Although yesterday’s last-eight draw landed them with a tricky trip to either Inverness or Stranraer, Dundee United will believe they have every right to target a second Scottish Cup win in four years, and the third in the club’s history.
They will also seek to use this first victory in 2014 as the springboard for an improved spell of league form.
With so many youngsters breaking through – six of yesterday’s starting XI were aged 21 or under – perhaps it was inevitable that Jackie McNamara’s side would suffer a period of sagging fortunes because of teething troubles. This win was needed in order to convince some observers – and possibly also a few of their fans – that their recent struggles were not down to anything more serious.
During parts of yesterday’s game it was possible to remember why Dundee United were once the form team in the country. This was a bit more like the team that we had become acquainted with earlier in the season. Ryan Gauld was directing traffic from the position behind the front two where we had begun to enjoy him in those months before Christmas. The 18 year-old set United on their way with the opening goal after 21 minutes. It was his seventh strike of the season but his first since 14 December. Nadir Ciftci headed in the winner five minutes into the second-half after Steven McLean had equalised for St Mirren from the penalty spot just four minutes after Gauld struck.
After handing new signing Eric Djemba-Djemba a quick debut, it was St Mirren who threatened first. A Steven Thompson volley after he had out-muscled John Souttar had to be beaten away by Radoslaw Cierzniak. At the other end in what was a lively opening spell Marian Kello was forced to deal with a Stuart Armstrong effort near the base of his near post. That signaled a sustained spell of pressure from the home side. Armstrong was at the heart of most of their good work, although the skipper hung his head after slicing Gary Mackay-Steven’s cutback wide after seven minutes. The United winger had skipped past Conor Newton on the left flank and shown impressive composure to pick out Armstrong, who had checked his run into the box to grant himself space. He failed to take advantage, however.
A fine tackle from Darren McGregor then blocked Mackay-Steven at the crucial moment, just as he was shaping up to deliver another cross into the danger area. Thompson’s tackle on John Rankin in the middle of the park was not quite so well-timed and saw the striker become the first player booked.
Before the game, much of the spotlight had fallen on Djemba-Djemba. The former Manchester United midfielder took time to pick up the pace of a Scottish Cup tie and was late while making a couple of early challenges, which eventually led to a booking for persistent fouling early in the second half. But he looked a formidable presence and took some of the burden from Jim Goodwin’s shoulders when it came to being a target for the home fans’ opprobrium.
These jeers turned to cheers after 21 minutes when Gauld made his mark in his first start for five games. The teenager had certainly looked refreshed following his break from regular first-team action. Ciftci left Djemba-Djemba in his wake down the left and his cross from the left was met by the sliding figure of Gauld, who did well to turn the ball into the net with a neat dinked finish.
United were only able to hold the lead for four minutes. A rather rash challenge from Mark Wilson as McLean broke into the box saw the midfielder land in a heap. The United supporters feared the worst. Wilson had left his leg dangling and could blame only himself for being penalised. McLean himself dealt with the penalty in efficient manner, rolling it to Cierzniak’s right with the goalkeeper headed the other way. St Mirren’s hopes were renewed and they took the game to their hosts for a spell, although United should still have gone in at the break one goal ahead. Ciftci failed to direct his header from an Armstrong cross past Kello, whose save was deserving of high praise. But the striker should have left the goalkeeper without an earthly. Instead, by positioning his effort too near Kello, the Slovakian was able to stretch out a hand and keep the ball out.
Ciftci was beginning to make his presence felt again following his early assist for Gauld, and the Turk re-established United’s lead just five minutes after half-time. The goal came in the period of play that saw Djemba-Djemba finally booked for another clumsy challenge, this time on John Rankin. It took a while for United to pick out an opening in the St Mirren defence as the same attack was repelled again and again by the visitors – though never quite effectively enough.
Mackay-Steven finally darted into the box and lifted the ball to the back post and the powerful Ciftci rose to propel the ball into the net with his forehead. Only a goal behind, it was expected that St Mirren would redouble their efforts to salvage at least a replay as the game entered its final stages. Cierzniak saved brilliantly from Thompson’s header after a free-kick from substitute Gary Teale. McGregor then drilled an effort just wide. But it proved United’s day, despite a late claim for a penalty after McGregor’s block on Rankin being waved away. Whether it is to be their year remains to be seen.
Teams, goals, subs
Dundee Utd: Cierzniak, Wilson, Robertson, Rankin, Souttar, Good, Mackay-Steven, Paton, Ciftci (El-Alagui, 88), Gauld (Gomis, 88), Armstrong (Dow, 75).
Subs not used: McCallum, Dillon, Graham, Watson.
Goals: R Gauld 21; N Ciftci 51.
Booked: A Robertson, J Rankin.
St Mirren: Kello, Kelly, Naismith, Newton (Campbell, 85), McAusland, McGregor, Goodwin, Djemba-Djemba (Teale, 71), Thompson, McGowan, McLean.
Subs not used: Dilo, Morgan, van Zanten, Reilly, Brady.
Goals: K McLean 26 (pen).
Booked: J Goodwin, E Djemba-Djemba, S Thompson, K McLean.
Referee: C Thomson