Stoppage time winner from substitute Nicky Clark earns win for Dundee United and sends Ross County back to Dingwall from Tannadice empty handed in Scottish Premiership clash
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Dundee United 2 (Clark x2)
Ross County 1 (Charles-Cook)
Ross County suffered late heartbreak against Dundee United at Tannadice as a stoppage time winner left them returning to the Highlands empty-handed.
After being largely below par for the first 45 minutes, tactical tweaks at the start of the second half saw the Staggies take the lead through Regan Charles-Cook.
As they tried to shore up defensively to hold on to their advantage though, Nicky Clark turned the game on its head first from the penalty spot, and then with an injury time header.
Malky Mackay made five changes to his starting line-up, making the most of several players' return to fitness after only having a threadbare squad for the Scottish Cup defeat at Livingston.
Ashley Maynard-Brewer, Alex Iacovitti, Harry Paton, Regan Charles-Cook and Jordan White all returned from the start, with Matthew Wright and Adam MacKinnon also strengthening Mackay's options from the bench.
Whether the changes disrupted the fluency of a team who had been in impressive league form, or whether injuries were still troubling some of the players coming in, the Staggies seemed off the pace of the game for much of the first half.
Tony Watt in particular was causing issues to County's backline when he drifted out to the left flank, making him difficult for Declan Drysdale to combat.
On one occasion, Watt burst past his man and sent a tantalising cross towards the back post where Marc McNulty was inches away from having a simple tap in to break the deadlock.
However, even in possession County were not at their best. On more than one occasion Harry Paton did well to use his physicality to win the ball back before picking the wrong option to pass to, turning it over to United in the process.
Stringing passes together proved to be a challenge throughout the first half, and Alex Iacovitti was not free of the blame either as he gave the ball away to McNulty inside his own half, seemingly giving the forward a clear path to goal only for him to scuff a shot straight at Maynard-Brewer.
Such wastefulness with the ball at other times meant that the visitors at Tannadice were desperate to win the ball back at the first attempt, so they were at risk of flying into challenges and conceding fouls – although former United man Blair Spittal was the only name to go into the book before the interval.
Certainly it was United who were the first to loose balls, but if there was any saving grace for the Staggies at the break it was that they have tended to grow into matches this season and play better in the second 45 minutes.
Mackay changed shape and personnel in a bid to spur his team into life, with Jack Baldwin replacing Paton in the middle of the park which gave Spittal more licence to push forward, and the Staggies immediately looked more comfortable in possession, with Spittal having a shot blocked soon after the restart.
It was a good bit of momentum to kick off the second half, and County got their rewards in the 53rd minute.
Baldwin, who had already been in the thick of the action after getting booked, took a shot from range that Benjamin Siegrist parried to his right – where Regan Charles-Cook kept it alive. The in-form winger did well to get back facing goal, and picked out the top corner to give County the advantage.
Charles-Cook had another chance after linking up with substitute Joe Hungbo, only to see Siegrist make the save that time around.
Where substitutions had allowed a change of shape to help County burst into life, substitutions also saw them go far more defensive once they had the lead. Kayne Ramsay was introduced as the Staggies appeared to switch to five at the back, but that was no help when Dundee United were awarded a penalty.
Nicky Clark, a substitute of United's own, saw his shot blocked by Drysdale and it was adjudged to have been with his hand. Clark stepped up himself, and sent his spot kick just out of Maynard-Brewer's reach to level the scores with just over 15 minutes left to play.
After the momentum swing in County's favour at the start of the second half, it had gone United's by the end. Kieran Freeman went close with another effort that went across the face of goal, before Ilmari Niskanen – who scored the winner in the club's previous meeting at Tannadice this season – sent his shot well wide of the mark.
County remained a threat though, and Jake Vokins broke clear down the left flank as the clock ticked down before picking out Hungbo in the middle, only for Siegrist to make a good reaction stop.
United's keeper was needed again to deny Hungbo moments later as the match opened up with both teams going in search of a winner.
One would come in stoppage time, and it was heartbreak for County. Clark again found the net, this time with a header on the end of Tony Watt's cross that was just out of Maynard-Brewer's reach to send the Staggies back up to Dingwall empty-handed.
Dundee United: Siegrist, Pawlett (Niskanen 54), McNulty (Clark 54), Edwards, Butcher, Levitt, Freeman, Harkes, Watt, McMann, Fuchs (Appere 84).
Subs not used: Eriksson, Sporle, Meekison, Neilson, Glass, Mochrie.
Ross County: Maynard-Brewer, Randall, Vokins, H Paton (Baldwin 46), Spittal (Ramsay 61), Callachan, D Samuel (Hungbo 61), Iacovitti, Charles-Cook, Drysdale, White.
Subs not used: Laidlaw, Watson, Burroughs, B Paton, Wright, MacKinnon.
Referee: David Munro
Attendance: 4519 (67 away)
Yellow cards: Dundee United – Freeman (63); Ross County – Spittal (38), Baldwin (50), Drysdale (73), Charles Cook (74).