Pre-match injury scare does not de-rail Dundee United on testing night in Fife; Tam Courts era off to winning start

Dundee United are reported to be in contract extension talks with Lawrence Shankland and the striker again showed his worth with the winner for his side on a challenging night at New Central Park.

Lawrence Shankland celebrates soaring the winner for Dundee United in last night's Premier Sports Cup tie against Kelty Hearts (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

Kelty Hearts are clearly being built in the image of their manager, Kevin Thomson. Crisp passing was the name of their very watchable game. United very nearly foundered at the former home of their own new man in charge, Tam Courts.

Few know what to expect from Micky Mellon’s replacement. He has stepped up from head of tactical performance, a nebulous role more often described as youth coach. Courts has managed before – at Kelty. This was not a venue where he wished to fall short on his competitive debut as manager and Shankland struck from the edge of the six-yard box with 13 minutes left to ensure this would not happen.

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The Scotland striker took advantage of a cutback from Kieran Freeman, the United full back who was only called into the side just before kick-off when Liam Smith sustained an injury. The versatile Freeman switched from right back to left back when tiring teenage debutant Flynn Duffy was replaced in the second half. United will treat the win as an acceptable start to their competitive season as they seek to make it out of the group stages of this competition for the first time since 2017.

It was wonderful to be inside a Scottish football ground that felt reasonably full. Only 500 were present but at a ground where the record crowd is 2,300, there was a good, long-missed atmosphere.

Ostensibly, only home supporters were present. But the visitors took the field to a loud chant of “United, United!” and it was clear fans of the Tannadice side had gained access by hook or by crook. Either that or they are a very fair-minded bunch in Kelty, the latest place in the kingdom to host Scottish league football.

This, however, was all about the Premier Sports Cup. It was also about United reacquainting themselves with playing in front of paying customers, something they have not done since March 2020. A manager has come and gone since then.

Those visiting fans who did gain entry might at first have wished they were not permitted entry. Kelty Hearts could and should have secured a commanding half-time lead.

They were bright and moved the ball across the artificial pitch with a pace that augurs well for the coming season in League Two. They have already been established as title favourites.

Charlie Mulgrew, who returned to United in the summer, was short with a couple of passes. He also had the ball stolen from him by the impressive Joe Cardle but the Kelty winger shot straight at Benjamin Siegrist from the edge of the box. Nathan Austin then headed a far easier chance over the bar.

Kelty poured down the right in a bid to exploit Duffy’s inexperience. The 17-year-old struggled at first before settling well and provided some telling crosses in the second half from which United failed to profit.

Kelty pushed until the end for an equaliser in what was testimony to their fitness as much as anything. A precious goal eluded them, however, and they will regret not making more of their first-half ascendancy.

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