United lost their penultimate home game of the season against Ross County in a match that saw many stars substituted early ahead of the semi final, and four of Our Academy Graduates gaining valuable minutes.
Dundee United started the same XI that stormed to victory against Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup on Sunday, up against a Highland side battling it out to avoid the relegation play-off position come the end of the normal league season.
Ross County played like a team with skin in the game. They began on the front foot and troubled United from the outset. Micky Mellon’s men were attempting to put together a slick passing game, but continuously found themselves cut off, turned over and shut out by an aggressive away side.
In a team so stacked with former United men, it was always possible that a one-time Terror might strike against the home side. Ross County scored when Gardyne played in Blair Spittal. The wide man whipped a cross onto the head of frontline beanpole Jordan White, who knocked it home. A setback for the semi-finalists.
United scarcely had time to reckon with the initial goal before the Highland side were knocking in their second. A corner flicked on found Alex Iacovitti at the back post. The goal didn’t find the net, and was saved by Deniz in the goal, but the referee felt sure that the ball had crossed the line. Two goals up for the away side within half an hour, and a steep uphill struggle for United to get back into things.
The Terrors looked out of sorts and out of sync for the rest of the half. Passes were failing to find runners, attackers were getting under one another’s feet, and the free-flowing forward motion of the Tangerines of last Sunday was absent.
Micky Mellon gave his charges time to settle into the second half, and in the opening exchanges County certainly lacked the potency of the first half. Yet United failed still to get things clicking.
On 57 minutes, the manager ran the changes. Midfielder Ian Harkes was taken off for newly re-signed off for Pawlet, and hitman Shankland went off for Our Academy Graduate Louis Appere. The Fifer was joined on the pitch by fellow Our Academy Graduate Logan Chalmers, who replaced Mark McNulty.
The young pair linked beautifully on the hour mark, with Appere using his formidable frame to protect the ball and buy time at the edge of the County box. He played in Chalmers, who struck goalwards. The shot kissed the top of the crossbar.
A further Our Academy Graduate took the field as the clock wound down. Captain Reynolds was brought off, the manager clearly having one eye on the semi final, and Kerr Smith was introduced. Flo Hoti was the final young player to be brought on.
County were content to sit on their lead and defend with aggression. The referee dished out three yellows and several warnings to the doughty defending players.
The game for United became about finding shape, discipline and edge with so many young players finding their feet in the premiership. Kerr Smith looked assured for such a youthful defender, Hoti was influential in the midfield and the two young prospects worked hard up front.
Deniz rounded out the game with a hat trick of good saves in the closing ten minutes. A long throw caused chaos in the United box, and an edge of the area strike was tipped onto the bar by the keeper. Deniz also made an important intervention after a corner, but perhaps the best save stopped a Jordan White thunderbolt shot from outside the box. The ball looked a certainty to rip into the bottom corner. Deniz at full stetch got his hands to it and forced it round the post.
It ended 2-0, with the United camp likely happy to forget the fixture and look forward to Hampden on Saturday.
DUNDEE UNITED: Deniz, Robson (AG), Reynolds (C), Edwards, L Smith, Harkes, Fuchs, Butcher, Clark, Shankland, McNulty. SUBS: Doohan, Spörle, Connolly, Pawlett, Hoti, Chalmers (AG), Bolton, Appere (AG), K Smith (AG).
ROSS COUNTY: Laidlaw, Hjelde Gardyne, Vigurs, Iacovitti, Kelly, Spittal, Tillson, Naismith, Donaldson, White SUBS: Hilton, Draper, Shaw, McKay, Hilton, Watson, Charles-Cook, Lakin, Paton