Dundee United suffered their first defeat in four months as Falkirk claimed a comprehensive 4-2 victory over the out-of-sorts Tangerines on Friday night.
The result, courtesy of a Callmun Morrison double and goals from Tom Lang and Finn Yeats, saw United’s hopes of lifting the SPFL Trust Trophy end at the quarter-final stage.
United hit the net through Mathew Cudjoe – owing plenty to an error by Bairns keeper Sam Long – and Tony Watt, however the scoreline arguably flattered Jim Goodwin’s side.
Courier Sport was at the Falkirk Stadium to analyse the talking points as United’s 17-game unbeaten run came to an end.
A 5-minute capitulation
Perhaps the most uncharacteristic aspect of United’s defeat on Friday was the five-minute capitulation in the second half.
Yeats! Leis a chiad tadhal den seusan, tha Finn Yeats a' cur Falkirk air ais air beulaibh!
Yeats get his first goal of the season AND gives Falkirk the lead again! pic.twitter.com/hhV9i485rb
— BBC ALBA (@bbcalba) November 17, 2023
There have been moments over the course of the campaign when the Tangerines have been under the cosh, wasteful in possession or slightly wobbly at the back.
However, their durability and character has seen them navigate those moments largely unscathed.
But they imploded at the Falkirk Stadium.
Following Tom Lang’s leveller, a simple throw-in catches Ross Graham sleeping and Calvin Miller’s subsequent shot is parried to Yeats, who slams home.
And from the resulting kick-off, a wasteful exchange of passes between Declan Glass and Craig Sibbald hands possession straight to Falkirk. Bizarre stuff.
As was Kevin Holt’s blind pass towards his goalkeeper which was intercepted by Morrison to make it 4-2.
Mistakes happen, and Holt – a bona fide United player of the year contender – has plenty of credit in the bank.
Tadhal eile! Tha Callumn Morrison a' faighinn tadhal eile a-nochd is tha Falkirk a' ruith air falbh leis a gheama.
Morrison extends Falkirk's lead and gives them a chance to run away with it. pic.twitter.com/IChaVtqkoR
— BBC ALBA (@bbcalba) November 17, 2023
Nevertheless, the moment rather exemplified a crazy period.
Playing into Falkirk’s hands
It would be generous to suggest United only lost the run of themselves for a five-minute spell.
That was simply the most egregious example.
They played into the Bairns’ hands from the opening minutes. Faced with an aggressive, gutsy high press, the Tangerines sought to play out from the back.
The ease with which Goodwin’s charges surrendered possession gave Falkirk all the encouragement they needed, and United persisted with this doomed strategy for far too long.
The contest, from a Terrors perspective, was crying out for more direct out-balls to Glenn Middleton and Cudjoe, stretching the game and breaking out of the Bairns’ suffocating press.
Instead, tepid – and often wayward – attempts at passing between defence and midfield were the order of the night. It simply did not work, and Falkirk made hay.
Response required in a more meaningful cup
Without being at all disparaging to the SPFL Trust Trophy, if United were going to turn in their worst performance of the campaign (albeit losing to Spartans has a claim to that dubious honour) then this was the night to do it.
The Terrors were never going to navigate the season unbeaten and, should this serve as a timely “reality check” – as Goodwin hopes – then few will remember this fixture come the end of the season.
There would have been no delirious, wild celebrations had United won this trophy; their exit, albeit in meek fashion, is no cause for great despair.
However, a response will be demanded.
The Scottish Cup is a priority for Dundee United. While promotion to the Premiership is the overarching aim, a decent run in this competition could be vital, in terms of finances and prestige.
But they must get past Queen of the South first – a side who do not have their troubles to seek, underlined by manager Marvin Bartley’s words after Saturday’s 3-1 defeat against Kelty Hearts (above).
Key men will be welcomed back
While at pains not to blame United’s failing on absentees, there can be little doubt the impending returns of Declan Gallagher, Ross Docherty and Louis Moult will be most welcome.
Club captain Docherty, in particular, has been missed since limping out of the Tangerines’ 2-0 win at Airdrie on October 31.
United have been more susceptible to breakaways without Docherty’s presence, and his crisp passing has been a loss.
Against Falkirk, Sibbald was forced into a more reserved role due to the lack of a specialised defensive midfielder.
So, Docherty’s impending return to training this week – as revealed by Goodwin – is a huge boost. Similarly, Gallagher will be a calming influence in defence following a ropey night for the centre-backs in Falkirk.
Another debutant gets his moment
A 4-2 defeat against a team in the division below is probably not how Adam Carnwath envisioned his Dundee United debut.
Nevertheless, aged 17 years and six months, the midfielder entered the fray as an 85th minute substitute and, while the game was dead and buried, did nothing wrong during his time on the pitch.
He joins Owen Stirton and Scott Constable, both 16, in making their competitive senior bows under Goodwin this term.
As well as Carnwath getting some minutes, Alan Domeracki – previously scouted by Liverpool and Chelsea – was named on the United bench for the first time.
Another couple of young Terrors to keep an eye on.