Dundee United salvaged a point from this one to keep the pressure on the league leaders and while thanks are due to newcomer Aidan Nesbitt for the lift he gave the Tannadice side, Partick boss Gary Caldwell claimed referee Bobby Madden also played his part.
A second-half penalty, which Sean McGinty conceded for a challenge on former MK Dons recruit Nesbitt, was described as “soft” by the disgruntled Thistle gaffer. Caldwell saw his side slip to the bottom of the Championship after Fraser Fyvie sent Conor Hazard the wrong way as, elsewhere, Falkirk managed an unlikely win over Ayr United to move off the foot of the table.
But his players were not vociferous in their arguments at the time and he says he did not challenge the official after the match. “There’s no point!” said Caldwell. But that did not ease his frustration. “I’m not somebody who believes in luck, I just think it’s bad refereeing. Every week both managers have a go at referees so there’s something wrong.”
His opposite number, Robbie Neilson, definitely seemed to have cause for complaint when his side were denied a 72nd-minute winner. Madden chalked off Pavol Safranko’s header despite the fact he looked to have simply out-jumped the Thistle keeper.
“Nowadays if you go anywhere near the keeper it’s a free-kick,” said Neilson. “I don’t think the keeper jumped. But that’s just football nowadays. Keepers get mollycoddled and you can’t go near them.”
But Neilson was more focused on what his players – in particular new signing Nesbitt – had contributed.
The attacking midfielder came on at the start of the second half and turned the match in the home side’s favour. As well as winning the penalty, he offered the team a more focused playmaker and got in on chances, a couple of which he should have been more clinical with.
“He brought exactly what I wanted him to,” said Neilson. “Having been in this league for a few months now, I realise that it’s quite an open game. You need people that can find a space in that game and make things happen. I thought Aidan lit the game up when he came on.
“The players around him responded because they know when he gets on the half turn he can pick the pass, so people make runs. I was really pleased with his debut.”
But the draw was probably a fair outcome, as both teams enjoyed periods on top. Morton’s win over Ross County at Cappielow the night before offered United the chance to close the gap on the division leaders but following a decent upturn in fortunes after the former Hearts and MK Dons gaffer had taken charge, one win in the past five matches had signalled a disappointing end to 2018. And against a Thistle in survival mode and bolstered by the arrival of Gary Harkins and Steven Saunders, there was little to differentiate two teams at different ends of the Championship.
Partick could have put the game to bed by half-time. United helped them in that regard, with some lose passing and poor decision-making allowing the visiting rearguard to simply get a boot on the ball and hoof it high up the park for Miles Storey and Kris Doolan to get in behind and run on to.
That tactic served the guests well and they could have had a couple of goals by the time they took the lead in the ninth minute. Storey had already got in behind and latched on to a McGinty long ball and minutes later James Penrice sent a long diagonal in for Doolan.
The opener came from a Craig Slater corner that picked out Doolan. He rose unmarked at the back post and headed home from close range.
With Thistle on top, United’s first real chance only came in the 34th minute but Safranko’s header was off target. Thistle will rue not making more of their period on top as United looked a different and improved team after the break as Nesbitt began to pull the strings.
The penalty allowed them to restore parity but they could have walked off at the final whistle with even more if Nesbitt had managed to get more power on a couple of his shots as they sought the winner.
“There’s frustration that it’s just a point considering the way other results went,” said Neilson. “But we’ve got to try and stay positive.”
Caldwell promised more recruits and improved performances. “I said a while ago that I couldn’t wait for January the 1st and that’s why. The first-half performance today was probably the best since I’ve been at the club. We will get better and stronger,” he said.