses from Baird shortly afterwards. For the first he succeeded only in heading the ball up into the air after a corner had been missed by United goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak.
His miss after 34 minutes was much more glaring. Even at the time, it felt like a defining moment. The ball landed at the striker’s feet after a flick-on from Grassi and he had time and space to pick his spot. However, his finish was weak and hit straight at Cierzniak, who blocked with his legs. A minute later, United broke from midfield through Flood who then fed Armstrong, his drive through the middle always looking to contain a hint of menace.
The midfielder’s pass into Mackay-Steven was perfectly weighted, and the winger took the ball in his stride before rifling in an effort low to Douglas’ body. These are the type of shots that goalkeepers dread, and Douglas could not get down quickly enough, the ball seeming to go through him and into the net.
Mackay-Steven was booked for his celebrations, which involved raising his finger to his mouth, as if to say ‘that silenced you’ to the Dundee fans. In truth, it did. Having striven so hard to get back into the match, it now looked like a major assignment to do so again, particularly given the home team’s evident lack of cutting edge.
The second-half ran its course without any real threat being posed by the hosts. If anything, United might have edged further ahead after Grassi almost headed into his own net.
Douglas, however, was alert to the danger, and tipped the ball past the post. Never mind United’s Scottish Cup curse, this is the sixth time in succession that Dundee have failed to beat their neighbours in the competition, a run stretching back to 1987.