Jason Cummings took centre stage on an evening when Hibs made things a lot tougher for themselves than they needed to be.
Cummings scored the spectacular first-half winner to give his side a nine-point lead at the top of the Championship but was later sent off after one of the most senseless red cards of the season.
But this was not the end of the crazy scenes on a night when referee Don Robertson showed 11 yellow cards and two reds – Lewis Toshney was sent off for the home side after two bookings long before Cummings’ 76th-minute red card.
The Hibs striker, already on a booking, punched the ball into the net. His manager Neil Lennon might have been well within his rights to box the player’s ears. But he, too, was sent to the stand in the dying moments for leaving the technical area once too often.
But as both saint and sinner, Cummings stole the show. Fortunately for him, Hibs survived his late act of rashness. As when he messed up a penalty in last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final against the same team, Cummings still emerged as the match winner as United fell to what might prove ultimately to be a costly defeat. Results this weekend could yet leave Ray McKinnon’s team in fourth place.
Hibs, meanwhile, managed to cement their position as Championship leaders while helping fan the flames of supporter discord at Tannadice.
United struggled on with ten men after Toshney’s early red card. Without Toshney, who had been handed the holding role in midfield, United’s game plan quickly unstitched.
There was a mild outbreak of anti-Steven Thompson sentiment from the United fans after ten minutes. But the chants of “We want Thompson out”, a phrase also printed on anti-board leaflets handed out prior to the match, were drowned out by other supporters wishing to support the team in such a crucial match.
Toshney’s red card for a second bookable offence just after the half hour mark left United with a huge task to claim the three points, something most agreed was a must if they are to overhaul Hibs at the top. Even securing a share of the points was a difficult enough challenge. This became steeper still when Cummings scored his 20th goal of the season six minutes before half-time.
United, aware of the need to clinch victory, were clearly motivated. While they displayed a little less in the way of finesse than their opponents they were battling for everything in the middle of the park.
Sadly for them this aggression spilled over into something harmful to United’s own welfare. Booked already for a high challenge on the same player, Toshney clattered into Andrew Shinnie to give the referee every opportunity to prematurely end the United player’s return from injury. Toshney offered few complaints before making his way towards the tunnel.
By the time his team-mates followed him in the same direction at half-time they were contemplating mission impossible.
Shinnie’s lobbed pass towards Cummings still left the Hibs striker with much to do. But a player in such good form – this was his fifth goal in six appearances – did not stop to think. He chested the ball down before turning to hit an unstoppable shot into the top left-hand corner past Cammy Bell. The goal was the cue for green flares to be thrown on to the pitch from the Shed end at Tannadice, where the majority of the away supporters were housed.
Hibs officials are likely to take a dim view of this behaviour but such an extreme celebration reflected what a significant goal this could prove.
But United were handed a boost – literally – when Cummings punched David Gray’s cross from the right into the net. Lennon was furious with the referee initially before being informed by Gray that yes, Cummings really had been this foolish. The manager himself was later sent to the stand on an eventful evening.