As the game emerges from the pandemic age, all forms of football life were to be found in microcosm at Somerset Park barely dusted with modernity as Dundee United squeaked through – somehow – in a penalty shoot-out from their Premier Sports Cup last-16 tie against Ayr United. An occasion that ended with what is starting to appear an obligatory feature of crowds returning to grounds: a pitch invasion.
It seemed that about every other travelling supporter in the 900 among the 2,136 crowd spilled on to the pitch to celebrate Nicky Clark converting the final regulation penalty to allow his team to pull off an ill-deserved escape, following a 1-1 tied scoreline after 120 minutes. That followed Jonathan Afolabi and Patrick Reading having their spot-kicks saved by Benjamin Siegrist. In doing so, the keeper spared team-mate Marc McNulty from any agonies, with the striker blazing over in the shoot-out a day on from sealing a second season on-loan to United from Reading.
The wonder was that Ayr supporters didn’t do their own marauding on to the field at the conclusion to make a beeline for referee Nick Walsh. The viciousness with which they called out the official for the penalty award and its consequences, which did turn the tie, was enough to have his ears bleeding alone, mind you. Fans provide a Greek chorus in the antiquated little ground.
What Walsh seemed to see no-one else did, when – trailing 1-0 to a 55th-minute Tomi Adeloye strike – United were given a way back in ten minutes from normal time after he decreed a spot of grappling between United’s Ryan Edwards and Jack Baird as they challenged for a Charlie Mulgrew cross was foul play from the Ayr United defender. He seemed more pulled than pulling, but, with Baird having been booked earlier, Walsh doubled-down on his decision by showing another yellow to banish the player, who had hardly made the tunnel when Clark drilled in from 12 yards.
“The decision to give a penalty was horrific,” said Ayr manager David Hopkin, calling it like it was. “To then send Jack off makes it even worse. It turned a fantastic cup tie into a training session. My players are well drilled in and I knew we still had a chance because I asked the boys to dig in. But it should never have got to that stage. Ben Siegrist had pulled off two world class saves to keep Dundee United in it.
“My keeper didn't have a save to make but we're out of the cup. It wasn't a soft penalty, it [wasn’t] extra soft. It's never a penalty. The ball is out of the pitch, no-one claims for it and the referee decided to get involved. Dundee United didn't look like scoring and only a poor decision was going to change that. I stand by it, it was a really poor decision. I asked the referee but no-one gives you an answer. I didn't think our missed chances would come back to haunt us because Dundee United never looked like scoring.”
Tam Courts’ side really should have been the humblers turned humbled. A week on from inflicting Rangers’ first league defeat in 41 games, Ayr were the disorientators for their more vaunted opponents, albeit following a 45 minutes when the encounter was bread and butter pudding stodgy. That all changed as the home team found an edge immediately after the interval. And a goal. Adeloye benefitted from Mulgrew losing his focus after he was bumped by Mark McKenzie, who poked it through to the big forward. A first hack was blocked by Siegrist, but when the ball broke to him in space a second thump gave him his fourth goal since arriving from Barnet in close season.
There then came a 20-minute spell when Ayr peppered the United goal, Siegrist denying McKenzie with a brilliant finger-tip on to the bar, thwarting James Maxwell – who also blazed over – and blocking from McKenzie. In contrast, there could be but only one way to view the visitors’ struggles for meaningful activity in front of goal: through the prism of Lawrence Shankland’s departure.
The Scotland international may not have featured in the already fabled defeat of the Scottish champions a week ago. However, it was notable that the 26-year-old’s £1million move to Beerschot this week came as he once more sat atop the club’s scoring charts. Indeed, the final three he netted for his 40-goal haul across two years on Tannadice were instrumental in Courts’ side coming through unscathed from the group stages of the Premier Sports Cup to set-up them up for the jaunt to Ayrshire.
It was one that Courts claimed he was actually able to enjoy. “There was a real carnival atmosphere,” he said, of a first success for the Tannadice men at Somerset Park in six visits. “It was always going to be different to last week and thankfully the boys stuck at the task and we’re through. It’s great for them. I’ve been adamant about the fact we hadn’t progressed out of the groups in the last three years and that was the first target – and now we are one game from Hampden. Once we got to the shootout that’s the most confident I’ve been. He [Siegrist] enjoys the centre stage and being the centre of attention and he was our matchwinner in the end.”
Ayr fans may beg to differ.