The final whistle brought an emotional fallout that few except those installed in the dark blue camp would begrudge Dundee United on such a significant day.
Ian Harkes’ 81st-minute winner might have been slightly earlier than appropriate – surely 83 minutes would have packed maximum punch – but nothing could detract from a victory that had begun to look like a forlorn hope, for either side.
It was a mixed afternoon, weather included. Neither team had seemed able to figure out a way to win until Harkes let fly from the edge of the box with nine minutes left to send around 10,000 home fans into ecstasy. A later bonus for them was Dundee dropping to the bottom of the league.
One banner draped over the only group of empty seats in the entire, sold-out arena paid tribute to McLean: “The best there is, the best there was, the best there will ever be”.
A minute’s applause five minutes before kick off to mark Doris’s return to the stadium a day after her late husband’s statue had been unveiled was a reminder why this fixture is a bit special. There was plenty of applause among the away fans. McLean, of course, was a more than decent player for the Dens Park club as well as coach before heading across the road to implement a cross-street power exchange.
McLean would have appreciated the gesture although he might have been perturbed by the money being wasted by having floodlights on at full beam at midday. It suddenly got as dark as a drum for a spell, hence the lights being switched on as rain swept across the park. They were still on when the game finished in bright Autumn sunlight.
The outstanding player was the holding midfielder Jeando Fuchs, which perhaps said it all. He barely wasted a pass all afternoon and along with half-time substitute Dylan Levitt, on loan from Manchester United, was instrumental in United taking hold of the midfield area. Levitt showed his worth after replacing Calum Butcher, who was already running the risk of a red card.
Dundee faded after a strong start and while that grandstand finish ought to have delivered something, they have only themselves to blame for a third defeat in their last four meetings with their neighbours. The visitors turned to a slightly ragged looking cavalry – they had five forwards on by this stage – to try and force an equaliser.
Leigh Griffiths started brightly and came close to putting Dundee ahead with a header from a Jordan Marshall cross that looped just over. He later blazed over the bar and his last contribution was squirting a tired free-kick into the side-netting in injury time.
Pawlett was more effective for the hosts. He saw Adam Legzdins tip his shot onto a post just after the half hour mark.
Last-ditch challenges and blocks were the order of the day. One eventually cut short Dundee centre-half Ryan Sweeney’s involvement while another, from Lee Ashcroft, prevented Harkes getting an earlier goal on the stroke of half time.
It was that kind of afternoon. Scrappy and untidy. Both sides used a concussion sub. Sweeney was helped off shortly before half-time and long after he had taken the ball flush in the face from Marc McNulty.
Kerr Smith, the 16-year-old United defender, was replaced by Kieran Freeman midway through the second half. Eight separate substitutions barely gave the game a chance to develop any rhythm and it didn’t help that referee John Beaton was being particularly whistle-happy.
It was certainly not one for the purist and while many factors account for Doris McLean’s near twenty-year absence from the stadium, she can’t have felt she had been missing much from the evidence of the majority of the play.
McLean himself might have winced at some of the more agricultural passages but would have noted how the game resembled so many derbies from the 1980s – keenly contested but with United emerging with the points.
As so often in those days, Dundee started brightly, could have argued they deserved something from the proceedings but left with precisely nothing other than mounting concern about where their first league win might come from.
Spare a thought for 86-year-old Willie McLean whose last game, a little matter of 12 years ago, was the 6-6 draw between Motherwell and Hibernian. The elder McLean brother sat next to Doris and was probably making a mental note not to return to another game anytime soon when Harkes lit up the occasion for United fans with another explosive derby finish.
The American midfielder, who scored from distance in a 6-2 win two seasons ago, initially seemed to knock the ball too far wide. However, he then managed to wrap his right foot around the ball and send a shot screeching into the net.
There were some players in front of him, but having got his hands to the ball, Legzdins might feel he could and should have turned the shot past round his left-hand post.
Any such self-reflection took place behind a haze of tangerine smoke after this breakthrough saw another flare lobbed onto the pitch from the old Shed end.
The hosts hung on and were reliant on Ryan Edwards being in the right place at the right time to clear Marshall’s effort off the line. Charlie Mulgrew, Old Father Time in the middle of defence, headed everything away. When he wasn’t heading, the 35-year-old was blocking.
One such intervention was a three points-preserving challenge on Sheridan as Dundee upped the ante. A match fit Sheridan might have got his shot away earlier, but Mulgrew’s tackle was timely in the extreme.