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Dundee United 4 Hearts 1: Four warning

DUNDEE United are in the kind of form where they can score four goals or more for a fourth successive match and still feel slightly disappointed.

Dundee United's Brian Graham ensures Stuart Armstrong's shot crosses the line despite a late attempt to block the shot from Kevin McHattie Photograph: SNS
Dundee United's Brian Graham ensures Stuart Armstrong's shot crosses the line despite a late attempt to block the shot from Kevin McHattie Photograph: SNS

Jackie McNamara was picky about certain aspects of his team's performance as they eventually disposed of a spirited Hearts side by a 4-1 scoreline, but they are not doing too badly in the meantime.

That is fully 17 goals United have racked up in their last four outings; freescoring Celtic have hit just two more over the same period sinces the sides drew 1-1 on November 2. The shell-shocked young Hearts side which trooped out of Tannadice yesterday, now 14 points in arrears to Ross County at the foot of the SPFL Premiership, have merely had the misfortune to run into both of Scotland's form teams in the last six days.

"It's good at the moment," said McNamara, "but I still think we can play a lot better. There's a lot we can improve on."

While United menacingly moved up to third in the table - John Hughes' Inverness are next in their sights - an army of scouts were checking on a variety of Scotland's finest young talents, led by United wonderkid Ryan Gauld. As it turned out, the 17-year-old didn't have everything his own way.

Indeed, Calum Tapping and Jamie Hamill had careered into the diminutive forward before the first couple of minutes were out. But, fortunately for United, some others were in a position to step up to the plate.

While Gary Mackay-Steven rounded off a fine performance with a cracking goal, and John Rankin's deflected drive which concluded matters highlighted the vital role he plays for the team, not least of these was Brian Graham, a jobbing striker previously of East Stirlingshire, Morton and Raith Rovers.

He was handed the jersey due to the absence of Nadir Ciftci, the injured Turk serving out his hugely controversial ban for manhandling assistant referee Gavin Harris in a cup match against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in October. And, in the team ahead of David Goodwillie, a man who was playing for Scotland two seasons ago, Graham has now scored four goals in his last three games.

Whether the opener actually belonged to him was disputed, as both he and Kevin McHattie lunged in on Stuart Armstrong's cross-cum-shot on the goalline, following Mackay-Steven's clever scooped pass. But the crucial second certainly did, as he shook off his marker Callum Paterson to get on the end of a Mark Wilson corner and send a thundering header under the crossbar.

Hearts boss Gary Locke felt Graham had pushed Paterson to the ground to get free and his mood wasn't helped much by referee Craig Thomson's decision to book Jamie Walker for diving rather than award a penalty for a second-half challenge from Mark Wilson.

Although that incident may have occurred just outside the box, it would have been the Tynecastle side's second copycat award of the day as it had taken just four minutes of Graham's opener for Hearts to restore parity from the spot. Walker -who must have caught the eye of the watching scouts as much as anyone - was too quick for the experienced former Celtic full- back in the corner of the penalty area and Hamill coolly converted from the spot.

"In the first half we applied ourselves well and there was nothing in the game," Locke said afterwards. "I need to watch what I say, but a big decision went against us for their second goal.

"Callum thought it was a foul and from where I was it looked like a foul. Then to make matters worse we go up the other end and Jamie Walker gets booked for diving when it was clearly a foul."

Gauld, who had an early dipping drive from fully 30 yards tipped away from top corner by Jamie MacDonald, finally got an assist to add to his burgeoning collection. He hared after a loose ball after a MacDonald parry from Armstrong, and Mackay-Steven gave MacDonald no chance with a searing finish into his top corner.

Rankin had also tested MacDonald as United peppered his goal during the second period, and he put a gloss on the scoreline when his low drive spun off Danny Wilson and wrongfooted the goalkeeper to make it four in four. United fans with longer memories were claiming the last time the Tangerines had terrorised teams to that degree was during the 1930s.

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