Two new managers, one new flag and one very new set of circumstances. Dundee United returned to the Premiership after a four-year absence but were frustrated by ten-man St Johnstone’s defiance on the season’s opening day. Micky Mellon and Callum Davidson took charge of their respective teams for the first time competitively and it was understandably Davidson who left Tannadice Park happiest.
Facing a 1-0 deficit through Nicky Clark’s penalty, he saw Michael O’Halloran red carded for a needless second caution on half-time. Yet Saints raised their game and restored parity with Liam Craig’s sublime first-time volley after the break. Following a distasteful and very public fallout from last season’s premature conclusion due to coronavirus, it was the type of goal sorely missed by football fans around the country.
“When you go a goal up and the opposition go down to ten men, and you have played the way we had done, you would expect to see the game out,” commented Mellon. “I think we maybe switched off in one little moment of detail. We were a wee bit loose when the ball turned over and got punished.
“It was a good finish from the lad and credit to St Johnstone. They dug in. We had to break down a block but weren’t able to.”
Davidson handed a debut to wing-back Danny McNamara, on loan from his former club Millwall, and was rewarded with a standout display. “We gradually came into the game and I thought we were the better team in the second half,” said Davidson.
“I was very impressed with Danny and I know what he can do. He showed the will, the grit and the attitude. That’s why I brought him up. To come in and play your first game, I was delighted with him.”
This is Mellon’s first ever professional stint in his homeland after he left Tranmere Rovers last month. Davidson, a much more familiar figure around Scotland, returned to St Johnstone from Millwall in June to assume the rather daunting task of replacing Tommy Wright - the greatest manager in the club’s history.
The streaming of Premiership games meant fans around Tayside and beyond watched United unfurl the Championship flag on their own screens, although Neil Doncaster was in attendance to witness the moment first-hand. The Scottish Professional Football League chief executive was doubtless relieved not to be in among supporters.
Like every other Scottish ground, Tannadice lay empty and somewhat eerie yesterday. This arena echoed with Robbie Neilson’s barking not that long ago but his departure for Hearts created a void Mellon happily filled. He gave 17-year-old Lewis Neilson a debut in defence in United’s new 3-5-2 formation, with Davidson’s St Johnstone starting 5-2-3 and flowing into 3-4-3 when attacking.
Mellon got a welcome start when the home team scored their first Premiership goal for four years after only six minutes. When Liam Smith’s shot struck Craig on the arm, referee Kevin Clancy awarded a penalty which Clark expertly converted high to the left of visiting goalkeeper Elliot Parish. It was also the first top-flight goal of his career.
Only Parish’s instinctive save prevented the impressive United wing-back Jamie Robson doubling the advantage seconds later. St Johnstone needed guile to trouble the opposition and on 24 minutes David Wotherspoon’s dribbling run from the left ended with a shot just off target. Then came further efforts at the other end from Ian Harkes and Calum Butcher.
United would have expected to gain full control of this game when their guests were reduced to ten men. O’Halloran had been booked for a late challenge on Peter Pawlett and the same misdemeanour on Butcher earned him a second caution and a red card right on half-time.
In between, the forward had also caught the home goalkeeper Ben Siegrist as team-mates in blue urged him not to indulge in needless fouls. He didn’t listen. “I thought it was a sending off, no question,” said Davidson. “I think he got away with one before it and we were deliberating on the bench whether to take him off or leave him to half-time. Then he got sent off.”
Lawrence Shankland - 29 goals in 35 games during last season’s Championship success - should have put clear daylight between these teams two minutes into the second period. He almost nonchalantly feinted one way then the other running at Liam Gordon, leaving the St Johnstone defender scrambling on the turf, but sent his shot high over Parish’s goal.
If that was a portion of good fortune for Davidson’s side, they capitalised on it ruthlessly with the equaliser. McNamara delivered a right-sided cross which United defender Mark Connolly attempted to clear by hooking the ball over his head. It dropped for Craig to dispatch a venomous first-time volley beyond Siegrist from 14 yards.
That sparked Saints into life despite their numerical disadvantage, and Siegrist made a crucial double save to thwart Wotherspoon and McNamara just after the hour. McNamara made a vital block challenge to stop Pawlett shooting in the closing stages. However, despite a flurry of late United pressure, those from Perth survived to leave with a hard-earned point.
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