What on earth are we to make of this strangest and most dramatic of games, one marked by some sublime attacking, comedy defending and more ups and downs than a runaway rollercoaster?
Scorers: Dundee United - Meekings (5 og) Daly (6, 90 pen), (Skacel 8); Inverness Caley Thistle - McKay (26, 27, 62), Warren (86)
Three goals for Dundee United in the first ten minutes, followed by a comeback hat-trick for Inverness’s Billy McKay, a late would-be winner for Caley Thistle and then a highly contentious penalty for United deep into injury time for a 4-4 draw combined to produce what Terry Butcher called “one of the greatest games of football you’ll ever see, anywhere”.
The Inverness manager waxed lyrical about the game afterwards. “Incredible, absolutely incredible, sensational – it could easily have been 7-7 or 8-8,” he said of this remarkable contest. “Coming back from 3-0 down after ten minutes is fairytale stuff, but then we never know when we’re beaten.”
If Butcher was energised by his side’s comeback, his United counterpart Peter Houston was less elated. “This feels like a defeat,” he said. “When you’re three up after ten minutes at home you don’t expect not to win, although that’s what happens when you don’t defend set-pieces. Inverness will be a lot happier than us.”
A remarkable match got under way with three quick-fire goals from Dundee United, the first coming after just five minutes when Barry Douglas’s cross was met by skipper Jon Daly, whose shot ricocheted off Caley Thistle defender Josh Meekings and past keeper Antonio Reguero.
Worse was to come for Inverness, with United extending their lead two minutes later thanks largely to some comically bad defending. The culprit this time was Graeme Shinnie, who dithered over clearing a through ball until Daly was upon him, his attempted clearance bouncing back off the United striker’s knee and nestling in the corner of the Caley net.
Dundee United were rampant, stroking the ball around with impunity and completely dominating possession. It was little surprise when they added a third on just eight minutes, with Stuart Armstrong ghosting into the box and laying the ball off for Rudi Skacel to slip the ball across Reguero and into the corner to the net for Dundee United’s third goal in four minutes.
United could have gone further ahead but Johnny Russell’s stinging long-range drive was well saved by Reguero and then Gavin Gunning put a free header over from six feet when it looked easier to score.
By midway through the half, however, the visitors had regained their composure and began to pressure United. Andrew Shinnie served notice that they were now becoming a force when Radoslaw Cierzniak had to move smartly to tip his shot over the bar in what turned out to be a taste of things to come. One minute later Caley Thistle skipper Richie Foran got the revival underway when he drove a volley from the resulting corner towards the goal, and Billy McKay sneaked in front of Cierzniak to head the Highlanders on to the score-sheet.
That sparked a reversal of fortunes that was every bit as spectacular as the opening goal deluge from United. McKay cut the deficit to 3-2 just a minute later with another smart header from a corner, and he even put the ball in the back of the net for a third time with a spectacular volley ten minutes before half-time only for the goal to be chalked off for offside. United, although on the back foot, were not reeling, and in a game of cut and thrust they could easily have scored again with Skacel three times going close immediately before the interval.
If the second half wasn’t quite as exciting or schizophrenic – how could it be? – it still rumbled along at a rare old pace.
Armstrong almost extended United’s lead from a long-range shot, and Reguero reacted superbly to stop big central defender Gary Warren putting the ball into his own net, but the next goal was always going to be crucial and it came from Inverness after Ross Draper was hauled down in the box by Willo Flood after some good work down the right by David Raven. McKay, who was in superbly predatory form, converted the spotkick to complete his hat-trick and register his tenth goal in the past six games.
From there on, it looked as if there was only one team which would win this. Inverness were muscular, dominant and aggressive, and with referee John Beaton offering little protection, United visibly wilted. The visitors made their dominance pay, too, with Warren almost heading them ahead and then doing the job properly with just four minutes to go when Graeme Shinnie curled in a beautiful cross from the right and the unmarked Warren rose to head the ball in off the post and give Inverness a deserved lead.
The drama wasn’t over though. Daly had a close-range shot smothered as United laid siege to the visitors’ goal, and then, with the game deep in injury time, substitute Milos Lacny went down in the area under the merest hint of pressure from Caley skipper Foran and referee Beaton pointed at the penalty spot, Daly converting to give the Arabs a draw which was probably a fair result in this strangest of contests. What a game!