Dundee United were more spirited than in recent displays, but still conceded further ground to Hibs in the Ladbrokes Championship title race after an thoroughly entertaining encounter with in-form Dunfermline ended all-square.
Anthony Andreu’s fine opener for the visitors was quickly cancelled out by a goal from Blackpool loanee John Herron, and while United will feel they created more chances throughout the end-to-end 90 minutes, ultimately they failed to make the crucial breakthrough and slipped eight points behind the league leaders, extending their winless run to five games.
“They’re obviously catchable,” said United boss Ray McKinnon about Hibs, “but we know it’s going to be very difficult. We will not be giving up the ghost and we will be trying to win every game for the rest of the season. On another day we convert the chances but we just didn’t do it today. We will keep going and keep believing.”
McKinnon made four changes from the side that lost 6-2 to Ross County in the Scottish Cup. Lewis Toshney occupied a role as holding midfielder in the team’s 4-2-3-1, while recent signing Thomas Mikkelsen led the attack.
Toshney’s responsibility was to act as a physical counter to Dunfermline’s Nat Wedderburn. The former Cowdenbeath and Inverness Caley Thistle behemoth has dominated opponents in the midfield over the Pars’ recent run of form, and McKinnon was keen not to cede physical superiority to his hosts.
It was in defence where United had their initial issues. Mark Durnan had to be bailed out by his centre back partner William Edjenguélé after Nicky Clark robbed the defender and fed Michael Moffat. The experienced striker passed beyond keeper Cammy Bell but saw his shot cleared off the line.
The visitors were slow to get into their stride, but with an ace in the pack such as Andreu, you don’t need much of a sight at goal for something special to happen. The Frenchman’s initial effort from 20 yards was blocked, but when he hunted down the rebound he spent a stinging first-time effort across goal and into the far corner.
Suddenly United had their tails up and they twice went close to extending their lead in the following minutes. Blair Spittal clipped the outside of the post from 18 yards. Then Mikkelsen skewed wide, having been picked out in a good area by Paul Dixon.
Just as it looked like United were going to take full control of the match, they allowed their hosts a fairly simple leveller. Kallum Higginbotham’s set-piece cross was cleared, but when the ball came back to the midfielder he was allowed time and space to pick out Herron, who headed in at the front post. The game’s restart was postponed for a couple of minutes while Bell needed treatment for a head knock. The United keeper was forced from the game at half-time, with Luis Zwick taking over between the sticks.
From this point forward the match was anyone’s to win. Mikkelsen was soon denied by Pars keeper Sean Murdoch at the end of a weaving run, before Wedderburn saw a cleverly planned free-kick routine denied by a block in the six-yard box. At the other end Scott Fraser shimmied past a couple of players but his shot was blocked, Mikkelsen’s follow up was stopped on the line and Pars cleared.
Andreu should have scored on 75 minutes when he was played through on goal. The midfielder’s initial effort was parried by Murdoch but, with the keeper on the deck, Andreu sent his second effort into orbit with the goal gaping.
Spittal then sent a 25-yard curling free-kick heading into the top corner. The player was so sure he’d scored that he’d already started to run away celebrating, only for Murdoch to make an outstanding finger-tip save to push the ball on to the bar.