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3 Dundee United talking points: Captain’s catharsis and the substitution that spoke volumes

Goals from Tony Watt and Ross Docherty secured a precious three points for United.

Ross Docherty, right, celebrates scoring for Dundee United
Docherty, right, scored the decisive goal in United's won over Ayr. Image: SNS

Dundee United opened a four-point lead at the summit of the Championship on Saturday after Jim Goodwin’s side produced a gutsy comeback to defeat Ayr United 2-1.

The Tannadice outfit fell behind with just 90 seconds on the clock when Jamie Murphy’s whipping free-kick from the wing found the top-corner of Jack Walton’s net.

Only the former Rangers and St Johnstone man will know how much was owed to his own brilliance, and how much to the gusting gale at Somerset Park.

However, Tony Watt climbed from the bench to level, before teeing up captain Ross Docherty for a late winner.

It wasn’t always pretty, but a crucial three points for United.

Dundee United boss Jim Goodwin
Goodwin, pictured, at Ayr United. Image: SNS

And Courier Sport was in Ayrshire to analyse the action.

Captain’s catharsis

Docherty has endured a testing, maddening campaign since joining United.

Fresh from a gruelling end to the 2022/23 season with Partick Thistle – playing seven games in 26 days, the last of which went to extra-time and penalties – he was back in action for the Tangerines on July 15.

And that workload perhaps took its toll.

Docherty, 31, has suffered issues with both hamstrings, his calf and groin this term, leaving him sidelined for 13 of United’s 30 competitive fixtures.

Ross Docherty hooks home the crucial strike
Docherty hooks home the crucial strike. Image: SNS

Nevertheless, he has never stopped grafting behind the scenes, has remained a pivotal personality in the dressing room and, now with a more bespoke training regime, looks to be getting back to his best.

Docherty and Craig Sibbald were outstanding against Ayr United – a battle played out in a whipping gale – and showcased exactly why that partnership has been so sorely missed for periods this season.

His goal was the icing on the cake; a moment of raw catharsis following a frustrating spell.

Dundee United's Ross Docherty celebrates his dramatic winner
Ross Docherty celebrates his dramatic winner. Image: SNS

No wonder Docherty went head over heels in front of the United faithful.

Quality in depth

For much of this season, United’s strength in depth has been slightly overstated.

Due to injuries and suspensions, there have been several fixtures in which Owen Stirton, 17, was the only senior striker on the bench and defensive depth is at a premium.

However, with Goodwin’s squad now back to full fitness – Declan Gallagher and Sadat Anaku aside – they now boast excellent options off the bench.

Tony Watt celebrates his goal for Dundee United against Ayr United
Watt celebrates his leveller. Image: SNS

That Goodwin was able to call upon Watt and Kai Fotheringham, boasting a combined 19 goals and 13 assists prior to kick-off, should be a fearsome prospect for Championship rivals.

Chris Mochrie and Jordan Tillson also saw minutes, while Archie Meekison and Mathew Cudjoe – superb talents – didn’t even make it off the bench.

Once United snap up a centre-back, which should be rubber-stamped this week, the Tangerines will have ample experienced, quality cover in most areas ahead of the business end of the season.

A 9-point swing

As United players traipsed off the Tannadice turf on December 16 – the celebrations of Raith Rovers supporters ringing in their ears – they were five points behind the Kirkcaldy club.

That 1-0 victory for the Rovers appeared to cement their increasing momentum and underline that the Terrors were beginning to falter following a fantastic start to the season.

Raith Rovers players following Dylan Easton's winner at Tannadice
Rovers players following Dylan Easton’s winner at Tannadice. Image: SNS

However, it would not be a harbinger for things to come.

Since that fixture, Raith have won just a single match in eight – losing their last five in a row in all competitions.

It has allowed United, without being at their best, the overturn that deficit in comprehensive fashion. While Goodwin’s charges have blown opportunities to be further ahead, they are now four points clear.

A nine-point swing in the space of 49 days.

Should United gain revenge on their title rivals on February 16 at Stark’s Park and extend that gap to seven points – with an unassailable goal difference – then it would be very hard to envision anything other than a Tangerine title.