Rarely has a winning goal seemed so like an act of mercy. Logan Chalmers struck in the fourth minute of added time to put this uninspiring Irn-Bru Cup tie out of its misery. It was a form of organised torment for most of the 1,967 spectators that assembled at a ghostly Tannadice yesterday, but United’s second string did enough to deserve this last-gasp victory and keep their hopes of retaining the trophy they won last spring alive.
It has to be said that winning a competition for lower division sides is hardly the highest priority for United manager Ray McKinnon and he didn’t half make this clear with his team selection. Remarkably, the starting XI featured not a single player from the side that impressively triumphed over fellow Championship title contenders Dunfermline at East End Park in their last outing. Nevertheless he professed himself delighted at seeing his side advance to the quarter-finals.
“There were ten under-19’s on that park at the end for us against a really strong Linfield team,” reflected McKinnon. “They had to work hard in the first half and we said to them at half-time to believe in themselves. They did that and the last 20 minutes they were magnificent. So I’m really pleased for them – it’ll give them a great boost and show that if they have the right attitude there’s possibilities for them.”
It’s a measure of what the United kids were up against that Linfield fielded no fewer than seven players who had played at Celtic Park in the Champions League in July. It was hardly surprising then the Belfast side enjoyed long spells of territorial dominance, particularly in the opening 45 minutes. Their greater experience and guile saw them create plenty of promising openings, but they were all too often wasteful with the final ball which meant that this palpable superiority counted for nothing.
For all that, United had reserve goalkeeper Deniz Mehmet to thank for keeping them in the game in the first half with two fine blocks from Aaron Burns and Robert Garrett respectively. But the visitors also had themselves to blame for not getting ahead before the interval with Andrew Waterworth wastefully missing the target with a free header from six yards after being picked out by Kirk Millar.
Defensively the untried United line-up made a decent fist of things, keeping their shape and sitting back in numbers to frustrate opponents who were disappointingly timid in throwing bodies into the box, particularly after the break. But it was not until the latter stages of the game that they made any regular progress towards the Linfield box.
From early on in the second half the proceedings looked to be on an exorable drift towards extra-time with genuine chances few and far between. Burns somehow failed to make proper contact with a cross at the far post with goal yawning, while a sense that the hosts might never score was reinforced when Graham Taylor’s shot beat Gareth Deane in the visitors’ goal only for his shot to hit the inside of the post and rebound to safety.
However, this was a signal of United’s growing confidence and superior fitness as they mounted a number of pacy breaks with the Linfield defence looking increasingly languid.
Most onlookers had nevertheless surely resigned themselves to another 30 minutes of uninspired fare when Taylor powered in an angled shot which Deane could only parry and Chalmers was perfectly placed to capitalise, seizing on the loose ball and sending a low drive into the net to win the tie right at the death.