Morton had come within minutes of becoming the first team to win at Tannadice in the Championship this season after Kalvin Orsi’s first-half header had given them a precious lead. But Shankland’s dramatic last-minute leveller rescued a point for United, who stretched their lead at the top of the table to 18 points over nearest challengers Inverness.
And Neilson, whose side head to Easter Road on Tuesday for their Scottish Cup fourth-round-replay tie with Hibs, saluted the United fans for not bailing out.
“It’s very easy for fans to get restless but they showed their togetherness and belief in the team,” said Neilson. “They could have got disappointed and left before the end.
“But we gave them something back in the 89th minute. The lads kept pushing and gave them something to shout about.”
The hosts thought they’d taken the lead after just 25 seconds. Midfielder Ian Harkes’ shot was parried by Morton keeper Danny Rogers before being turned in by Osman Sow, but his effort was disallowed for offside.
David Hopkin’s visitors took until the 13th minute to forge their first attack when Nicky Cadden whipped a dangerous cross into the box which was turned behind for a corner.
But the visitors took the lead in spectacular style a few minutes later. Cadden’s in-swinging cross from deep was perfect for Orsi, who surged past Liam Smith to bullet a header past Benjamin Siegrist from six yards.
United tried their best to level matters before the break. Louis Appere picked out Peter Pawlett who took a touch inside the box but couldn’t control it as the ball bounced off him.
Neilson threw on Paul McMullan at the start of the second half at the expense of Ian Harkes in a bid to spark a revival.
United had plenty possession after the break but with the exception of Shankland’s crisp shot over the bar, Morton were quite comfortable.
But in stepped Shankland, pictured, by finding a yard of space and popping up at the far post to nod home Liam Smith’s hopeful cross for his 26th goal this season.
“I’m delighted with the performance,” said Morton manager Hopkin afterwards.
“We knew they were going to get a chance. And with a minute to go, it falls to the wrong person.
“Shankland is probably the best finisher in Scotland right now.”