RIVAL managers John Hughes and Jackie McNamara would be torn between emotions of frustration and satisfaction as their sides shared the spoils in the Highland capital.
SCORERS: Inverness - McKay 5; Dundee United - Watson 10
A draw was the right outcome to an absorbing contest in which Inverness failed to convert a penalty kick and Dundee United twice struck the frame of the goal as both pursued a winning goal, Billy McKay’s early opener having been cancelled out by Keith Watson inside the opening ten minutes.
But while there much in the performance of both teams to encourage their bosses, a point each does little to arrest their recent unproductive runs which have dropped them off the pace at the top end of the Premiership.
Hughes is still waiting for his first home win as Inverness manager after four attempts, while McNamara’s United side have now gone five games without victory after their previously imperious sequence of results came to a halt.
Pre-match concerns over the playing surface did nothing to inhibit either side in attempting to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible. Both teams produced spells of progressive passing football which made it a pleasing spectacle for those who had turned out in chilly conditions for a Sunday lunchtime fixture being televised live.
The tempo was brisk from the start, leading to the early trading of goals which underlined the attacking intent of two clubs still hoping to re-ignite their challenges for second spot in the table.
It was the perfect start for Hughes as he looked to break his home duck as Inverness manager, the home side making their fifth-minute breakthrough from a well-worked corner kick. Danny Williams flighted in the set piece from the right and Gary Warren rose to nod the ball goalwards.
United’s defensive reactions left much to be desired but there was nonetheless plenty still to admire in the predatory instincts of McKay, who pounced to prod his 18th goal of another productive season beyond Radoslaw Cierzniak from close range.
The home fans had precious little time to savour the lead as United’s purposeful response was rewarded with an equaliser just four minutes later. Graeme Shinnie, deployed in a holding midfield role by Inverness, conceded a free kick right on the left edge of the penalty area with a clumsy challenge on Chris Erskine.
Stuart Armstrong tried to catch out Dean Brill with the set piece, driving it low towards the near post when a cross may have been anticipated. The Inverness goalkeeper reacted well, getting down to block the effort. But Inverness were unable to fully clear their lines, United forcing a corner on the left.
Gary Mackay-Steven floated the ball towards the back post, where United right-back Keith Watson’s run had not been tracked by the Inverness defence and his powerful header left Brill helpless.
United enjoyed a sustained period in the ascendancy after Watson’s goal and came close to taking the lead in the 23rd minute from another Mackay-Steven corner. This time, he played it in low from the right, causing confusion in the home defence. It broke to John Rankin who saw a shot blocked, the ball then falling into the path of Brian Graham, whose right-foot shot from eight yards struck Brill’s left-hand post.
A terrific reverse pass by Armstrong created United’s next sight of goal for Mackay-Steven but his low shot was too close to Brill, who saved comfortably.
Inverness gradually worked their way back on to the front foot and finished the first half as the team looking likelier to score again.
When John Souttar was too casual in possession on the edge of his own penalty area, McKay nipped in to rob him of the ball and force a decent save from Cierzniak.
The big Polish goalkeeper denied McKay again six minutes before the interval with an even better stop. Aaron Doran did well to work himself into space on the right and his looping cross was won in the air by McKay. His header looked set to drop under the crossbar but Cierzniak stretched out a hand to flick the ball over at the last possible moment.
United suffered an injury blow shortly after the restart, Graham collapsing in agony as he landed awkwardly. After lengthy treatment, he was taken off on a stretcher. It forced the visitors into an earlier than planned debut for Farid El Alagui as their new loan signing replaced Graham up front.
Inverness should have gone in front in the 59th minute when another well delivered corner from Williams found Warren unmarked at the back post. It looked the simplest of chances but the big defender contrived to head wide from little more than a yard out.
There was almost huge embarrassment for Brill at the other end when the Inverness ’keeper completely misjudged a backpass, his swipe at the ball merely helping it towards his own goal. He spared his blushes by scrambling back in time to hook it off the line.
There was now a real sense that the next goal would be the winner and Inverness were presented with the opportunity to claim it from the penalty spot in the 62nd minute. Referee John Beaton had no hesitation in pointing to the spot as Shinnie went down under Souttar’s challenge as he burst into the area.
Nick Ross stepped forward to take the responsibility from 12 yards but, although the midfielder struck the ball firmly, it was at a favourable height for Cierzniak to make a fine save diving to his right.
Neither team were prepared to sit in and settle for a point and, with 15 minutes remaining, it was United who came agonisingly close to taking the lead. Mackay-Steven showed some fine footwork down the left and his low cross picked out Erskine in the heart of the penalty area, the midfielder’s first-time shot beating Brill but rebounding off the ’keeper’s left-hand post.
United then had a penalty claim turned down, McNamara reacting with an uncharacteristic show of anger on the sidelines when referee Beaton only awarded a corner after Mackay-Steven went down under Warren’s lunging challenge.
The last chance of the afternoon fell to the home team, Doran finding space on the left and driving a low shot narrowly wide of Cierzniak’s right-hand post. At that stage, it would have been harsh on either side to lose the match.
Inverness CT: Brill, Raven, Warren, Meekings, Tremarco; Polworth, Shinnie; Doran, Ross (Christie 81), Williams (Greenhalgh 88); McKay. Subs not used: Esson, Devine, Pepper, Gorman, Evans.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Watson, Souttar, Gunning, Robertson; Paton, Rankin; Mackay-Steven, Erksine, Armstrong (Gauld 84); Graham (El Alagui 53). Subs not used: McCallum, Dillon, Butcher, Dow, Gomis.