United started the new year with a frustrating 3-2 defeat to Queen of the South at Palmerston Park on Saturday. Patrick Reading fired the Honest Men in front, but Queens struck twice in three minutes through an Ayo Obileye penalty and a Connor Shields solo effort. Cammy Smith deflected the ball off Gregor Buchanan and into the net at the death to equalise, but Shields bagged his second in stoppage time.
Four changes to the starting line-up saw Sam Roscoe, Michael Miller, Tom Walsh and Dario Zanatta coming in for Jordan Houston, Aaron Muirhead, Mark Kerr and Michael Moffat.
The game got off to a scrappy start, but after only 7 minutes, Ayr caught the Queens defence napping and broke the deadlock. A quickly taken throw in on the right allowed Miller to lift a high cross into the path of Patrick Reading who hit home from inside the box.
United held the upper hand with neat play while Queens struggled to break and most of their passes went astray. Reading found gaps everywhere down the left wing and went for another shot on 19 mins but sent his effort wide off the post.
Joe McKee looked lively for Queen of the South in midfield, but Ayr blocked any of his attempts to play into his forwards and kept the match in the hosts' half.
Luke McCowan forced a good save off keeper Rohan Ferguson on 22 mins. A poor clearance from Gregor Buchanan landed at the feet of Zanatta who fed the winger to run in on goal, but Ferguson stood firm at the right post.
Dynamics changed on 29 mins when Queens levelled the game. Miller was adjudged to have blocked a McKee shot with his arm and referee Greg Aitken pointed to the spot. Ayo Obileye stepped up to take the penalty kick and made no mistake.
Three minutes later, the hosts took the lead. Connor Shields picked up a Buchanan clearance in his own half and went for a run down the left. The forward beat Andy Murdoch to cut in and slot the ball past Viljami Sinisalo.
Having gone in front, Queens' spirits were up and they looked a much stronger side. United, however, kept their heads up and both teams were threatening going forward. Aidan Fitzpatrick was denied by Sinisalo from long range while on the other end of the park, Zanatta sent a tight cross narrowly past the post.
Despite getting themselves in decent areas, neither side found the back of the net and it remained 2-1 at the break.
Both teams went into the second half attacking and pressed for a goal, but clear shots on target remained sparse. Shields came close again on 56 mins after Dan Pybus intercepted a loose pass and sent a long ball forward for the striker, but his effort went inches past the post.
The game had opened up as Queens took care not to overcommit while Ayr sent men forward in search of an equaliser and the play turned into an end-to end affair.
Substitute Moffat sent a shot agonisingly just wide of the post before both Zanatta and Mark McKenzie had chances for United as well, but neither managed to find the back of the net.
Ayr created good chances from set pieces and Roscoe challenged Ferguson to tip a header over the bar from a corner while on the other end of the park, Shields forced a great save off Sinisalo from close range.
United threw everything at it in the dying minutes of the game and only a fantastic save from Ferguson kept a Reading shot out of the goal before Buchanan cleared off the line from Moffat who picked up the rebound.
Queens sat deep to defend, but on 90 mins, Ayr found the equaliser. Ferguson defended an initial attempt, but Cammy Smith was at the right place at the right time to deflect the ball off Buchanan and into the net.
Only 30 seconds later though, the Doonhamers went back in front with the winner. James Maxwell played a pass into the way of Shields who broke in on goal and drilled the ball into the bottom right-hand corner to clinch the full three points.
United remain sixth in the Championship table, one point adrift of both Greenock Morton and Raith Rovers who hold one and two games in hand respectively. Inverness sit a point behind in seventh, also with two games in hand.