DUNDEE United’s progress under Jackie McNamara has been steady rather than spectacular but there is no doubt they are improving under his understated but astute management.
They came agonisingly close to what would have been the most significant victory yet of his tenure on Saturday, the cheap concession of a stoppage time equaliser to Charlie Mulgrew denying United’s first victory at Celtic Park since Boxing Day 1992.
Duncan Ferguson scored the only goal of the game that day, the eve of his 21st birthday, and it looked as if another fine product of the Tannadice youth system would claim his own piece of club folklore in the east end of Glasgow more than two decades down the line.
But gifted midfielder Stuart Armstrong’s 38th-minute goal was worth just a point for United, who were left to rue failings at both ends of the pitch at crucial moments when they headed back to Tayside.
For it was not just their lapse in defensive concentration at Celtic’s goal which haunted them, but also a contender for miss of the season from striker Brian Graham midway through the second half.
The prolific form for Raith Rovers which earned the 25-year-old his summer move to United deserted him on Saturday when he contrived to completely miscue what appeared a simple close range headed chance to make it 2-0 from Nadir Ciftci’s cross.
“I thought the ball was coming perfectly to me but then it came behind me and I had to try and adjust my feet,” said Graham. “By then, the chance had gone. I was going to head it but as I adjusted my feet, it just bounced off me.
“Everything was running through my mind after it – ‘I should have done this’ or ‘I should have done that’ – but I’m not going to dwell on it any more. I haven’t scored for United yet, but this was only my second starting appearance.
“I thought I did well for the team and I’m sure the goals will come. I wasn’t worried that the missed chance would cost us, because as much as Celtic were pressing us, I couldn’t see them scoring.
“But the ball came off Mulgrew’s shoulder at the end and went in the bottom corner. We are bitterly disappointed to come away with just a point because we think it should have been all three.
“I know Duncan Ferguson was the last United player to score a winner here and I said to Stuart Armstrong in the dressing room afterwards that he could have been a hero. I can’t repeat what he said back to me.”
Against a Celtic side missing the creativity of Kris Commons and Georgios Samaras, who should both be fit to return for Wednesday night’s Champions League game at Ajax, United performed with composure and tactical diligence.
Teenage central defender John Souttar, impressive throughout, cleared an Anthony Stokes shot off the line but the visitors always carried a threat of their own.
They maximised that attacking ability with the opener seven minutes before half-time, Armstrong coolly beating Fraser Forster from close range after latching onto Ciftci’s brilliant pass over the top of the Celtic defence. Ciftci was an excellent outlet for McNamara’s side all afternoon and will be sorely missed if he lands the lengthy ban hanging over him as a result of his alleged assault on an assistant referee in last week’s League Cup tie at Inverness.
Celtic were more dominant in the second half, the introduction of Mikael Lustig for teenager Darnell Fisher at right-back giving the champions greater verve and fluency down that flank. But, even after Graham’s horror miss, it seemed as if United would hold out for a famous win until their 92nd-minute slackness.
Goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak tried to pick out a team-mate with a clearance when an agricultural lump up the park was called for. Celtic seized possession in the attacking third of the pitch and Emilio Izaguirre’s fine cross from the left was nodded beyond the hesitant Cierzniak’s left hand into the corner of net by Mulgrew.
On the balance of play, it was the least Celtic merited but a sickener for McNamara’s burgeoning side nonetheless.