This wasn’t quite the thrill of hosting and competing in a Uefa Cup final. But Dundee United fans will have woken on the morning of the 30th anniversary of such an occasion safe in the knowledge this current season remains alive with possibilities. This hasn’t quite been an epic 70-game campaign, as in 1986-87. But this was a fifth match in just 14 days for the visitors, who were somehow revitalised during a second half in which they scored twice to turn the Premiership play-off semi-final tie on its head. Playing towards their own fans, United threw everything at Falkirk in a pulsating game.
Falkirk took the lead in just 11 minutes with another fine finish by James Craigen, who scored in the first leg. Even though they left things late, United were never out of it and struck twice in the last 14 minutes through Simon Murray and Paul Dixon, whose winning header took a deflection off Falkirk’s Tom Taiwo and looped over Robbie Thomson.
Seemingly turning the notion of home advantage on its head, Falkirk looked the less sure-footed on their synthetic surface and a slip from Aaron Muirhead got the United comeback underway.
United eventually seized the goal their efforts deserved with 14 minutes left. The equaliser was created by their two in-form men, Blair Spittal and Murray.
Muirhead should have dealt with the danger but allowed Spittal’s headed flick to run into the path of Murray, whose finish was as sure as ever.
The goal that booked them a tie with either Hamilton Accies or Inverness arrived with just three minutes left. Substitute Alex Nicholls slung in a cross after persistent work from Murray won the visitors a throw-in. Dixon arrived at the far post and put pressure on Taiwo, who seemed to get the last touch as the ball arced into the corner.
After five games already between these two sides this season, what they didn’t know about each other at kick-off last night wasn’t worth knowing.
Something about whom United were certainly aware after his acrobatics in the first leg is Craigen. If not quite as spectacular as his equaliser on Tuesday the opener after just 11 minutes last night was another superbly struck effort from the midfielder.
It could still only be described as a half-chance when John Baird’s lay-off after Muirhead’s forward pass fell into his path but Craigen put his laces through the ball. He saw his shot fizz towards the far corner of Cammy Bell’s goal, where the ball struck one post before rebounding along the line and hitting the other.
The ball had, it seemed, already crossed the line but did so more emphatically after striking the opposite post.
Craigen turned away to celebrate his good fortune while the United players could not hide their disgust at failing to deal with Baird’s clever flick in the first place. They had been slow to react.
Given their struggles already at this stadium, United had been determined to avoid conceding the first goal. But while they failed in this fairly basic aim at least it was early enough in the game to mount a comeback.
A report forecasting troubled financial times for the club circulating on the morning of the match only ramped up the stakes for United, who’d lost both visits here this season. Stuart Garden, the United coach, was spoken to by referee Kevin Clancy midway through the first-half on what was a fraught night for everyone involved.
United were chasing the game by this point. Indeed, they were seeking to avoid losing a second goal likely to be ruinous to their hopes of returning to the top flight. Having conceded three goals here twice already in this campaign, they were conscious of the danger of all-out collapse.
But they stuck grimly to their task and reached half-time still very much in the tie. Indeed, they’d created perhaps the best chances after going behind. While Falkirk had most of the ball and looked the more composed the visitors could never be discounted. Thomas Mikkelsen headed a Dixon cross over while Murray miskicked on the edge of the six-yard box after Tony Andreu’s cutback.
Watson then did well to get in front of a cute ball from Mikkelsen that would otherwise have reached Murray standing just yards from goal.
The visitors had the ball in the net shortly into the second-half after William Edjenguele rifled home from close range but the referee had already blown for a foul by Mikkelsen on Watson. It seemed soft.
This was United’s most productive part of the game until their late onslaught completely floored Falkirk, who must again deal with crushing disappointment after another season that seemed to promise so much.