A trip to bottom-of-the-league Alloa Athletic was just what Mark Kerr’s side needed after another cataclysmic defensive episode; those first 12+ minutes of United’s League Cup tie at Livingston last weekend. The Wasps have picked up just one point this season, have found goals hard to come by and, on Saturday, Ayr eased to victory at a venue and against an opponent who have not caused too much trouble since that “f*cking left-back” looked to have ended our title hopes in 2017/18.
Here are three things we learned at the Indodrill Stadium:
- Luke McCowan in quietly becoming a key player for the Honest Men
He might not possess the prestige of Cammy Smith, Tom Walsh or Bruce Anderson; the legend of Michael Moffat; or even the reputation of Dario Zanatta but Luke McCowan is increasing becoming the most reliable of Kerr’s ‘front four’ options. McCowan, who turns 23 on Tuesday, scored his third goal of the season, was involved in Ayr’s second and overall put in a disciplined and industrious performance on the right-hand side.
The early stages of the game required some learning on McCowan’s part, with Alloa threatening to exploit a new combination on United’s right, Luke and right-full back Aaron Muirhead. Once that early kink had been ironed out on the pitch, McCowan was a constant threat going forward but didn’t neglect his defensive duties.
The departure of fellow Academy graduate Alan Forrest to Livingston in the summer has, in part, allowed McCowan — just one year and two months Alan’s junior — to come to the fore. Earlier in Luke’s career first team opportunities were limited by Forrest, Craig McGuffie and others ahead of him in Ian McCall’s pecking order. After beating out McGuffie last season, McCowan is now one of the longest-serving members of the squad and one of the most important. He more than anyone appears to have bought into what Mark Kerr and Mick McArdle are trying to achieve and the Greenock-born forward has grasped his opportunity.
2. Aaron Muirhead’s influence is invaluable
What to make of Ayr United’s defence? The Honest Men kept a third consecutive league clean sheet on Saturday and no Championship side has conceded fewer goals after six games (five) than Ayr. Yet, in the last 10 minutes of that game at Cappielow and the first half against Livingston last weekend, United’s rearguard looked entirely incapable of such a record.
Mark Kerr elected to make one alteration to his backline for the trip to Clackmannanshire, Aaron Muirhead replacing Paddy Reading, who dropped to the bench. Jordan Houston was switched to play at left-back. In the main — despite an early fumble by keeper Viljami Sinisalo — United were untroubled. Aaron Muirhead, much maligned, was a hugely settling influence and also contributed going forward, driving into the box and playing a one-two with McCowan before finding Andy Murdoch to score our second goal.
It is maybe no coincidence that both of United’s defensive aberrations this season have come when Muirhead was not on the pitch. He is by far and away our most vociferous outfield player, constantly organising, encouraging, chastising; managing the team on the pitch. A lack of experience and leadership is a criticism often levelled at the squad: Muirhead possesses both. Saturday was a loud reminder of why Mark Kerr must find a place for him in his starting eleven.
3. Smith picks up another unwelcome red card
Ayr picked up a third red card in just six Championship fixtures when on-loan Dundee United midfielder Cammy Smith picked up a second booking in the 84th minute for a flailing arm that made contact with Scott Taggart. Thankfully, United were able to see out the remainder of the game without their lead coming under threat but the team’s indiscipline will be a source of frustration to Mark Kerr’s. Just as his squad was returning to full strength, one of its most important components will be missing for Friday night’s game against Raith Rovers.
All three red cards have been avoidable; Luke McCowan needlessly got embroiled in an alternation with Gregor Buchanan in the final throes of our opening day win over Queen of the South; Aaron Muirhead made a rash decision to earn a straight red at Morton while Cammy Smith’s first booking here was for dissent. Cheap bookings that we must learn to cut out in.