Andy Ryan replaced Myles Hippolyte in the only change to last week's starting 11.
3-5-2 formation until Devine subbed for Hippolyte after 29 minutes, with formation changing to 4-4-2.
Writing about any sport where performance levels can fluctuate should always be done cautiously - not over-praising a good display, while not being overly harsh when things do not go well. There has rarely been a better example of how a pendulum can swing so far in both directions in the space of 7 days than the way Dunfermline played today, in contrast to the excellent performance against Hearts last Saturday. After giving so much credit to the same set of players a few days ago, today was an absolute mess.
Goals were given away without the opposition having to be especially good. Ian McCall is doing a great job at Ayr and has his team (which includes a handful of Dunfermline rejects!) well organised, playing for each other and utilising the skills of his better players to full effect. Yet we gifted the home side every goal: Alan Forrest, the shortest player on the pitch, was left unmarked to head the opener. The defence was posted missing and goalkeeper Lee Robinson seemed to be reaching to save an invisible ball that was close, but not close enough, to the actual ball that sailed past him and into the net.
Before that, Danny Devine had passed the ball straight to an Ayr player, then was booked after hacking down another opponent in frustration. Soon after, with the Pars 1-0 down, he was subbed for Myles Hippolyte and proceeded to boot a water bottle and then lash out at the dugout, arguing with Allan Johnston then being given a lecture by Sandy Clark. Johnston is often criticised for not being proactive with his substitutions but that criticism could not be levelled at him today; whether he was correct to abandon his 3-5-2 formation so early, and whether he subbed the right player, is open to debate. The other central defenders - Lee Ashcroft and Mark Durnan - were culpable for goals 2 and 3, as the Moff teased the Pars backline, proving again what a good footballer he is - with a hand in Forrest's second and the inevitable Lawrence Shankland goal that made it 3-0. Lee Robinson, meanwhile, was picking a fight with Shankland which continued as the half time whistle blew. What a shambles. How could this be the team that did so well last week?
Hippolyte was switched to the right wing at the start of the second half and was the team's best creative player (not that he had much competition) until Johnston brought on sub Higgy late in the game and moved Hippolyte to the middle of the attack. So many changes, but no cohesion, the team resembling a group of strangers. There was an alarming soft centre, from goalkeeper through the spine of the team; that included an completely ineffectual Faissal El Bakhtaoui up front.
Jackson Longridge got a goal back after 55 minutes and although there were efforts at goal from Louis Longridge, Hippolyte, Faissal and another sub, Aidan Connolly, there was to be no second Dunfermline goal. Instead, the Moff got Ayr's fourth with 9 minutes remaining. There was still enough time for Robinson to do his Manuel Neuer routine, which is okay when 1-0 down but looks clownish when 4-1 behind. On one foray far from his goal, he gave away possession and looked on as the attempted lob by an Ayr player missed the goal and saved the keeper from further embarrassment.
This team appear to have Jeckyll and Hyde syndrome. I would not be surprised if I am writing a completely different report this time next week. Today, though, was a mess.
Myles Hipployte: had some good touches and was involved in the better passages of play during the second half.
Jackson Longridge: got a goal and was the only defender to escape criticism.
Aidan Connolly (sub): was his usual active self and was unlucky with a free kick that was deflected over the bar.
Danny Devine regained his place in defence after injury, with Joe Thomson dropping to the bench. Last week's left sided centre half, Jackson Longridge, moved back to his natural position at left wingback, with James Craigen shifting to his usual midfield role after playing at left wingback last week.
How on earth did we lose that? That was my immediate post-game reaction, as tweeted here minutes after the game ended. We saw a performance to be proud of from a Dunfermline side that looked every inch Premiership class, on top for long periods of the game, against a Hearts team that currently top the Premiership table and who defeated Celtic last weekend.
The Pars starting 11 could be seen as the strongest currently available. Tom Beadling, who is not yet fully match fit, would be a strong contender for a midfield slot. Every player in black and white made a positive contribution today.
A first half largely dominated by Dunfermline saw Faissal El Bakhtoaui hit the post with an angled shot, the closest we came to seeing a goal that the home side deserved. Hearts were being made to look ordinary - the energy, creativity and organisation in the Dunfermline side was of a level higher than we have seen for some time, spurred on by the tremendous atmosphere generated by both sets of supporters inside East End Park. For Hearts, the much-vaunted Uche Ikpeazu lurked on the periphery of the game, well-marshalled by Lee Ashcroft and his fellow central defenders.
The second half saw Hearts have more possession than they enjoyed in the opening 45, yet doing very little with the ball. It was Dunfermline who looked the more dangerous team, and Hearts were kept in the game by 2 acrobatic saves by their keeper Bobby Zlamal, firstly from a volley from Faissal after a great run and cross from Ryan Williamson; and then from a header by Danny Devine. In between those 2 efforts, Hearts scored the game's only goal, with their only serious on-target shot of the entire game. Olly Lee's shot found the net and put the Jambos ahead, undeservedly.
A late flurry from Dunfermline saw sub Aidan Connolly fail to convert a Williamson cross from close range, the ball then hitting off Faissal's legs and behind.
The final whistle blew to the sound of an appreciative home support: the team had done everything except score and had out-classed the top flight leaders. We need more days like this - the reward is there and we now have to push on and make that step up.
Ryan Williamson: what a contrast from last week! Storming runs up the wing and resolute in defence. My Man of the Match.
Jackson Longridge: a thunderous second half tackle showed his commitment - another good game from one of AJ's best signings.
Louis Longridge: King Louis was once again a classy figure in an attacking midfield role. Technically our best player.
Danny Devine dropped out through injury; no defenders on the bench and with Lewis Martin also injured, Jackson Longridge was shoe-horned into a back 3, with James Craigen at left wingback. the defence was a back 4 for the first time this season. Ryan Williamson came back into the team after suspension. The formation changed throughout the game.
Five wins out of five in the Betfred Cup and the League opener last week had given Pars fans understandable optimism going into this game against the title favourites. County are bankrolled by wealthy owner Roy McGregor and are well positioned to make an instant return to the top division following their relegation last season. They are a robust, strong, physical bunch who have an element of skill but, overall, less technical ability than the Pars squad. What County do have is strength and a well-thought out game plan. They fully deserved their win and today will be a sobering experience for everyone associated with Dunfermline.
Scottish football is well known to have a physical edge and just as last season's Championship runners-up Livingston barged their way to promotion - making the best use of their pool of players - County could well win this season's Championship with the same basic ingredients. There is no need to over-react to this defeat - it is what it is, and could be the harsh lesson that we need. We had too many players who lost their physical battle with their direct opponent, on a player-by-player basis, which added together results in a team being out-muscled. This Dunfermline squad have talent but when players such as Ryan Williamson fail to defend properly and play timidly, we become vulnerable. Williamson struggled all game and was rightly subbed, despite the opportunity to reunite the Williamson/Higginbotham right wing combination when Higgy was brought on. Instead, Allan Johnston put James Craigen to right back. Myles Hippolyte had a poor game, although being switched from striker to midfield, and back again, probably didn't help. The formation and the moving around of certain players did not benefit the team. In short, today highlighted our deficiencies, our lack of defensive options and cover, and how physically we looked very much second best.
County's first goal was a superb strike by Josh Mullin that was unsaveable; it was then matched by Louis Longridge's finish for the Pars' equaliser. The visitors went ahead just before half time when Michael Gardyne was allowed to go unchallenged by Williamson, walzting through the defence and finishing well. Lee Robinson made a great save from Gardyne earlier in the first half but the team did not heed that warning.
Dunfermline had played reasonably well in the first half but the second half was a huge letdown. No shots on target until sub Andy Ryan's injury time effort, and the only other decent effort coming from another sub, Aidan Connolly, with a free kick that went narrowly wide of the goal.
County's third, from Keith Watson after 68 minutes, killed the game and the visitors used some streetwise game management to secure the win. The physical gulf between the 2 sides was summed up by the appearance of Pars sub Aidan Connolly, a hard worker with a lot of skill, but a tiny figure next to the six-foot plussers he was up against.
Reality bites, indeed.
Lee Robinson returned to the starting lineup, the only change from last week's team. Ryan Williamson and Kallum Higginbotham were suspended and Lewis Martin, along with Tom Beadling, injured. A very young subs bench with no defenders.
After 7 long years since we last won at Tannadice, the new-look Pars side, reinvigorated and fresh, deservedly took all 3 points mainly due to a second half performance that bordered on scintillating. Deprived of 4 first team players, the team lined up with midfielder James Craigen at right wing back and ended the game with sub centre forward Andy Ryan filling in at left wingback. Every player played their part in the victory but special mention must go to Craigen (my man of the match) and Myles Hippolyte. The creation and finishing of all 3 goals were also of the highest calibre.
As has so often been the case against Dundee United, we began the better team but were unable to score the crucial opening goal. Matters were not helped by the awful refereeing of Willie Collum, who chose to book United's Edjenguele and Rabitsch for 2 identical, wild and reckless tackles on Faissal El Bakhtaoui. Clearly ordered by clown manager Csaba Laszlo to remove Faissal from play, both challenges should have resulted in red cards. Collum then booked Faissal for his reaction to the second scything.
On the stroke of half time, pantomime villain Nicky Clark put United ahead (although reports suggest the final touch came off Craigen) and celebrated in front of the Pars support. Clark had been the target of Pars' fans chants throughout the first half and took great delight in the goal.
Although Dunfermline had been the better team in the first half, there was, naturally, an air of despondency amongst the support after going behind. The team were welcomed back onto the pitch and set about making a mark on the game straight away: Myles Hippolyte's audacious shot from around 50 yards was tipped over by United keeper Rakovan. Then we scored: Faissal held the ball up well and passed to Joe Thomson whose expertly drilled shot ripped into the net in the 59th minute. United's manager was even more agitated than usual on the touchline; an unintentionally comical figure who would fit in well as a character from the Dundee-produced Beano comic.
The second Pars goal came in the 67th minute. Thomson's shot was saved but the ball fell perfectly for Jackson Longridge to head into the net. The team were well on top at this point and increased the lead further with 6 minutes remaining. Louis Longridge took possession, and with admirable composure and skill took his time to step past 2 opponents and place the ball into the net with a calm, controlled finish.
United's Fraser Aird, the other ex-Par to join United this summer, pulled a goal back with 2 minutes of normal time remaining from a free kick. By this time, Danny Devine had to go off injured, which meant Jackson Longridge moved to central defence and sub Andy Ryan took up an unlikely position at left wingback.
The final whistle was a glorious sound and the players, management and fans showed a mixture of sheer delight and relief at finally recording a win against United. This Pars team can give us a season to remember.