Simon Murray and Blair Spittal seal win for Dundee United

Blair Spittal strikes the winner for Dundee United at Cappielow last night. Picture: SNS.Blair Spittal strikes the winner for Dundee United at Cappielow last night. Picture: SNS.
Blair Spittal strikes the winner for Dundee United at Cappielow last night. Picture: SNS.
Dundee United placed themselves firmly in the driving seat for the Premiership play-off semi-final with victory at Cappielow last night, but had to recover from a first-half performance that was nothing short of a car crash to '¨do so.

Ray McKinnon’s side seemed to be on the road to hell after Thomas O’Ware headed an early opener but will now be expected to see out the return leg of the play-off quarter-final at Tannadice on Friday after going more direct in the second period and being rewarded instantly for the change of approach.

Giving striker Simon Murray a more central role, it transformed the forward and, in the 50th minute, he showed control, poise and finishing of the highest quality to bring the ball down and turn and arrow an unstoppable shot into the top, left-hand corner of Derek Gaston’s net.

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Within 15 minutes, the visitors had turned the first leg completely around, with Blair Spittal’s shot from the edge of the area squeezing just inside the post.

The Morton goalkeeper may have been unsighted because he seemed to have had the time to get behind it.

There were a couple of openings that could have allowed United to remove any nervousness on Friday, but that would have been cruel on Jim Duffy’s men.

In failing to secure the runners-up berth in the Championship that would have spared them the prospect of six games to reclaim top-flight status, United had shown their capacity for brain freezes of the football variety that have dogged them across recent years, and, for the entire first period last night, their eventual victory on the night was anything but certain.

As laudable as the efforts of Morton have been this season, Cappielow should have held few fears for the Tannadice club. Duffy’s men hadn’t won in almost two months, and were fortunate to earn a draw when the two sides met at the ground on Saturday – in the first meeting of a seven-day triple header.

Yet, United early on were so harum-scarum, so unable to carry out the basics, it was as if they viewed their opponents hustling and harrying them in front of a disappointing 3,306 crowd on Inverclyde as unplayable.

The loss of a seventh-minute goal clearly rattled United. A long throw-in by Lawrence Shankland was attacked with intent by Thomas O’Ware. As the visitors’ backline remained static, the centre-back headed it through the gap such inactivity produced.

The captain’s delight was unconfined, his armband suddenly becoming a celebratory prop as he ripped it off his arm and pointed at it as he 
galloped across the pitch.

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With the United defence struggling to come up with answers to the darting directness of Gary Oliver, another home goal always looked likely and it seemed that William Edjenguele had provided the opportunity for that turn of events when he clumsily collided with the forward after 
he drifted across him in the box.

Referee Willie Collum waved away all appeals for a penalty, though, and, after he brought howls of derision for adjudging that Jamie McDonagh had yanked Thomas Mikkelsen to the ground by the face, the increasingly hoarse Duffy was spoken to for an age by the referee.

Whatever was said to the United players by their manager at half-time, though, worked a treat. McKinnon claimed that he remained calm throughout and he seemed to spread a quality that was wholly absent in his team’s ranks until that point. For United, at least across the first 90 minutes of the play-off quarter-final, it was a case of all being well that ended well.