Oran Kearney’s side approach Sunday’s Premiership play-off final second leg in Paisley as slight favourites after subduing Robbie Neilson’s hosts to depart Tannadice knowing victory in only two days’ time will ensure they remain in the top tier of Scottish football next season.
This was Saints’ seventh consecutive game undefeated in an impressive resurgence of late, and last night’s opponents were left ruing being unable to capitalise on home advantage with so much at stake for both sides.
United, who still had the best player on the field in the shape of Paul McMullan, are far from out of it but the odds are on their top-flight opponents edging their way towards survival which has been their ultimate aim since Kearney took over from Alan Stubbs back in September.
United went into this Tannadice tie in decent spirits having won their play-off semi-final tie with Championship adversaries Inverness 4-0 on aggregate.
Their 3-0 victory here last Friday night sealed their place in the final against a St Mirren side who had visited Tayside last weekend to secure a 3-2 win over Dundee at Dens Park.
They had hoped to avoid this unwanted play-off scenario, but Hamilton’s win over St Johnstone meant they still had work to do to stave off the threat of relegation.
Still, they were unbeaten in six games and aiming for another positive outcome on Tayside turf to take into the return leg.
There was a near-capacity crowd to welcome the teams. United fielded the same side which had swept past Inverness almost a week ago, and they created the first genuine opportunity inside five minutes.
Osman Sow laid the ball into the path of McMullan who, in turn, fed Ian Harkes whose shot was blocked by Ryan Flynn.
St Mirren took their time to settle amid a frantic start before testing their opponents in the 15th minute.
Kyle McAllister’s inswinging free-kick caused alarm as skipper Mark Reynolds headed the ball towards his own goal, only for Benjamin Siegrist to gather comfortably.
Then, a minute later, Flynn became the first player to be booked by referee Bobby Madden for going in recklessly on American midfielder Harkes.
The home support had cause to rise from their seats in the 20th minute.
McMullan, in full flight, ran through and beat Mihai Popescu for pace, but saw his low shot saved by the legs of Vaclav Hladky, the Saints keeper. McMullan was becoming more of an influence as the game wore on.
Just after the half-hour mark, the winger glided his way past several trailing Saints defenders, and delivered into the box where there wasn’t a Tangerine jersey in sight to apply the finishing touch.
Saints’ forays forward tended to be on the counter-attack. One such example came in 38 minutes when McAllister went alone with impressive speed, but his shot was hacked wide of Siegrist’s far post, before soon after forcing the Swiss keeper to acrobatically fist away his curling effort.
The second half started just as frenetically. Flynn’s deep cross was headed down by Lee Hodson for Kyle Magennis, who saw his instant flick tipped away by Siegrist from point-blank range. It was no surprise when, in 60 minutes, Pavol Safranko replaced Sow, whose legs looked as though they had gone.
The Slovakian striker’s arrival was met with warm applause by the home fans who sensed he might just be the one to get United ahead. Yet, try as they did, they couldn’t crack Saints’ well-drilled defence.