Twists and turns keep Dundee United’s title chase running

Dundee United's Pavol Safranko celebrates his goal to make it 1-1 against Ayr United.
Dundee United's Pavol Safranko celebrates his goal to make it 1-1 against Ayr United.

The race for automatic promotion in the Championship is still alive after another weekend of twists and turns.

By half-time at Tannadice on Friday night, it looks as if it might be all over as Dundee United’s season-long troubles with Ayr United continued.

Having lost three times already to the Honest Men without being able to muster so much as a shot on target, never mind a goal, the Tangerines found themselves trailing again.

If things stayed like that, leaders Ross County would simply have to take care of business against lowly Partick Thistle in Dingwall on Saturday afternoon and that guaranteed return to the Premiership would be theirs.

The Tangerines, though, had other ideas and a gritty second- half display finally saw them put that dismal Ayr record right.

A couple of timely substitutions also helped as the introduction of top scorers Pavol Safranko and Nicky Clark sparked life into an attack that had looked to have run out of ideas after Ayr skipper Steven Bell headed his team in front just after the mid-point of the first period.

They were introduced in the 59th minute and just four minutes later, the fight-back was on as Safranko struck his second goal in two games by blasting home an Ian Harkes cross.

Prior to that, United had been struggling to break open the Ayr defence but afterwards it was all one-way traffic.

And if visiting goalie Ross Doohan lent a helping hand as he surrendered possession to allow Paul McMullan to bear down on goal before expertly slotting home the second on 74 minutes, by then a home winner was coming.

By the end, the winning margin could have been greater but then again this is a United team that’s making a prolonged habit of only winning by one goal.

They did see out time comfortably and the three points meant County’s title party would have to be put on ice. The Staggies would, though, have moved within a whisker of the title if they beat the Jags.

Ross County dropped two points to bottom side Partick Thistle.

They couldn’t. Saturday’s proceedings finished goalless, leaving the gap at six points and it will be this weekend at the earliest, when the playing order is reversed, before the title can be decided.

If County can win their Friday evening trip to Ayr it will be all over bar the shouting because, although a win at Inverness on Saturday would technically keep United chances alive, the leaders’ vastly superior goal difference would mean they’d done enough.

A win at Somerset Park, however, is no given. Ayr have still to secure their play-off spot and three points would do that.

Their manager, Ian McCall, also believes it will be a fresher team that faces County. They’ll go in having had a week without seeing action, whereas Friday past was their fifth game in a fortnight.

He felt that had a bearing on the outcome at Tannadice and the way his men did tire second half.

Refreshed, they can do themselves and United a favour by beating the leaders, things might just become interesting.

Given that County have won once in their last five games, such an outcome can’t be ruled out. United, of course, do have that difficult trip to Inverness to negotiate and, like Ayr, Caley Thistle are a team that’s given them problems this term.

With just three games left, County do remain strong favourites even if they are limping towards the finish line. Should they reach it, United will get another crack at promotion via the play-offs.

Given the home defeat to out-of-sorts Queen of the South last month and the loss of that last- minute equaliser when they’d dominated County earlier this month, they will do so with a feeling of what might have been.