THE PAUL CHALK COLUMN
FRIDAY night’s Championship stunner as Dundee United lost 1-0 at rock-bottom Alloa was a shot in the arm for chasers Ayr United and Caley Thistle, who met on Saturday afternoon in the seaside town. It meant Ayr, now minus Partick Thistle gaffer Ian McCall, had the chance to top the table if they drew with John Robertson’s Highlanders. A win for ICT would trim their advantage over the joint-leading hosts to two points, rather than see Ayr stretch eight points clear.
James Vincent, who won the 2014 Scottish Cup for Inverness, scored his first ICT goal since that Hampden day in the sun, then defender Shaun Rooney added the killer second as Robbo’s troops delivered a potentially huge result.
Their backs were to the wall, by all accounts, and goalkeeper Mark Ridgers, in his 101st appearance for the club, earned his corn by keeping Ayr at bay.
This was a huge afternoon for both teams because Ayr caretaker gaffer Sandy Stewart could have put himself in pole position by seeing off one of their main rivals at the top end of the division.
Had the former Ross County number two under Owen Coyle guided the hosts to their second successive win since McCall’s departure, then the Ayr board would seriously be tempted to ignore other contenders.
Those linked to the job include former Ayr skipper and ex-ICT Scottish Cup-winning boss John Hughes and former Ross County manager Jim McIntyre.
That scenario for Stewart still might happen and, should they win at inconsistent Dunfermline on October 19, he will be a lively candidate for the Honest Men’s hot-seat.
Ayr, as a group of players and coaches, deserve respect for winning the League One title two seasons ago and only missing out on a play-off crack at Dundee United because Caley Thistle were a tad too sharp for them over two legs.
Dundee United were riding on the crest of a wave when they arrived at Alloa on Friday. Their star man Lawrence Shankland had sensationally just been called up to Steve Clarke’s Scotland squad for the Russia and San Marino games next week and they’d just retained top spot courtesy of a 6-0 mauling of Morton aided by a Shankland treble. That took his tally to 15 goals in his last dozen games since joining the Tangerines from Ayr.
My view on Shankland briefly? He deserves this chance for Scotland in qualifying matches from which we can no longer qualify. Nothing to lose, he know where the net is, Scottish Championship or not.
But Peter Grant’s Alloa defied their part-time status and the noise around Shankland to deliver a deserved punch on the nose to United as they did there last term too on the plastic of the Indodrill Stadium.
It meant as we move towards the end of the first round of fixtures, the prize was large for the winners of Ayr v Inverness.
James Vincent and Shaun Rooney’s goals, against the odds, was vital to keep Caley Thistle in the hunt.
My feelings are, as written on Inverness News and Views already, that with Shankland’s goals, United will be ahead of the rest to win this title and a return to the Premiership.
However, United’s loss along with the 2-0 defeat at Ayr, a Tunnocks Cup shoot-out defeat by Arbroath (albeit with a much-changed side) and a group stage exit in the Betfred Cup give hope to Ayr and Caley Thistle that they can challenge for the crown.
Dundee, who dropped down from the top-flight in May, for me don’t have enough about them to challenge but Ayr and Inverness do.
However, United with Shankland in their team, won’t have too many off-days like Friday, so that means the already consistent form of the main two chasers for the Championship title must up the ante and not slip up against the likes of Partick, as ICT did last week.
Remember, had Inverness beaten Ian McCall’s team that day, allied with the latest results, they’d be the Championship leaders today.
They also must beat Dundee United when they meet. Ayr have done that. Caley Thistle must do so too.
The Caley Thistle board, with Ross Morrison in as the replacement for Graham Rae as chairman, have used an EGM for a cash plea while the players target a Premiership return after three years away from the top table.
There will be no margin for error but the past few days have put ICT back in the hunt. Potential investors may have their money poised.
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