Ayr United all but sealed their play-off spot in the League on Friday night despite losing to Dundee United 1-2 in a spirited and strength sapping game that left nothing in the tank by the end.
Fielding the same team that beat Dundee United on their last visit to Tannadice, a win for the Honest Men would move them to within three points of their hosts and induce a heart pounding end to the season.
Lawrence Shankland got things under way in bright sunshine with Ayr attacking the goal in front of the home fans. It was obvious right from the start that both teams were in no mood to go easy with Daniel Harvie not holding back early on with a stiff challenge on his opposite number Peter Pawlett that earned a stiff talking to from referee Bobby Madden but no card this early in the game.
Dundee United were the first to get close to scoring in 5 minutes as poor defending from Ayr allowed Osman Sow to pick up the ball from a long clearance that Michael Rose failed to deal with, but his left footed drive slid wide of Doohan’s right hand post.
General play may not have been pretty with both teams trying the long ball over the back of respective defence lines and nobody getting any time on the ball as attackers were closed down and harried at every opportunity.
Dundee United had another crack at goal in the 17th minute when a long throw came in to the box. The initial touch by Sow was missed and Liam Smith pushed the ball out to the edge of the box where it was met by Callum Booth who slid the ball back to Sow waiting for the ball and his turn and dink ended in the back of the net. Celebrations were there none though as the far side assistant already had their flag up for offside and the scoreboard remained at 0-0.
The deadlock was broken in the 24th minute. Sow clattered into Smith and earned himself a yellow card and a free kick for the visitors on the far-right wing. Smith took the kick and lofted a teasing pass into the Dundee United box where Mark Connolly rose highest to clear the ball out but only to the feet of Andy Geggan. Despite getting fouled, the striker managed to get the ball away to Andy Murdoch and he chipped the ball to the far side of the goalmouth where Ayr captain Steven Bell got his head to the ball and looped a beautifully cushioned header past Benjamin Siegrist for only his second goal of the season. 0-1 to the visitors and Dundee United were staring at a fourth defeat of the season to the hands of Ian McCall’s men.
Ayr took heart from their lead and upped the tempo as they searched for a second goal to turn the screw once more on Dundee United and were playing with skill and panache. The Arabs looked shell shocked and their ball control seemed to desert them as pass after pass went wayward and any forward thrusts were snuffed out by the Ayr back-line and the first half ended with the single goal being the difference between the teams.
The foul on Geggan that led to the goal had obviously caused more damage than had be initially thought as the striker was pulled during the interval to be replaced by Mark Kerr. Neilson must have given his players a tongue lashing during the interval because they came out showing much more purpose and if it had been Ayr that ruled the roost in the first half it was Dundee United that were the top dogs for the next 45.
Just before the hour mark, Robbie Neilson pulled off what was to be his master stroke as he made a double substitution pulling Sow and Booth from the field and replacing them with Pavol Safranko and Nicky Clark. It was only going to take 4 minutes for the changes to take effect.
Coming from a corner on the nearside, the ball bounced and pinged around before Ian Harkes finally got the ball back in to the penalty box. Safranko took the ball on his chest and pinged the ball in to the back of the net and past the despairing Ross Doohan. 1-1 and Dundee United had their tails up and the home crowd urged their team on.
Dundee United doubled their lead and sealed all three points in the 73rd minute when Peter McMullan intercepted a horror pass from Doohan trying to get the ball out to Daniel Harvie, but the power was weak and the Dundee United striker snatched the ball and drove the ball across the face of the goalmouth to get the second goal. 2-1 Dundee United and their hoodoo over Ayr was well and truly broken.
Five games in fifteen days started to take their toll on the Honest Men as they began to falter for the remainder of the game and Dundee United saw the opportunity to truly put the game to bed. Attack after attack tested the Ayr defence and they struggled at times to hold their hosts at bay. When the final whistle eventually blew, they were totally spent with nothing left to give.
Results on the Saturday however went Ayr’s way as Dunfermline failed to capitalise at home going down 0-1 to Falkirk. This leaves them 9 points behind Ayr with three games to play. Ayr though have a game in hand and an 18-point goal difference over them and barring a major disaster should finish the season in fourth place at least, confirming their position in the promotion play-offs.
Next up is another Friday night televised game as champions elect Ross County come to Somerset Park, where they could wrap up the title with a win.
Doohan, Smith, Harvie, Rose, Bell, Murdoch, Crawford, Geggan, McDaid, Moffat, Shankland
Substitutes: Hare-Reid, Kerr, Forrest, Docherty, McCowan, Cadden, Miller
Siegrist, Booth, McMullan, Sow, Robson, Butcher, Reynolds, Watson, Harkes, Pawlett, Connolly
Substitutes: Laidlaw, Fyvie, Clark, Safranko, Nesbitt, Smith, Seaman
Referee: Bobby Madden