RYAN DOW continued where he left off against Aberdeen last weekend to soothe the souls of those United fans still mourning the loss of Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong following their sale to Celtic.
Scorers: Dundee United - Erskine (21), Dow (27, 31)
The visitors coped supremely well without two of their star players against in-form Stranraer, blowing their opponents away with a three-goal salvo in a nine-minute spell in the first-half. But there was some evidence of displeasure from the travelling supporters before kick-off.
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In the time between tossing tangerine-coloured flares on to the pitch, a number unveiled a banner questioning whether the Tannadice club, and chairman Stephen Thompson in particular, were guilty of placing an emphasis on riches over ambition.
Jackie McNamara’s side posted a swift reply to this insinuation by swatting aside Stranraer and progressing to the Scottish Cup quarter-finals, where they are one of only three top-tier sides. It might tend to be forgotten, but Celtic are not the only club whose treble ambitions remain alive. As picturesque as the drive south through the south Ayrshire countryside is, United had their business heads on. Stranraer, however, were the architects of their own downfall.
The first two goals were the result of defensive slips and proved particularly frustrating for the hosts. The start they made promised far more than to be 3-0 down after just over half-an-hour, but this they were thanks to Chris Erskine’s 23rd minute opener and a double from Dow.
“Remember, give them no respect!” urged one denizen of the main stand at the trim Stair Park ground United visited as recently as three years ago, winning 5-0. Stranraer’s current status as leaders of League 1 meant they deserved to be shown some respect by their distinguished guests.
The hosts were able to take a Scottish Cup break knowing their position at the top of the league was secure and so were fully focused on the task in hand in front of the live television cameras. This was the first time since a Scottish Cup tie against Celtic 14 years ago that a Stranraer home game had been shown live on Sky and they were clearly keen to make a good impression.
United midfielder Paul Paton had to move smartly to clear from Craig Malcolm and fireman Frank McKeown’s header went just over after a Chris Aitken free-kick.
McKeown’s expertise was then needed at the other end of the pitch when yet another flare was thrown on to the pitch from a boisterous group of United fans congregated behind the home goal. Play had to be stopped as a hapless steward gamboled on to deposit the contents of a bucket of sand on the smouldering missile. Still it continued to burn and so the bucket itself was tipped upside down in an attempt to douse the flare.
For a few moments it seemed as if the players might have to play around the upturned bucket. With this prop in place, all it needed was Oor Wullie to sit down on it to complete a nifty tribute to the home city of the visitors.
But Stranraer proved to be welcoming hosts in any case. Sean Winter, in attempting to put out a fire in his own half as United sought to break, succeeded only in fanning the flames.
His prod back after dispossessing Dow eluded right-back Craig Pettigrew and Erskine was allowed to run clear through on goal. His finish past the onrushing Stranraer goalkeeper David Mitchell was a composed one; United had struck with their first clear opening.
Credit to Stranraer, who very nearly equalised almost immediately afterwards when Radoslaw Cierzniak had to react quickly to claw a header from his own player, Callum Morris, off the line, following an Aitken corner.
But it got worse for the hosts as the irrepressible Dow took over. While he profited from a slip by Scott Rumsby, there was still much to do as he made his way down the left flank in the 28th minute.
He darted into the box and cut inside McKeown before gently lifting the ball over the diving Mitchell. On such a rutted pitch, it was a sublime goal. His second, just three minutes later, was certainly not the result of Stranraer ineptness; some skilful play from Nadir Ciftic in the middle of the park was crowned by a perfect ball through to Dow, who rounded the keeper before tapping the ball into an empty net.
Ryan McGowan had to clear Stephen Stirling’s header off the line but it was a dejected home side that headed towards the dressing-room at the interval.
They were passed on their way by former Dundee United and Stranraer player Derek Frye, who was invited to draw the winning ticket at the half-time lottery. “You are playing son, get yer boots!” shouted one wag.
But Stranraer offered more than simply gallows humour in terms of resistance after the interval, when they should have had secured at least one goal to show for their efforts.
But it was Mitchell who prevented United going further ahead minutes before the end when brilliantly tipping substitute Charlie Telfer’s free-kick over the bar.
“We look forward to everyone coming back next Saturday,” was the wry announcement from the Tannoy announcer, with reference to the greater-than-normal numbers in attendance. Peterhead, whose manager Jim McInally was watching yesterday, make the even longer trek to Stranraer this weekend for a top-of-the-league fixture.
Stranraer have other priorities; for United, too, the season is alive with possibilities.
Stranraer: Mitchell, Pettigrew, Rumsby, McKeown, Longridge, Winter, Stirling (Longworth 63), Aitken (Robertson 83),Gallagher, Gibson, Malcolm (Stoney 72). Subs Not Used: Russell, Tobin.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, McGowan, Morris, Fojut, Dillon, Butcher, Paton, Erskine (Spittal 74), Anier (Telfer 79), Dow, Ciftci.
Subs Not Used: Dixon, Rankin, Connolly, Szromnik, Spark.