THE goal glut might have ended but Tannadice is still a happy place.
SCORER: Dundee United - Mackay-Steven 69
It SHOWS how much expectations have changed at Tannadice that this sixth consecutive win almost had an air of slight disappointment about it, as the team which has scored at least four goals in each of its previous five matches could only manage one against a stubborn Ross County, albeit it took them to second place in the table on goal difference.
The hype about United’s young stars John Souttar, Stuart Armstrong, Andy Robertson and, above all, Ryan Gauld, plus their free-scoring form boosted yesterday’s attendance to 8,029, and United manager Jackie McNamara confirmed the players are loving the attention.
“The expectation is there and it’s fantastic to have that,” said the manager. “It’s not something that worries us or we cannot handle. It should bring the players on and it’s an extra man for us at home.”
In truth it was McNamara himself who can take much credit for his perceptiveness and courage that presaged the winning goal for United. With things not going right for Gauld – taking off the mini-Messi was always going to be tough to do – and Brian Graham, after 63 minutes McNamara replaced them with David Goodwillie and Nadir Ciftci – the Turk almost scoring with his first touch, a volley off a corner which Michael Fraser saved magnificently.
“They condensed the middle of the park,” explained McNamara. “It was very hard to get Ryan on the ball and I just felt at that point that it was important to try and turn them and get behind them, and we managed that with the goal.”
County had ridden their luck at times but the forceful approach of the two substitutes proved vital to what was a stunning winner.
Goodwillie gathered in midfield and fed the ball left, where Ciftci’s mere presence rattled Scott Boyd who slipped up, allowing Armstrong to collect and cross low to Gary Mackay-Steven, who made no mistake from 12 yards out.
The goal had seemed a long time coming. United began well, with Gauld heading over after five minutes and then feeding Armstrong for a “sitter” two minutes later, only for Brian McLean to intervene just in time.
Graham’s close-range effort went over the bar and he had a “goal” correctly disallowed for offside before the visitors enjoyed snatches of pressure. Indeed, they might have gone ahead after 21 minutes, Graham Carey’s free-kick bouncing up to hit the crossbar with Radoslaw Ciernziak beaten.
Then County skipper Richie Brittain stretched too far for a loose ball and went down injured, only to pop up seconds later and volley a shot wide.
United were soon back in charge, and on the half-hour Mark Graham met Robertson’s pinpoint cross on the run, the header going straight to Fraser.
What is really pleasing about United is that they will not vary their passing football when things do not go immediately right for them.
Throughout the first half, they continued to probe down either flank or tried to pass their way through the County defence, rather than pump the high ball or hit and hope from distance.
Ross County did not present much threat. Their closest effort came in 35 minutes when Melvin de Leeuw found himself in space 25 yards out and let fly a low shot narrowly past Czierzniak’s left-hand post.
To their credit, the visitors did not resort to clogging tactics to stop the United youngsters, though Kevin Luckassen was booked late in the half for hauling down Mackay-Steven.
Gavin Gunning came up at a corner and his downward header was only just held by Fraser before a stunning move almost gave United the lead, Paul Paton’s 50-yard pass putting Wilson clear on the right to cross to Graham, whose powerful header inside the six-yard box was instinctively saved by Fraser.
United’s dominance continued in the second half, Mackay-Steven’s low cross being dummied by Paton to John Rankin whose left-foot shot went just over.
A run of four corners in three minutes showed how much United controlled matters, but County stood strong and restricted United to shooting from distance.
“It’s a compliment to us that they parked the bus,” said Rankin afterwards. “But it’s respect that we probably didn’t get last year.”
The visitors’ occasional willingness to break forward never overcame their basic instinct to defend, defend, defend.
McNamara said: “For long periods, especially in the second half, we had them penned in, and they tried to take the sting out of the game by wasting time.”
County tried their hardest late on, but could make no clear chances and United could have gone further ahead as Ciftci and Rankin both sent long-range efforts whistling over Fraser’s bar. They won well in the end, however.
“It was always going to be difficult for us but we kept the scoreline down to one so we’ve got to be happy with that,” said County manager Derek Adams. That, too, is a compliment to this progressive Dundee United.