HAD PLAY been halted at McDiarmid Park with 15 minutes remaining and defender Jaroslaw Fojut allowed then to express his hopes of Dundee United mounting a title bid in the remainder of the season, then no-one would have batted an eyelid.
However, with his comments coming after the Tannadice side had thrown away the opportunity to close the gap on Premiership leaders Celtic, it was eyebrows that were raised instead.
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Leading courtesy of Calum Butcher’s first goal for the club just before half-time, United looked likely to build on their impressive 2-1 victory over Celtic four days before Christmas with what would have been a fifth win in six games. Defending stoutly and breaking forward with verve whenever they could, Jackie McNamara’s team, with the creativity of Nadir Ciftci and Stuart Armstrong working well in tandem, would have been worthy of Fojut’s assertion that his sights are set firmly on the league trophy.
With Celtic stuttering to a draw at home to Ross County, victory would have eased the Tangerines to within two points of the summit at the close of 2014. Instead, they suffered a post-Christmas comedown, allowing a gap-narrowing win to slip through their grasp and turn quickly into a defeat that left them five points adrift.
The frailties exposed by St Johnstone’s late comeback, which came courtesy of Michael O’Halloran’s 76th-minute equaliser and Chris Millar’s dramatic winner three minutes from time, raised plenty of question marks over United’s aspirations, but Fojut remained defiant in his assessment of their aims.
“Of course it’s disappointing,” admitted the Polish defender. “I always say every game I play is for the championship. If we had three more points the table would look different.
“Every game I play, every season I play, I always think about the championship, even if don’t play for the title contenders. But right now, with the position we are in, the young players think we might be title contenders. We all think the same as the gaffer and he wants us to push Celtic.
“It will be hard because I know that doesn’t happen very often in Scotland. But we want to do it. We are a very brave team and we want to do it.
“But we have to learn from our mistakes. It’s good, though, it’s Christmas time and there are lots of games to come.”
Next up is a city derby at home to Dundee on New Year’s Day, a game in which United will surely have to show more defensive fortitude than was visible in the closing stages at McDiarmid Park.
In a low-key opening half, Saints created the more meaningful opportunities, but it was the visitors who took the lead just two minutes from the interval. Ciftci fed Armstrong at the edge of the box and his flicked pass found the supporting Butcher, whose telescopic right leg stretched round the covering Dave Mackay to place his shot beyond the dive of Alan Mannus.
It was the first goal conceded by St Johnstone in nearly three -and-a-half matches and Blair Spittal should have doubled United’s lead in the 70th minute when he wastefully nodded Ciftci’s cross down and wide of the target from barely six yards out.
At this point, a snapshot of proceedings favoured United and would have backed Fojut’s later claims. However, by full-time, it was the Perth outfit who were celebrating a successful climax to a year in which they climbed the pinnacle of their historic Scottish Cup triumph in May.
United seethed at what they claimed was the injustice of the moment that sparked St Johnstone’s remarkable late comeback. The visitors appealed for a hand-ball by home skipper Mackay in the moments preceding O’Halloran’s equaliser, but there was still time for the Tangerines to prevent Lee Croft from whipping in a cross and to get closer to the unmarked O’Halloran, who nodded in his sixth goal in eight games.
The momentum then swung noticeably towards Saints and they racked up an impressive sixth successive victory when midfielder Millar was allowed to amble across the penalty box and back before engineering enough space for a low shot from 14 yards out.
That it was Millar’s first goal in three-and-a-half years – and his first in the league for another year – caused almost as much merriment as the win for the Perth outfit. “All I’ll say is that it was an okay goal,” said Mackay. “His last goal was for Celtic Boys’ Club I think. Seriously, though, it was great to see him finally get a goal because I think that was the first shot on target he’s had in three or four years.”
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