Paul McMullan grabbed a first-leg advantage for Dundee United as a controversial red card raised temperatures in the SPFL Premiership play-off semi-final.
Caley Thistle’s management team were furious at Liam Polworth’s early second-half sending-off after the midfielder seemed to catch United’s Mark Connolly with a high boot.
The hosts went agonisingly close several times in the first half but their resistance cracked with 12 minutes left in an even contest as McMullan steered in the winner.
It remains all to play for at Tannadice on Friday, though, with Caley Thistle now likely to consider appealing Polworth’s red – a move that would allow him to play in the second leg.
The hosts were stepping out for their seventh game in just under a month, three days after seeing off Ayr United’s quarter-final challenge.
United, in contrast, were back in action after the luxury of a restful ten-day break.
On top of that, six of last night’s visiting starters had been rested, or partially rested, for the end-of-season defeat away to Morton.
The Tangerines have already released 13 players in a late-season clear-out. Had Caley Thistle done the same, they would have been unable to raise a team last night.
Personnel shortages forced manager John Robertson to change his system to a back three. In United’s first attack Peter Pawlett threaded a pass through to Osman Sow, who nicked the ball between home defender Coll Donaldson’s legs and drew a strong save from Mark Ridgers.
But, after a flat finale against Ayr, there was an energy to the hosts and Joe Chalmers swung a deceptively lazy left foot at the ball 25 yards out and saw it bounce just wide.
The home side were then desperately unlucky not to open the scoring after 23 minutes. Chalmers’ cross from deep left was met by a towering header by big striker Jordan White that struck the inside of the post and rebounded to safety.
United were always dangerous on the counter, though, and a mis-timed Kevin McHattie header near the angle of the home box fell to the lively McMullan who hit an angled strike on goal. Ridgers reacted superbly to push it for a corner.
If McMullan was warming up for United, Caley Thistle’s creative talent Aaron Doran soon looked in the mood.
Among several threatening darts forward, the Irishman dispossessed Connolly, powered forward and swept in a low cross which the sliding White only just missed.
Polworth’s burst of pace and cross from the right produced another White header, clutched by Benjamin Siegrist, before United finished the first half on the front foot.
After a promising first half, disaster struck the hosts inside three second-half minutes.
Motherwell-bound Polworth, pictured, stretching a high foot for the ball, caught Connolly in the face and was shown a straight red card for the reckless lunge.
Depleted, the hosts’ forward momentum ebbed. United, though, were slow to capitalise. Then came the 78th-minute breakthrough.
The ball broke to Nicky Clark at the edge of the box and a right-foot smash rebounded off the foot of the post, spinning to the right side of the penalty area.
There was McMullan, sharp on to it in reaction, to calmly sweep in the rebound off the inside of the left-hand post.