Simon Murray stole the headlines from Wato Kuate, who might have been red-carded for tangling with team-mate Mark Durnan. Murray was indeed sent off after picking up a second yellow card for simulation, thereby replacing the agitated Kuate as the story of the evening.
Murray, a target for Hibs, was rightly booked in the first half for throwing himself to the ground in seeming anticipation of a challenge by Hamilton’s auxiliary defender Massimo Donati. But his second booking was hugely debatable after Hamilton defender Scott McMann seemed to swipe the legs from under the United striker on the corner of the box.
Referee Steven McLean seemed to motion towards the penalty spot before being advised against it by assistant referee Graham Chambers. The result was another booking for Murray and the need for United to play out the last 13 minutes with just ten men.
While depleted, United did what they have done every time bar once this season at Tannadice. They earned a result.
While it does not particularly favour them ahead of Sunday’s second leg, they would surely have taken a potential 90-minute shootout with Hamilton for promotion to the top flight just a few weeks ago.
This was tense, ragged, often exhilarating fare at Tannadice. A home fan was called away via the Tannoy during the first half because his wife had gone into labour. He probably exited while craning his neck to catch every last moment before he left – if indeed he did leave.
It was that kind of match on a night humid enough to frazzle people’s senses.
Kuate and Durnan were fortunate to avoid stricter punishment than being spoken to by the referee after raising hands to each other in the United box in the second half.
Ray McKinnon seemed to agree. The United manager wasted little time replacing Kuate with Charlie Telfer. But even then the drama didn’t end.
Durnan ran towards Kuate as he ambled towards the tunnel entrance rather than the dug-out, as is normal. The defender placed a hand on his team-mate, either to encourage him or simply speed up his exit given what was at stake, and with United still pressing for an opener.
Kuate was not having this either and flicked out a hand at Durnan, sparking some outrage among the home supporters.
United lost their way for a spell. Ali Crawford should have given Hamilton the lead shortly after Murray’s hugely controversial departure.
But as it stands there is everything to play for at the SuperSeal Stadium on Sunday after a fraught night on Tayside.
At one point Blair Spittal ended up in the front row of the Eddie Thompson stand after a barge from Ioannis Skondras.
To his credit, Spittal simply dusted himself down and got back into position. There was trickery from David Templeton, a livewire for Hamilton, and an attempt at deception by Murray, who was booked after going down too easily under a challenge by Donati.
Murray, the man of these play-offs so far, had already showcased the more admirable part of his game. Cutting in from the left, he sent in a shot that Remi Matthews clutched low to his right.
But United struggled to impose themselves against a side forced to line up with just one recognised centre-half. An injury to Giorgos Sarris compounded the fact Hamilton were missing fellow centre-half and skipper Mikey Devlin, who sustained ligament damage in Saturday’s 4-0 win over Dundee.
Martin Canning’s answer to this problem was to play three at the back, with Donati stepping back next to Scott McMann and Alex Gogic.
Given such alterations, it was not surprising that United looked more sure-footed in the opening stages.
But Hamilton fluffed the game’s first real chance after ten minutes when Daniel Redmond failed to make true enough contact at the near post with Rakish Bingham’s cross from the right.
Bingham should have scored a few minutes later after being sent clear by a neat through ball from David Templeton.
But the onrushing United keeper Cammy Bell kept the score level, saving with a boot.
The home side began to fall away. Kuate wanted too much time on the ball and threatened to become a hindrance to his team.
That he returned after half-time was a minor surprise. Not that he lasted much longer. Only 11 minutes of the second half had passed before he was heading for the tunnel, in seeming dialogue with himself as well as reacting to comments from home fans.
Matthews saved brilliantly from Thomas Mikkelsen. But it was Hamilton who will lament not returning to their home stadium with an advantage after Crawford, sliding in at the far post, prodded substitute Lewis Longridge’s cross past the post.