John Hughes used the tough love approach to management in the build up to this game and was rewarded with a gritty, determined display that earned Raith Rovers a second victory in their past three games.
For United, with manager Ray McKinnon returning to his old club, it was a third consecutive defeat in a run of just one win in their last ten league games as their promotion challenge threatens to fall to pieces at a crucial point in the campaign.
The Tannadice outfit did push hard for an equaliser in the final minutes after Simon Murray had pulled one back with nine minutes remaining, but they could not recover from Raith’s goals either side of half-time from Craig Barr and Ryan Hardie and are now 11 points adrift of Hibs in top spot.
Hughes questioned his squad’s character and quality after their 4-0 hammering from Dumbarton last weekend, branding them fragile and accusing players of hiding as they faced up to the challenge of a Championship relegation battle. The answers he got this week were pleasing.
“It was a massive improvement from last week, that’s for sure, and it had to be,” said Hughes. “I think we owed it to each other.
“There were a few harsh words said but they took it on board and I think the work we did this week was evident. I’m absolutely delighted.
“I think what was said last week needed to be said. I asked them for a reaction and I think what it’s done is brought them closer together. I’m pleased for them.”
The teams traded opportunities in the opening stages but it was Raith who edged in front four minutes from the interval when a determined Barr headed Chris Johnston’s in-swinging free-kick beyond Cammy Bell. Another set-piece three minutes after half-time was again the undoing of United as they warmed up for their Irn-Bru Cup final with another loss. This time Jean-Yves M’voto’s nod down was missed by the United defence and Hardie swivelled to drive a low shot into the net.
Murray’s shot through a crowded box grabbed United a lifeline with nine minutes left but, with Barr coming close to easing the late nerves when another header crashed back off the post, Raith held on.
“That’s two difficult defeats this week and both of them were self-inflicted,” said United manager Ray McKinnon after a lengthy dressing-room inquest that matched the lock-in he held in the wake of Wednesday’s 3-2 defeat by St Mirren.
“It’s a wee tough run we’re on at the moment but we need to come through it.
“It was our own undoing today and we’re better than that. We need to get back to playing football and getting the ball moving quickly.”