ROSS Draper was toast of the Highland capital last night after snatching a dramatic winner for Inverness Caley Thistle in the dying seconds of extra-time.
Scorers: Inverness CT - Warren (54), Draper (120); Dundee Utd - Watson (5)
With penalties looming, the Highlanders booked their second successive League Cup semi-final as ten-man Dundee United finally cracked at the death.
Substitute Danny Williams’ desperate late cross hacked into the box found midfielder Draper rising to head powerfully into the back of the net from five yards.
It was a stunning finish to what had descended into a grim dogfight after a thrilling first half ended in deep controversy.
There were 12 bookings - eight for United - with most coming in the fiery outbreak that led to a match-changing sending off for United’s Nadir Ciftci.
The Turk saw red for grabbing a Caley Thistle player amid a mass ruckus on half-time.
The game changed completely after that flashpoint left United down to ten men, with all the eye-catching play of the first half evaporating as both sides lost poise.
You had to delve deep into the mists of time, all the way back to when Hamish McAlpine, Willie Pettigrew and Paul Sturrock were in their pomp, to locate United’s last League Cup final triumph.
None of the current team were even born when that 1980 victory was secured against neighbours Dundee.
With four failed finals since - all against Old Firm victors - there was no need to remind seasoned Tangerine followers of the opportunity beckoning last night.
The absence of Celtic and Rangers, of course, was one every surviving team in the last eight was eager to capitalise on.
Caley Thistle’s League Cup wounds were decidedly more raw than United’s, given last seasons penalty-kicks exit to Hearts in the semi-finals.
It proved the one festering sore on an otherwise spotless, record-breaking season.
Right from the off, this had the feel of a match set to be packed to the gunnels with incident - and we weren’t to be disappointed.
United, wearing their striking Arsenal-esque heritage strip from 1963/64 in every cup contest this season, lit up the game almost immediately.
Andrew Robertson’s early dig hit the outside stanchion, before McNamara’s men took a fifth- minute lead. Ryan Gauld cut a determined swathe in from the left before poking a pass across field. It found Keith Watson who thrashed a phenomenal first time strike under the bar from the outside right corner of the box.
The setback soon stirred Caley Thistle, though. Great build-up play from the hosts culminated in Aaron Doran cutting a tantalising low cross to the far post where top scorer Billy McKay somehow failed to connect under pressure.
Caley Thistle took the game by the scruff of the neck for a spell, with Doran snapping at every opening he could.
The bedlam in wait erupted close to half-time as the home crowd berated United’s Mackay-Steven for supposed play-acting after a challenge from Richie Foran.
Nearby home manager Butcher made his feelings clear to the grounded Mackay-Steven, but the officials had their work cut out as opposing players crowded in on each other.
As the dust settled on the rammy, United’s Nadir Ciftci saw red for his part in the fracas, while three more yellow cards were flashed. Butcher was then sent to the stand by referee Kevin Clancy, along with United coach Darren Jackson.
United made two changes at the break, with Morgaro Gomis and Brian Graham replacing Armstrong and Mackay-Steven.
But with their one-man disadvantage, the hosts were immediately in siege mode – and couldn’t hold for long.
Graeme Shinnie’s free-kick was perfectly-flighted and Gary Warren towered over everyone to smash a header past Cierzniak.
The Highlanders were almost ahead just before the hour, but Doran’s bouncing ball into the box from the left found McKay stabbing over the bar. Richie Foran claimed he was dragged to earth in the box amid the relentless home assault.
But to United’s credit, they clung on for extra-time. United’s 749 travelling support voiced their admiration, limiting the hosts’ chances in extra-time.
In the first period, one Tremarco cross did find McKay heading wide, before taking the full weight of Gavin Gunning on his back, but there was precious little else.
But just as penalties beckoned, Draper spared the agony - and left United hearts broken.
Inverness CT: Brill; Shinnie, Warren, Meekings, Tremarco (Polworth 107); Draper, Foran; Watkins (Williams 85), Ross (Agdestein 100), Doran; McKay. Subs not used: Esson, Devine.
Dundee United: Cierzniak; Watson, Dillon, Gunning, Robertson (Butcher 80); Paton, Rankin; Gauld, Armstrong (Gomis 46), Mackay-Steven (Graham 46); Ciftci. Subs not used: McCallum, Goodwillie.