DUNDEE United, League Cup finalists as recently as early this year, can look forward to another last eight appearance at least after warding off the very considerable threat posed by Dunfermline last night.
As so often happens, the satisfaction felt by the underdogs at having reached extra time evaporated within minutes of the start of the additional period. Dunfermline were left to regret their failure to build on the early opener they were gifted after home keeper Luis Zwick’s dreadful fumbling of Michael Paton’s long-range effort.
Although United equalised ten minutes before half-time through Callum Morris, Dunfermline, and striker Ryan Wallace in particular, spurned opportunities to re-take the lead. United were able to assert some overdue dominance in the second half before finally finding the inspiration required to shake-off their League One opponents in extra-time.
The excellent Scott Fraser put his side ahead for the first time in the tie after 96 minutes with a shot from the edge of the box that took a slight deflection on its way past Sean Murdoch into the net. Substitute Blair Spittal then sealed United’s passage into the quarter-finals two minutes later with a still better finish later, after evading several challenges as he slalomed into the box.
United manager Jackie McNamara looked surprisingly calm at the end. But then he had also sounded confident in his programme notes, despite his side’s recent poor run. “Whilst we will respect them [Dunfermline] and their achievements this season, I expect to see us in the draw for the next round,” he wrote.
Such a pronouncement might have appeared risky. However, McNamara had reason to feel vindicated, not something that has been the case often in recent times. United, for all their apparent troubles, will indeed be in the draw for the next round when it is made on Monday.
Even their most ardent supporters had not shared McNamara’s conviction that this would be the case at kick-off last night.
Their unease seemed understandable as things began to fray almost immediately. A lapse in concentration on the part of Zwick meant United had to dig themselves out of a hole entirely of their own making. It was one of the worst goalkeeping mistakes seen this season and rivalled predecessor’s Radoslaw Cierzniak’s error in the penultimate Dundee derby last season.
Once again the United fans could only look on in horror as Paton’s speculative effort from fully 30 yards squirmed through Zwick’s hands before dropping over the line behind him. This was an especially unpromising way to start an already awkward-looking assignment.
But credit to United, who gave a debut to 17 year-old left back Jamie Robson. They steadied themselves for long enough to secure an equaliser ten minutes before half-time. The game had threatened to boil over shortly beforehand after a clash between Mark Durnan and Faissal Bakhtaoui, Dunfermline’s 14-goal danger man.
Both players were booked and there seemed to be ill-feeling lingering when Morris clattered into the same player shortly afterwards, meaning both United centre-halves were now operating on yellow cards relatively early in the tie, against the highest scorers in Britain.
Morris was soon to have more positive impact on the game. Charlie Telfer’s shot was deflected off Ben Richards-Everton’s midriff for a corner. The impressive Scott Fraser swung in the resultant corner and Dunfermline failed to the danger, allowing Morris to head strongly down into the net from the edge of the six-yard box.
Could this goal ignite the hosts? The fact that Dunfermline were the ones cursing their failure to be in front at the interval suggested otherwise.
Wallace had driven a shot against the post before he created an even better chance for himself after Paton’s through ball. There was still some work to do but Wallace looked to have accomplished the hard part when rounding Zwick. Now all he had to do was roll the ball into the empty net. Instead, he pulled his shot wide of the far post to keep the scores level at the interval, much to United’s relief.
That the home side were happy for the opportunity to re-group in the sanctuary of their dressing-room said everything. United improved in the second-half and should have avoided the added anxiety of extra-time. Dunfermline were grateful for Sean Murdoch’s sharpness as he saved at Mckay’s feet.
There was no need for goalkeeping excellence when Simon Murray blasted over at the far post. Somehow a combination of both Murray and fellow substitute Adam Taggart then failed to connect with McKay’s low cross in the final seconds. But it took only a few minutes of extra-time to establish there would be nothing of note to see at Tannadice, despite pre-match expectations of a shock.
Dundee United: Zwick, McGowan, Morris, Durnan, Robson, Telfer (Spittal 61), Kuhl (Taggart 73), Fraser, Rankin, McKay, Bodul (Murray 73). Subs Not Used: Souttar, McCallum, Dow, Connolly.
Dunfermline: Murdoch, Geggan, Martin, Richards-Everton, Talbot (McCabe 81), Paton, Falkingham, Byrne (Hopkirk 45), Cardle, Wallace (Moffat 68), El Bakhtaoui. Subs Not Used: Hutton, Potter, Antoine-Curier, Thomas.
Referee: J Beaton