SO WHO saw this one coming? There had been plenty of heat and noise in the build-up to this game with many regarding it as United’s last stand before an ignominiously early demotion from the Premiership was all but confirmed.
Dundee United - 5
Spittal 8, 39; Durnan 32; Rankin 44; Dillon 78
Kilmarnock - 1
The bluntest talk, we were told, had apparently been within the Tannadice dressing room as home truths were laid bare among the players. Well, going by the outcome yesterday Mixu Paatelainen should seriously consider adopting the Big Brother house as the club’s new training facility with lengthy diatribes about each other the order of the day.
If this was a cup final as many had described, the tangerine and black ribbons were being tied to the metaphorical trophy by the interval. Astonishingly this United side who had had doomed written all over them were four to the good by then with Blair Spittal having found the Midas touch by scoring a brace and helping out with the other two. No United fan will be downcast that they only added one after the break and lost a potential clean sheet when Josh Magennis nodded in a consolation goal for the visitors.
But though they will rightly be basking in the afterglow of this jaw-dropping result for a few days, there’s a lot more cup finals to come for Paatelainen and his new-found bolshie boys if they are to make one of the most improbable escapes of them all. The gap is still 11 points and well though they played their task was aided and abetted by one of the most supine performances you could imagine from an infuriatingly erratic Killie side. It’s just as well Gary Locke has a good head of hair as he must have been tearing it out in clumps yesterday.
“We played with a very good intensity, the players’ workrate was unbelievable – and we scored goals,” said a happy Paatelainen afterwards. “It is only one match, but we believe in ourselves. There was more spice today in terms of our performance being more aggressive. It’s all about attitude. We will fight until it is over and now we will turn our eyes to next week.”
The opening 45 minutes were truly the stuff of dreams for the previously luckless United manager. His men were dominant right from the start and within ten minutes they were ahead. A beautifully executed goal it was too, the tenacious Simon Murray teeing up the ball for Spittal to drill a venomous shot into the corner of the net.
We’ve seen this movie before with United this season – early hope crushed by unconvincing defending and brittle team spirit – but not this time. There was a grittiness about them which meant that they took the withdrawal through injury of defender Coll Donaldson after a nasty collision a few minutes later and then the same fate befalling Guy Demel all comfortably in their stride.
Indeed there was an exemplary bit of turning a negative into a positive as Donaldson’s replacement, the oft-maligned Mark Durnan, powered a header into the net from a Spittal corner just over the half-hour mark. A complete comedy moment in the Killie rearguard shortly afterwards and it was three as Spittal’s free kick from wide on left was allowed by everyone to drift unchallenged into the net. Just about everyone in the ground was checking what was in their tea when a surreal fourth came along on the brink of the interval, Rankin gleefully tucking it away after a cross by the omnipotent Spittal.
Even this notoriously vulnerable United side couldn’t let such an advantage slip from their grasp. We were never going to witness a repeat of the breathtaking opening 45 minutes, but the Tannadice men were impressively focused and kept trying to take the game to the visitors, who themselves showed at least a semblance of coherence. It was in fact much more like the contest we expected it to be – a few near things at either end and lots of endeavour. There was still the uncommon sight of Sean Dillon slaloming his way through the Killie rearguard to make it five, while Magennis’s late headed goal was greeted with near total silence by both sets of fans which just about summed up how punch drunk everyone was by that stage.
“Where do you start?” asked a glum Locke afterwards. “It was a cup final for us as well. It’s just really disappointing, but credit to United – they won all the individual battles today.”