FIRHILL proved disappointingly short on thrills as the Scottish Professional Football League era got off to an underwhelming start under the Friday night lights.
Neither Partick Thistle or Dundee United will be too dissatisfied at putting their first Premiership point on the board but this goalless stalemate was a sharp reminder that it will take more than new branding to improve the quality of football in Scotland’s top flight.
United manager Jackie McNamara, whose return to his former club had dominated much of the pre-match build-up, will certainly be seeking improvement from his new-look side in the coming weeks and months. For Thistle boss Alan Archibald, every point is a prisoner in his quest for survival and he could have no complaints about the commitment of his men last night.
As expected, there was a hostile reception in wait for McNamara from the home fans. He was loudly jeered as he made his way to the technical area, just as SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster and Thistle chairman David Beattie were performing the ceremonial unfurling of last season’s First Division championship flag.
McNamara had played a significant role in setting Thistle on their way back to the top flight before his rancorous departure to United in January and there was at least a cursory handshake between him and Beattie when their paths crossed just before kick-off.
There was an element of caution to McNamara’s line-up, perhaps in anticipation of the frenetic start Thistle would make to the club’s first top-flight fixture for nine years, as Gary Mackay-Steven and Brian Graham both had to settle for places among the substitutes.
But although Thistle enjoyed plenty of possession and territorial advantage as they adopted a high pressing game to try and put United on the back foot, it was United who had the first glimpse of goal.
Ryan Gauld showed good footwork as he foraged into space on the left and the teenager’s cross took a deflection off central defender Aaron Muirhead, forcing Thistle goalkeeper Scott Fox to scramble desperately to claw the ball away from underneath his crossbar.
Thistle’s response was to force four corner kicks in immediate succession, their on-loan Bolton midfielder Gary Fraser whipping them in with pace and precision which troubled the United defence.
There were loud appeals for a penalty from Thistle when Muirhead looked to be tugged down in the area but referee Craig Thomson was unmoved.
United carried an obvious threat on the counter attack and Fox made a fine double save in the 17th minute, first plunging to his right to keep out David Goodwillie’s header from a Keith Watson cross, then stretching to touch over a 20-yard shot from former Thistle man Paul Paton.
Andrew Robertson, one of five summer signings in the United starting line-up, caught the eye with his powerful and intelligent surges forward from left-back. The 19-year-old, snapped up from Queen’s Park, stretched the Thistle defence with a terrific interception and advance in the 25th minute. He fed the ball inside to Goodwillie but the striker’s low shot did not concern Fox as it trundled wide.
United were less than convincing in dealing with high balls into their penalty area and Thistle striker Kris Doolan might have done better on a couple of occasions, first failing to connect with a Stuart Bannigan cross from the left and then nodding wide from Aaron Taylor-Sinclair’s excellent delivery.
James Craigen, who had the Thistle fans on their feet with a 25-yard shot narrowly wide of Radoslaw Cierzniak’s left-hand post, earned the dubious distinction of picking up the first yellow card of the SPFL era when he was cautioned for a crude challenge on Gauld.
Robertson posed more questions of the Thistle defence with another burst down the left, this time picking out Goodwillie at the far post with his cross but the on-loan Blackburn man was unable to connect cleanly with what appeared a premium opportunity.
Cierzniak had to show outstanding reactions at the other end to prevent Thistle taking the lead just before the interval. The big Pole adjusted his feet smartly to spare his own defender Calum Butcher from an own goal as he miscued his attempt to clear a Taylor-Sinclair cross.
United made a change at the start of the second half, the largely ineffective Nadir Ciftci replaced by Mackay-Steven as they sought to bring more energy and imagination to their attacking work.
They were first to threaten after the resumption, Goodwillie working his way into the penalty area on the right and forcing Fox into a decent save at the expense of a corner. It was Thistle, however, who maintained a territorial edge and Cierzniak had to look lively once more to fist a stinging drive from Doolan over the crossbar.
As frantic as it was, the game had generally been contested in a good spirit. However, tempers flared midway through the second half when Butcher fouled Fraser with a lunging challenge which the home side felt was two-footed and reckless. Players from both sides squared up to each other angrily and when order was restored, referee Thomson issued cautions to both Butcher and Fraser.
John Baird replaced Doolan up front for Thistle for the closing stages and almost made an immedia
te impact, his close-range header brilliantly kept out by Cierzniak.
United further freshened up their attacking options with the introduction of Graham and the close season recruit from Raith Rovers came close to opening his account with a snapshot well saved by Fox.
Partick Thistle: Fox, O’Donnell, Muirhead, Balatoni, Taylor-Sinclair; Lawless, Fraser (Forbes 84), Welsh, Bannigan, Craigen (Elliott 64); Doolan (Baird 73). Subs not used: Gallacher, Kerr, Osbourne, Mukendi.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Watson, Dillon, Butcher, Robertson; Paton; Dow (Graham 72), Armstrong, Gauld (Erskine 63); Ciftci (Mackay-Steven 46), Goodwillie. Subs not used: Rankin, Souttar, Gardyne, McCallum.