Sam Stanton ensured Dundee United’s promotion aspirations remain alive courtesy of his sublime winner as their second-half revival left Dunfermline truly distraught in this thrilling Tannadice tie.
Csaba Laszlo’s side were staring at the prospect of being knocked out and spending a third successive season in the Championship after Declan McManus had given Allan Johnston’s visitors a 14th-minute lead in this Premiership play-off quarter-final second-leg clash.
The Pars should have buried United out of sight before the break as McManus missed a sitter to make it 2-0 before Nicky Clark struck the crossbar with a header right on the interval with the Tangerines toiling. But it was all change after the break. McDonald claimed a 57th-minute equaliser prior to Stanton’s majestic 68th-minute winner to set up a semi-final showdown with Livingston, whom they now face in the first leg at Tannadice on Monday.
United made two changes from the side which left East End Park with a 0-0 draw against the ten-man Pars on Tuesday night. Paul McMullan came in for Thomas Mikkelsen while Stanton replaced Grant Gillespie in midfield.
The visiting Fifers arrived on Tayside buoyed by an impressive 11-game unbeaten run with striker McManus replacing the injured Andy Ryan.
They were roared on by a boisterous 1,900 travelling support and Livingston manager David Hopkin was also in the stand to run the rule over their prospective opponents ahead of Monday night’s semi-final first leg.
The hosts created the first real opportunity in six minutes when Willo Flood switched a pass out wide to Scott Fraser, but his weighted cross was cut out by former United defender Callum Morris, who nipped in to clear the danger with McMullan lurking to pounce.
But it was the visitors who stormed ahead in 19 minutes. Fraser Aird went on a lung-bursting run down the left as he skipped past on-loan Celtic youngster Anthony Ralston.
Aird’s low cross was met by McManus who reacted quicker than Stewart Murdoch to stab the ball home past helpless Deniz Mehmet from close range. That sent the away fans wild, although their lead was almost cancelled out only two minutes later.
Billy King fed Ralston, whose low cross was perfect for McDonald. The Australian poked his effort towards goal, only to watch in agony as his finish struck the outside of Lee Robinson’s post.
It was fast becoming end-to-end stuff. Dunfermline were next to have a chance to increase their lead in 24 minutes.
This time Kallum Higginbotham, who was giving Jamie Robson a hard time, set up Ryan Williamson to deliver a low cross in the danger area.
Williamson’s ball picked out Clark but he couldn’t keep his effort on target as the hosts breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Then, in 35 minutes, McManus missed a golden opportunity to give his side some much-needed breathing space.
The Pars striker was sent clean through. With only Mehmet to beat, McManus only managed to scuff his shot right against Mehmet’s legs from ten yards, with strike partner Clark screaming for a lay-off.
On the stroke of half-time, Johnston’s men should have increased their lead. Aird went on another blistering run before crossing for Clark whose header crashed off the bar with Mehmet beaten.
It was agonising for the visitors coming so close again, while the United fans booed their players off on the whistle knowing full well they could easily have been trailing 3-0.
Laszlo made a change at the start of the second half, Mikkelsen replacing McMullan in a clear bid to try to salvage the tie.
United were soon firing long balls up to Mikkelsen which the visiting defence seemed happy enough to cope with despite the Scandinavian’s strength in the air.
Their tactics paid off in 57 minutes though. Fraser’s corner was nodded towards goal by Mikkelsen and McDonald was there to help it on as Robinson allowed the ball to squirm through his arms and into the net.
United suffered a blow when Mehmet hobbled off on 61 minutes – incredibly, the goalkeeper appeared to hurt his knee while running to celebrate the equaliser and he left the ground on crutches – so Harry Lewis took over between the sticks.
In 66 minutes, Lewis got his first taste of action by pulling off a breathtaking point-blank save to thwart McManus’ header from Aird’s cross.
Two minutes later, though, Stanton struck in some style.
The former Hibs ace ran 50 yards before poking his finish through Robinson’s legs from eight yards to complete a remarkable turnaround.
Despite Dunfermline’s best efforts to force extra-time, United held on as they now gear up to face Livingston in 48 hours’ time.