THE PAUL CHALK COLUMN
WINS in Greenock and Arbroath over the past week have already put Dundee United on the almost certain path to Scottish Championship glory. Saturday’s 1-0 victory for the leaders at Arbroath – allied with Caley Thistle’s 3-1 defeat at Partick Thistle – means the Tangerines are a whopping 13 points clear of John Robertson’s Highlanders.
Backed by the fact that twice in their history ICT have come back from the dead to mount (and win) a title challenge, there was a genuine belief before the weekend that the 10-point difference could potentially be bridged by May.
However, the Jags from Maryhill delivered a second successive 3-1 win against ICT since Ian McCall came in as their boss to move themselves out of the bottom two spots and only seven points away from fourth-placed Dunfermline.
Caley Thistle arrived in Glasgow fresh from three straight wins and four clean sheets on the spin overall and no doubt feeling they could get the win they needed to stay with even a slight chance of a championship push.
No goals in the first half gave them a platform from which to build upon but it was the hosts who got their noses in front through an Alex Jones goal.
James Keatings scored a belter by all accounts to quickly level for ICT but former Ross County defender Steven Saunders shot Partick back in front and Dario Zanatta’s goal was further salt in the wounds in the closing moments.
The Championship league table now looks cut and dried at the top as United’s win at Dick Campbell’s Arbroath on the back of a 2-1 win at Morton on Tuesday leaves the Taysiders far and away from ICT, who now only lead Ayr by one point.
I’ve said in this column often this year, United’s strength in depth and consistency means the Caley Jags must win simply the best-of-the-rest race for the runners-up berth to avoid a promotion play-off quarter-final, saving their weary legs in a busy concert conclusion to the campaign.
United have won all eight league games at Tannadice this term and after a trio of swift away defeats earlier this season at Ayr, Alloa and Queen of the South they had put the foot down and roared clear. They are now the best side in this division for home and away form, replacing Caley Thistle for being the most fruitful team on their travels.
Their top striker Lawrence Shankland hit his 20th goal for the club at Cappielow on Tuesday.
However, there have been many occasions such as on Saturday in Arbroath when other United players made the difference. Sam Stanton’s early goal won it for them at Gayfield.
ICT, despite their recent burst of form, have twice lost to Partick, slipped to defeat at now second-bottom Morton and dropped two precious points in a 2-2 draw with rock-bottom Alloa.
Six defeats in 17 games is not anywhere near title-winning numbers and a +4 goal difference is inferior to their main chasers, Ayr and Dunfermline.
The latter suffered a thrillingly exciting 4-3 defeat at Dundee on Saturday, which came after a hat-trick of wins had shot them third. The Fifers are in Inverness this coming Saturday and ICT will need to follow up fine home recent wins over Dundee then Ayr by packing the Pars away pointless five days before Christmas.
Heartache for Highland as player’s death rocks club
HIGHLAND Rugby Club endured a truly awful week as fading hopes of promotion from National Division One were put on the shelf for a much more serious reason.
“Well-liked and bubbly” second team player Lewis MacDonald was found dead at his Nairn home on Tuesday, shattering all who knew the 23-year-old. Their fixtures for the weekend were quickly and rightfully postponed on request.
Tributes have been free-flowing from clubs throughout the country and beyond as the sport and the pursuit of points, promotion and prizes seem worthless as the team-mates, coaches, officials and fans reflect on Lewis’s death.
Police are not treating his death as suspicious and a report has been sent to the procurator fiscal.
On Thursday, mental health charity Mikeysline held a meeting at the club’s Canal Park home to discuss Lewis’s death and to offer support at any possible level.
The family and all at Highland will hopefully take heart from all the messages, which demonstrate the benefits of being involved in sport.
On Friday, club president Graham Findlater said: “Lewis was a gifted player and was lauded by his coaches as a valuable member of last season’s undefeated second side.
“A very likeable person, on and off the pitch, we decided to postpone all games as a mark of respect.”
I conclude my words this week by adding sincere condolences to Lewis’s family and all who knew him inside and outside Highland Rugby Club.
- Paul Chalk’s Alive and Kicking sports show is on community station North Highland Radio every Friday from 7pm.
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