Vaclav Hladky wrote his name into St Mirren folklore as his penalty shoot-out heroics ensured Premiership football for Paisley next season and condemned Dundee United to a fourth successive year outside the top flight.
Czech goalkeeper Hladky sparked wild celebrations and a pitch invasion from delirious home supporters as he saved spot-kicks from Peter Pawlett, Pavol Safranko and Callum Booth in the dramatic finale to the Premiership play-off final.
United’s failure from 12 yards was absolute, Osman Sow striking their other effort against a post. St Mirren only needed to hit the target twice, Paul McGinn and Mihai Popescu both beating United ‘keeper Benjamin Siegrist, with Mateo Muzek’s attempt against an upright ultimately of no consequence.
If the manner of defeat was cruel on United, St Mirren were deserving winners over the piece. They created the better chances in open play with United grateful to Siegrist for some fine saves during a draining 120 minutes.
Oran Kearney’s side had to see out the latter stages of extra-time with just 10 men after substitute Duckens Nazon was harshly shown a straight red card by referee John Beaton for a clash with United defender Mark Connolly.
They remained resilient, just as they had in response to United taking the lead in the tie through Nicky Clark’s 23rd minute penalty. Saints equalised just three minutes later through Danny Mullen and dug deep to complete the survival mission Kearney took on when he replaced Alan Stubbs as manager in September.
“It has been a long, hard season for everybody associated with the club,” said Kearney. “Credit to the players who have been here all season but also to the ones who came in January.
“Between us, we managed to gather some momentum at the right time of the season and carried it through. I don’t think they will realise what an achievement this is for months or years. It might be five or ten years down the line when they really understand the turnaround we’ve had this season and what it led to today.
“It’s the biggest achievement of my career, absolutely. I’ve won cups but the journey we had to go on this year - I came into a club where I didn’t know anyone.
“You are building relationships at a steady rate of knots to try and make something function really quickly. It’s been a trying and testing year but when I signed up I knew it was going to be like that.
“I’m delighted to get over the line today and now I’m just looking forward to a rest.”
As is invariably the case on these occasions, nerves played a significant role in dictating the narrative of an often scrappy but nonetheless always compelling contest.
The swirling wind whipping around the Simple Digital Arena, boasting a sell-out crowd for the first time since it opened in 2009, was also a major factor in both sides struggling to find any sustained rhythm to their play.
United’s breakthrough came slightly against the run of play, ref Beaton pointing to the spot after a Booth cross struck the hand of Jack Baird from close range. It was certainly a contentious call but Clark took full advantage, rattling home his 15th goal of the season from 12 yards. Sadly for United, Clark’s team-mates were unable to match his efficiency from the spot later in the day.
Saints’ equaliser was a moment of horror for United defender Connolly who completely miscued an attempted clearance on the edge of his own penalty area. The ball dropped to Mullen who found Siegrist’s bottom right hand corner of the net with a superbly struck volley.
Kyle McAllister thought he had fired Saints into the lead three minutes later, only for his fine finish to be ruled out by a marginal offside decision.
Clark missed United’s best chance to regain the lead, while Hladky made a smart save to keep out Paul Watson’s header, but it was the hosts who generally carried a greater threat. Siegrist made two excellent stops to deny Cody Cooke and Paul McGinn in the second half, then reacted sharply to spare Connolly an own goal at the start of extra time.
Connolly, already booked, was fortunate to escape a second yellow card when Beaton bizarrely failed to penalise a blatant foul on Nazon who was then shown his own highly controversial red card for what appeared an accidental clash with the United man.
Fortunately for Saints, it did not prove costly as they held their nerve while United’s crashed spectacularly in the shoot-out.