THIS was an opportunity lost for Dundee, who did all the hard work, only to make a hash of the easy bit.
SCORERS: Dundee, Wighton 54; Patrick Thistle, Fraser 4
Thoroughly outplayed in the first half, they came back from a goal down, but contrived to miss a penalty and fail, in what remained of the game, to beat a Thistle side that was reduced to ten men.
The big talking point was a chaotic turn of events early in the second half. Craig Wighton had just cancelled out Gary Fraser’s early opener when the referee awarded Dundee a penalty for Daniel Seaborne’s shove on James McPake. In the protest that followed, Seaborne was booked, Scott Fox, the Thistle goalkeeper, was sent off and his replacement, Paul Gallagher, saved Gary Harkins’ spot-kick.
It was a bemusing passage of play, which left too many questions unanswered, most of them posed by Allan Archibald, Thistle’s manager. In the space of five mad minutes, his team had lost a comfortable lead and been forced to embark on an exercise in damage limitation.
“They got the goal and then the referee ruined it,” said Archibald. “A player said that Scott Fox had punched somebody, but I didn’t see that. Scott says he just put his arm up and the ref sent him off for it. He says the player ran into his arm. Players sometimes tell you porkies, right enough.”
Fox, who was Thistle’s second-choice goalkeeper at the end of last season, was said to be devastated in the dressing room afterwards. “He is very upset,” said Archibald. “He’s just got the jersey back, and he’s now lost it because he’s suspended.”
It was tough on Thistle, who had been mighty impressive in the first half. Not only do they press high up the pitch, they are unpredictable in attack, with a front four who are fluid, clever enough to interchange at will and devilishly difficult to mark.
In the early stages, they looked ready to repeat the four-goal haul that did for Ross County in midweek. First, Stephen O’Donnell strolled past Paul McGowan and stood one up at the back post. With the goalkeeper stranded, Stuart Bannigan’s free header somehow slipped by the post.
Then came the opener courtesy of a slick exchange on the edge of the penalty box, a simple lay-off and Fraser’s thundering first-time shot, which was still rising when it arrowed past Kyle Letheren’s forlorn right hand.
At this stage, Dundee were all at sea. O’Donnell’s low shot was saved at the front post, McPake’s sliding block denied Ryan Stevenson in the six-yard box and, when Paul McGinn hesitated at the back post, Bannigan nipped in to get a shot away. This time, Letheren stood up well to parry with his body.
Eventually, Dundee composed themselves, but without their injured captain, Kevin Thomson, the midfield work was left to McGowan.
In the absence of any activity ahead, his probing and prompting was to no avail. Peter MacDonald’s free kick, which curled past the upright, was all the home side could manage before the interval.
Dundee manager Paul Hartley needed to make a change, which he did at half-time, replacing Luka Tankulic with Wighton. It proved to be a telling substitution. Within ten minutes, Jim McAlister surged at the Thistle defence, the ball broke to Wighton in the box and the 17-year-old striker slid it calmly under the goalkeeper.
For the rest of the game, Wighton was Dundee’s best player, giving them another dimension in attack. Dundee fans will have been delighted with the news announced after the game that the youngster has signed a new three-year contract with the club.
“He has been looking sharp in training,” said Hartley. “He has only just turned 17. He has got the world at his feet. He is top drawer, probably the best young player in Scotland at that age. He made the difference. He gave us a little bit of energy and zip. He has quality on the ball.”
Maybe, but it wasn’t enough to beat a goalkeeper more than twice his age. Gallagher, celebrating his 35th birthday, did more than just save a penalty with his first touch. Later, when MacDonald sneaked in behind his marker to get his head on Harkins’ floated cross, the veteran pushed it round the post by reaching low to his right. “For an old man, he moves well,” said Archibald.
Dundee laid siege to their opponents’ goal, without finding a way through Thistle’s reorganised defence. There were two penalty claims – one for handball, the other for another Seaborne push on McPake – and a couple of long-range efforts that sailed high and wide, but in the end, Dundee had to settle for a draw, their third in three league games.