The road back to the Premiership, as Dundee United for one will testify, can be a treacherously long and rocky trek. The Championship favourites began their campaign positively after Paul McMullan’s spot-kick sank last season’s relegated top-flight side.
Only time will tell if the path is surmountable for a much-changed Inverness under John Robertson, but amid the high controversy of yesterday’s defeat there were positive signs.
In a tale of two penalty kicks, one given, one not, home manager Robertson was left baffled by his sending off and lamented referee Craig Thomson’s judgment in the decisive moments of United’s opening-day triumph.
When Robertson queried McMullan’s early and decisive penalty award with the linesman he was sent to the stand with barely 14 minutes gone. Then, home midfielder Ross Draper was denied what the Caley Thistle manager felt, with good cause, was a “stonewall” spot-kick just before the break.
United, despite spending much of the second half pinned back, stood strong to fortify their status as most-fancied in this most competitive of divisions. But a clearly frustrated Robertson took great heart from the hosts’ overall performance in defeat.
“I just asked the linesman if he was sure, because Paul McMullan went down very easily. Our players are adamant there was no contact,” the former Hearts striker said. “He played for it and got it, so from a forward’s perspective he has done the right thing.
“That’s what I was sent to the stand for – no swearing, no misconduct. The fact is the referee doesn’t even want to discuss it.
“We then have a stonewall penalty ourselves – Ross Draper is clipped from behind – and he doesn’t give it. He books him. There were interesting decisions.
“But in terms of our play, I thought we were terrific today. We just need a wee bit more quality and belief in the last third. “For long spells, we were the better side against the title favourites. If we can build on that and sharpen up in a few areas, we won’t be far away this season.”
United’s healthy travelling support of 1,069 spoke of high Tannadice ambitions this season.
The Caley Thistle players did their best to lift the more subdued home crowd with bright moments in the opening exchanges, but United’s breakthrough came inside 13 minutes.
Brad Mckay tripped the lively McMullan in the penalty area and the former Celtic youngster took the kick himself and sent Mark Ridgers the wrong way.
With Robertson sent to the stand, home anger seemed to stir their efforts and the best play through the remainder of the half came from them.
Riccardo Calder, the former Aston Villa and England youth winger, proved an increasingly dangerous creative outlet on the left amid concerted home pressure.
Caley Thistle frustration turned to outrage a minute before the break when Tam Scobbie seemed to trip Draper as he jinked past challenges in the penalty box, only for referee Thomson to wave away appeals.
For all the home pressure and momentum, though, there was little to show for it.
United manager Ray MacKinnon insisted opposite number Robertson had got it wrong on the early penalty award.
“I’m very happy. It’s a tough place to come, Inverness,” MacKinnon stressed. “We weren’t at our best, but coming away with three points with a lot of players still to come back into the team, I’m delighted.
“Our goalkeeper didn’t have a lot to do and a clean sheet is great. There was no doubt about our penalty award – it was clear-cut.
“John has a good squad coming down from the Premier League so it only bodes well for us. I think there will be a few teams in the league that’ll be our rivals, but Inverness will be a huge threat. Not many teams will come here and win.”