Plenty of column inches and air time have been dedicated to Dundee United’s flaws this season.
In this oddest of Premiership campaigns, it is perhaps strange that a newly-promoted team sitting in mid-table have had such a negative vibe about them.
It was with some relief and relish, then, that you watched them play their best game of the season on Saturday and prepared to lavish Micky Mellon’s players with praise.
It is worth noting, too, that their excellent 3-0 victory over Livingston at Tannadice saw them pass the 33-point mark – they sit on 34 in sixth spot – that has ensured the safety of 10th place in the table in the last couple of completed top-flight seasons (Hamilton in 2017-18 and 18-19).
You got a good feeling about United as soon as you walked into the stadium to discover what a brilliant job the ground staff had done to clear the pitch of the snow that had covered the city for days.
It then took only 49 seconds of game time to begin believing it could be a sunny afternoon for the Tangerines.
The tenacious Jeando Fuchs played a pass out to Jamie Robson on the left flank. Robson pushed the ball a couple of feet ahead of him before cutting back to Adrian Sporle, who had raced into the box. The Argentinian, who never seems to disappoint when he gets his opportunity, took a touch then lashed his shot high into Livi goalie Max Strykek’s net.
The Tangerines looked comfortable until Peter Pawlett was sent off on 31 minutes for a tackle on Jason Holt. At first glance, it looked like a booking at worst but TV evidence showed a raised boot by the United midfielder.
In a notable display of resilience in adversity, though, the Tangerines kept their two men up front – Lawrence Shankland and Louis Appere – and scored again on 35 minutes, just four minutes after Pawlett’s departure.
Substitute Ian Harkes made an instant impact when he won possession in midfield, ran on and then threaded a great ball into the path of Shankland, who slotted it under the advancing Stryjek.
That goal, scored when a man down, was an obvious sign that this United performance would be different from so many others this season, including the two previous losses to Livingston.
It became 10 versus 10 on 61 minutes when the visitors’ Jack Fitzwater was ordered off for fouling Harkes as the American made his way into the box.
The stage – as well as the snow – was then cleared for Shankland to score another cracker.
The frontman won a header, turned opponent Josh Mullin inside out, cut back inside and then curled a lovely shot beyond Stryjek with just seven minutes remaining.
So where did it all go right for United?
First off, there was the determination not to be pushed back after Pawlett left the park. To score so quickly after supposedly being weakened was hugely significant.
Shanks on song
More technically, there was the ability to get the ball to Shankland.
In the previous game against the West Lothian side at Tannadice back on October 2, which they lost 2-1, the goalscorer didn’t manage a touch inside the opposition box.
This time, it was so different and provided further proof that Shankland is perfectly capable of hitting the back of the net in the top flight, albeit not as regularly as he did in the Championship last year.
Livi boss Dave Martindale was Shankland’s biggest fan and you could understand why.
Martindale said: “Fair play to Lawrence Shankland, he was decent today.
“His second goal…it was a fantastic finish and he’s done Josh Mullin great.
“Shankland gave us a torrid time that was probably the difference in the game.”
United boss Mellon joined in, adding: “I’m a football fan and Lawrence is playing for the club I manage but it’s important in Scotland that we celebrate having players like that in our league.
“I thought he was that good.
“It was a fantastic centre-forward’s display for the whole game – the hold-up play, the cleverness, the technique.
“Too often we are too down on ourselves in Scotland.
“Sometimes you have to say: ‘We have some real talent in our division.’
“He took his goals really well and I’m pleased he’s a Dundee United player.”
As well as Shankland’s man-of-the match performance, there were no goal-costing, daft individual errors at the back as the Tangerines made it two successive clean sheets to go with the five goals scored at Dingwall and on Saturday combined.
Finally, there was the finishing.
Sporle’s early strike was as clean and crisp as they come, while Shankland showed wonderful composure to slide home the first of his two goals.
Best was last
The best was left to last, though, and when Shankland is left facing a keeper on an angle, you always fancy him to find space between the man and the post.
All in all, United are in good shape on 34 points with Rangers (a), Kilmarnock (a), Celtic (h) and Aberdeen (h) to be faced before the split.
Before their last two results you looked at that run-in with dread but through resilience, decent defending, fabulous finishing and the ability to feed Shankland the Tangerines have given themselves a fighting chance of a top-six finish.