Dundee United showed the kind of resolution and defensive toughness that’s been largely absent from their play in 2017 to capture the club’s first ever Challenge Cup title, eventually bettering St Mirren after surviving a dominant first-half performance from the Championship’s bottom side.
Though the league table would indicate United deserved the tag of favourites, recent form suggested the opposite. Ray McKinnon’s outfit went into the contest with only two victories in their previous 12, while St Mirren were enjoying a period of resurgence under Jack Ross, with wins in six of their last nine, including a 3-2 triumph over United earlier this month.
The opening period seemed to confirm such suspicions, even if Anthony Andreu opened the scoring for United. Rory Loy restored parity within a minute and, when the half-time whistle blew, the black-and-white contingent in the stands gave the underdogs a rapturous applause.
But United dug deep and upped the level of their play following the break. They stopped St Mirren from creating a single clear-cut chance in the second half and clinched the win when sub Thomas Mikkelsen netted with 15 minutes left.
They’ll be hoping it’s a conclusion to a brief and bittersweet relationship with the re-branded lower league tournament. You can’t compete in the Irn-Bru Cup if you’re a top-flight club, and every fixture acted as painful reminder of the club’s spectacular fall from grace over the past 24 months.
In the end, though, a final is final, and United will be hoping the added significance of this win will be enough to get the club back on track and fighting for promotion back to the Premiership.
“I’m absolutely delighted. It was a tough game and a lot of pressure on us, but I thought the guys delivered,” said McKinnon. “There has been a bit of criticism our way, probably self-inflicted. But we’ve won a cup, and had the pressure of dealing with a final. So they should take confidence from this.”
Though United struggled in the first half, they did have the game’s first sight at goal. Simon Murray took advantage of some space 22 yards out and unleashed a low drive that shaved the outside of the post.
St Mirren enjoyed the lion’s share of the attacking possession throughout the opening period as the Stephen duo, Mallan and McGinn, worked masterfully in the centre of the park. It took 20 minutes for the Buddies’ first chance of the afternoon, though they would soon come thick and fast.
Lewis Morgan crossed for Loy to flick an effort that came back off the outside of the post, and the winger soon went close himself after sprinting past William Edjenguele, skewing his finish wide of goal.
Andreu gave a little warning regarding United’s threat in attack with a low drive wide of the far post, before St Mirren saw another chance go begging when Cammy Bell got out sharply to smoother at the feet of Kyle Magennis.
Without creating an opportunity inside the St Mirren penalty area, United still managed to take the lead. Andreu struck a terrific first-time volley after Jack Baird’s sliced clearance landed at his feet 22 yards out, dispatching it into the far corner with aplomb.
It would have been a travesty if St Mirren had trailed at the break, so it was fitting reward when they got themselves level inside 60 seconds. Gary Irvine drove into the penalty area and when his cut-back found Loy, the striker swept the ball into the far corner. They could have taken the lead right on the stroke of half-time, but Gary McKenzie headed wide from a Mallan corner.
That miss, and St Mirren’s general profligacy in front of goal, would later come back to haunt them. They failed to maintain the first-half performance and would fall behind 15 minutes from time when substitute Mikkelsen headed Simon Murray’s deep cross beyond Billy O’Brien. Mikkelsen’s introduction just before the hour mark had given United a lift, and he went close to doubling his tally three minutes later, slashing a shot into the side netting.
St Mirren flooded bodies forward in the closing minutes as they sought to push the fixture into extra time, though it would be United who came closest to grabbing the fourth goal, with debutant Ali Coote denied by goalkeeper Billy O’Brien.