STILL buoyed by the previous week’s victory over Celtic, at one point yesterday Dundee United were poised to go within two points of the Premiership leaders. Just moments later, however, a tenacious comeback from St Johnstone ensured it was the home side who stretched their remarkable record to six consecutive victories to leave their visitors ruing a lack of consistency.
Scorers: St Johnstone - O’Halloran 76, Millar 87; Dundee United - Butcher 43
Calum Butcher’s first goal for Dundee United earned him some redemption after his red card in the corresponding fixture 12 months ago, but the climax to a compelling Tayside derby was all about two contrasting goalscoring records in the St Johnstone ranks.
Michael O’Halloran’s sixth goal in his last eight games swung the momentum towards the Perth outfit and Chris Millar’s first goal since March 2011 extended Saints’ unbeaten sequence to eight games as the Scottish Cup holders saw out a memorable 2014 on a high.
“It was a great goal, you can say nothing else about it,” said manager Tommy Wright. “The noise in the dressing room after the game from the lads wasn’t as much for celebrating the win as for him scoring, because I don’t think some of the lads could believe it. It was a great goal to finish off a great performance from us.”
Steven MacLean featured for the first time in four months following knee surgery, as a straight replacement for on-loan Brian Graham, who was precluded from playing against his employers, and the striker, who ended the 90 minutes with his cut head swathed in a bandage, saw his redoubtable spirit matched by his team-mates.
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“The character of the team, to come from a goal behind against a quality side was important for us,” added Wright, “and that will give us even more confidence going into another difficult game (away to Aberdeen) on New Year’s Day.”
There was a surprising lack of verve about the match in the early exchanges and it was appropriate that St Johnstone’s first effort on goal in the sixth minute was the result of a mistake from United, but Lee Croft’s rising shot was tipped over by Radoslaw Cierzniak.
United finally lit up the match just short of the interval. Nadir Ciftci’s threaded ball found Stuart Armstrong on the edge of the area and his flicked pass found the breaking Butcher, who stretched his leg around the covering Dave Mackay to poke his shot across Alan Mannus and into the net.
With 20 minutes remaining Blair Spittal should have doubled United’s advantage. Ciftci bamboozled Millar and Simon Lappin and whipped in an excellent cross but his young team-mate screwed his header wide from six yards out.
United were made to pay for their profligacy when St Johnstone equalised in the 77th minute. The visitors appealed for hand ball as Mackay intervened but there was no excuse for the total absence of marking in the middle as O’Halloran nodded in Croft’s superb cross after the ball had been headed clear to the winger on the right.
All of a sudden, Saints were the team with their tails up and the transformation in the game was completed with Millar’s winner three minutes from time. The midfielder was allowed to amble from right to left across the box as he sought room for a shot. He eventually found it with a simple skip back inside Rankin and the resulting finish low to Cierzniak’s left was composed and accurate.
Still upset at referee Alan Muir’s failure to give his team a hand ball in the build-up to Saints’ equaliser, United manager Jackie McNamara left his media duties to assistant Simon Donnelly but the message was the same. “We’ve looked back at it from different angles and it certainly looks like it struck him on the arm,” said Donnelly. “The referee has told us it was the chest and it’s disappointing because goals change the momentum in games at times.”
With a crucial derby against Dundee next up on New Year’s Day, Donnelly added: “We’re not satisfied with just going and beating Celtic, we want to build on that and unfortunately we didn’t do that today. So, it’s vitally important we move on to Thursday.”
St Johnstone: Mannus; Mackay, Anderson, Wright, Easton; Millar, Lappin (McDonald 77); Croft (Miller 90), Wotherspoon, O’Halloran; MacLean. Subs not used: Banks, Caddis, Brown, McLaren, Kitchen.
Dundee United: Cierzniak; Dillon, Morris (Mackay-Steven 88), Fojut Townsend; Butcher, Rankin; Erskine, Armstrong, Spittal; Ciftci. Subs not used: Szromnik, Wilson, Telfer, Dow, Connolly, Spark.
Referee: A Muir. Attendance: 7,384
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