Irn Bru Cup a chance to lay down a marker says Dundee United coach Johnson

Grant Johnson helped Dundee United get to the Challenge Cup Final in 1995.

It’s the cup that fans of clubs whose normal surroundings are the Premiership and the two major knockout competitions often resent.

But Dundee United will be looking to make it two final appearances from two attempts when they travel south for Saturday night’s Irn-Bru Cup semi against Queen of the South.

Some 22 years ago at McDiarmid Park, United faced Stenhousemuir in the final of what was the Challenge Cup.

For current gaffer Ray McKinnon, incidentally, it marked a debut in his second spell as a player for United.

But it was a day to forget as, in one of the major shocks of the competition, Billy Kirkwood’s team lost out in a penalty shoot-out.

As Kirkwood rejuvenated a team that had been relegated just a year after lifting the Scottish Cup, however, a semi-final success at promotion rivals Dunfermline was a stepping stone to getting the team back to the top flight.

Early-season league defeats at the hands of the Pars and Airdrie, plus a League Cup exit at Motherwell, meant the campaign got off to a shaky start.

Although a shock defeat at Dumbarton — some things haven’t changed — followed just three days later, success in the semi at East End Park seemed to settle the team down.

After the Boghead blip, they went on an unbeaten run that took them into the thick of the race at the top of the First Division and, although ultimately automatic promotion was not secured, it did come via a dramatic play-off success against Partick.

And there’s little doubt an emphatic last-four 4-0 win on an October night served to remind their rivals, and maybe even themselves, United were a force to be reckoned with.

Following a most disappointing of defeats at Falkirk last weekend, there’s little doubt a similar morale-boosting result this weekend would be more than welcome.

Tannadice coach and member of the team in their last Challenge Cup semi, Grant Johnson, definitely thinks so.

“After last Saturday, we want a reaction, a positive performance and a result.

“It doesn’t matter what the competition is. If you can go to a difficult place and win well, you’ve made a statement and people take notice.

“That was the way it was in that Challenge Cup semi-final I played in and it’s a result I remember.

“We went there with quite a young team — I was in central midfield with Dale Gray and I think he was only 17 — but we had won by half-time.”

While he accepts this cup isn’t always a favourite of supporters and doesn’t try to pretend it is the No 1 priority for the club, Grant’s attitude is simple — we’re in it, so we might as well win it.

“In that season I played in the Challenge Cup it was actually very good for me.

“Unfortunately, I missed the first few games in the league through suspension, so the early ties gave me game time and a chance to get in the team.

“Then the early rounds were used to blood young players.

“We’ve done a bit of that this year and used it to get players like Tony Andreu and William Edjenguele used to the team.

“But in 1995, by the time we reached the semis, we really wanted to win it and it’s the same this time.

“The manager has worked hard since we came in to create a winning mentality and that means we want to win every game we play.

“Once a game kicks off it doesn’t matter what the competition is, it’s about doing all you can to come out on top over the 90 minutes.

“That’s what we want to do on Saturday.”

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