Mark Durnan breathed new life into Dundee United’s promotion hopes with a late winner to see off relegation-threatened Ayr United at Tannadice last night.
The defender was the unlikely hero for Ray McKinnon’s Irn Bru Cup winners as he struck with 12 minutes left to move them to within one point of rivals Falkirk and Morton.
Earlier, Simon Murray had given United a 23rd-minute lead before former Dundee favourite Gary Harkins equalised with a 50th-minute penalty for the Honest Men.
Victory brought a huge sigh of relief to the tense Taysiders who ended a wretched three-game losing streak in the league to remain fourth in the Championship.
Buoyed by securing silverware a few days earlier, United went into this re-arranged fixture knowing victory was essential to keep the pressure on those above them.
But it was Ayr’s Harkins who had the first shot at goal after 20 minutes, which home keeper Cammy Bell saved comfortably. At the other end, Tony Andreu tried his luck with a 25-yard effort which sailed well wide.
In the 23rd minute, Murray put the hosts ahead in style. He showed skill and pace before steadying himself and placing his shot through the legs of goalkeeper Greg Fleming from a tight angle. It was Murray’s 13th goal of the season.
Ayr’s response came in 33 minutes when Brian Gilmour’s free-kick was met by defender Conrad Balatoni but his header went straight into Bell’s arms.
The hosts kept up the pressure, though, and, on the stroke of half-time, winger Alex Nicholls’ corner was flapped at by Fleming.
Frenchman William Edjenguele headed the ball down, only for his effort to be cleared off the line as the visitors breathed a sigh of relief.
Ayr levelled after 50 minutes. Andreu needlessly brought down Rab Crawford a yard inside the box following a quick free-kick and referee Barry Cook pointed to the spot.
Up stepped Harkins, who calmly sent Bell the wrong way with a classy spot-kick into the corner of the net.
That was to prove Harkins’ last involvement as he was replaced in 61 minutes by former United striker Farid El Alagui.
Desperate to make amends, Andreu saw his left-foot shot well saved by Flemning in 63 minutes before Nicholls rammed the rebound into the side-netting.
A few minutes later, Murray was in the thick of the action again but this time he couldn’t direct Willo Flood’s cross towards goal. However, United got their reward in 79 minutes. Charlier Telfer’s corner was only half-cleared to allow Murray to nod the ball to Durnan, who hooked his shot home from eight yards to send the home fans away happy and still dreaming of a return to the top flight.