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4 Dundee United talking points: Pure catharsis for ‘a legend of a man’ after 560 DAYS

Ilmari Niskanen's first goal since October 2, 2021 was one of the major stories from United's win

Niskanen celebrates a long-awaited strike. Image: SNS
Niskanen celebrates a long-awaited strike. Image: SNS

Dundee United claimed a breathless 2-1 victory over Motherwell to climb off the foot of the Premiership.

There was a sense of déjà vu as the ice-cool Jamie McGrath slotted home the winning goal from the penalty spot, just as he did six days prior against Hibernian.

Ilmari Niskanen had cancelled out Kevin van Veen’s first-half opener; the powerful winger’s first strike for the club since scoring against Ross County on October 2, 2021.

United stars celebrate McGrath’s winner. Image: SNS

And Courier Sport was at Fir Park to analyse the action.

Birighitti blocks

When Mark Birighitti inexplicably dallied on the ball, allowing Stevie May to slide tackle home a winning goal for St Johnstone on February 18, it was one of the most egregious goalkeeping errors Scottish football had seen for many years.

It was at the nadir of a challenging debut campaign for the Australia internationalist.

After being helped off the pitch by medical staff, the initial prognosis was a dislocated shoulder. Despite the damage not proving that severe, he was dropped for the next match — with Jack Newman between the sticks for a 4-0 defeat at Ross County.

Birighitti’s prospects looked bleak. Would he play for the club again?

Birighitti deflects van Veen’s shot over. Image: SNS

Fast-forward a couple of months and, without wishing to tempt fate, there are tentative signs of an unlikely, but wholly welcome, redemption arc.

The two-time A-League goalkeeper of the year was excellent at Fir Park. He made SEVEN saves — more than any Premiership stopper this weekend — including a gilt-edged block to deny van Veen when one-on-one with the striker.

That opportunity came with the Steelmen leading 1-0. Without Birighitti’s intervention, United would have probably lost the game and remained bottom of the Premiership on Monday morning.

He merited his post-match praise from boss Jim Goodwin.

Pure catharsis for Ilmari Niskanen

Has there been a more popular goalscorer for Dundee United this season than Niskanen?

The genial Finn is one of the most diligent, hard-working and encouraging members of the United squad and, while his end product can leave a little to be desired on occasion, he remains largely adored among Arabs.

Through the good times and the bad, he leaves everything on the pitch.

That admiration extends to the dressing room.

A roar of delight from Niskanen. Image: SNS

A list of teammates to post supportive messages under Niskanen’s celebratory Instagram post reads:

Glenn Middleton, Arnaud Djoum, Aziz Behich, Charlie Mulgrew (describing him as “a legend of a man”), Kai Fotheringham, Mathew Cudjoe, Jamie McGrath, Steven Fletcher, Ryan Edwards, Jack Newman, Ian Harkes and Rory MacLeod.

And Niskanen’s guttural roar in front of the 1,500-strong away section was pure catharsis; 560 days since his last goal for the club, the drought was over.

Indeed, in the minutes following his clinical leveller, he looked a different player. He drove at defenders and, rather than second-guessing himself, he whipped first-time deliveries into the box.

If this display — on just his fourth start of the season — can boost Niskanen’s confidence, he could yet have a big say in the Tangerines’ fight for survival.

The curious case of Steven Fletcher’s “identical” penalty claims

Motherwell boss Stuart Kettlewell was adamant in his post-match comments: Steven Fletcher should have either won two penalties or been sent off, having been booked twice for simulation.

He described the big striker’s two penalty claims as “identical”.

However, at a time when officiating standards are under more scrutiny than ever, that is perhaps doing referee Nick Walsh a disservice.

The first spot-kick was a stone-waller. Motherwell keeper Liam Kelly attempts to retract his arms after realising Fletcher will beat him to the ball but — not in control of his body — he blocks the former Scotland international.

It was unfortunate and, to an extent, unintentional. But once Kelly goes to ground, that is the risk.

Fletcher’s first claim is correctly awarded as Kelly’s body clearly blocks his path. Image: SNS

For the second claim, Fletcher again beats Kelly to the ball, but manages to completely avoid the keeper’s body.

The contact — if any was made — was with the arm of the stopper and Sportscene angles are less than definitive.

Ultimately, it was a moot point, but the decision was not quite as inexplicable as some have suggested.

In pursuit of clean sheets

United are pressing tirelessly, increasingly tidy in possession and look a threat in front of goal. Saturday marked the first time they have scored two or more goals in successive Premiership matches since December 28.

Their next challenge is to add clean sheets to their repertoire.

Despite overseeing a sharp upturn in fortunes, Goodwin has repeatedly lamented the concession of soft goals during his brief Tannadice tenure.

Van Veen fires home. Image: SNS

Motherwell’s opener was too easy on Saturday.

Charlie Mulgrew is dragged out of defence by Michael Mandron but fails to contest the header with the Frenchman; his flick-on is perfect for an unmarked van Veen, whose pass finds Max Johnston haring away from Scott McMann.

Johnston’s cut-back allows van Veen to prod home at the second time of asking.

Not a pretty goal, defensively, and — even in the afterglow of victory — will give Goodwin something to work on.

United’s last shut-out in the league came on January 2 — a 1-0 win at St Johnstone — and if they can remedy that statistic, then they will enter the fraught final weeks of the campaign in fine fettle.