GOALS, they say, change games. And whilst this is true, so do accurate penalty and red card decisions, as was evident here.
As these two strugglers slugged it out for a share of the points, both will walk away with a hard luck tale to tell.
Kilmarnock were miles better in the opening exchanges before the referee intervened, leading United no doubt to feel that this was a chance missed to snare a rare maximum haul of points.
Any team looking almost certain to be propping up the table on Christmas Day – and suffering the type of confidence-sapping streak United went into this encounter on – needs to be solid, resilient and miserly at the back to allow some semblance of self-belief to flow back.
United were none of the above, leading to their already fragile spirit being easily crushed inside four minutes as the Tangerines’ defence stood aside to allow Kris Boyd a food and drink finish from a Josh Magennis centre.
You could almost see the heart for battle visibly drain out of the visitors on a cold, wet and blustery afternoon.
Kilmarnock went on the front foot with Tope Obadeyi forcing two good saves from Michal Szromnik in the United goal before Boyd was inches away from connecting with a teasing centre as United’s defence failed to either cut out deliveries at source or deal with them when they whistled across their bow.
Midway through the half the only issues were how Kilmarnock had failed to add to their lead and how many it could end up being. However, these missed opportunities were to come back to haunt the home team as decisions by referee John Beaton turned the game on its head.
Florent Sinama-Pongolle’s on target, if not exactly ferociously struck, free kick was weakly dealt with by Killie keeper Jamie MacDonald, leading to the ball being returned across goal where Blair Spittal narrowly failed to connect under pressure from Stuart Findlay.
Referee Beaton reckoned there had been a barge by the defender, who was dismissed to the outrage of those he left behind and to the delight of United’s Billy Mckay, who gleefully drilled home the spot kick.
When asked after the game if he thought it was the right call by the officials, Kilmarnock manager Gary Locke left it initially as a simple “No”. He went on to add; “Stuart is adamant he did nothing wrong and it didn’t look like the referee had the best of views, but I was delighted with our response as I thought we were excellent.”
From nowhere United were not only level, but laying siege to the home goal as Kilmarnock took a turn in crumbling. Spittal fired over, Mckay ought to have scored when clean through and Pongolle took a leave from play-making to fire in a shot MacDonald did well to hold.
Such had been the contentious game-changing nature of the penalty award, that both Locke and Lee McCulloch were still chirping in the ears of the officials when the teams emerged after the break.
But the Rugby Park management team will have known they got away with one five minutes after the restart.
Spittal clearly had his shirt pulled as he ran away from the home defence inside the area yet there was nothing from the referee other than a lengthy talking to for Mixu Paatelainen, who had protested incredulously on the touchline.
United were well on top as Killie increasingly set up camp deep in their own defensive third, yet despite the territorial dominance of the visitors, they struggled to carve out chances with only a wild slash from Paul Dixon and a puny finish from Spittal to show for their promptings.
Indeed, only a post kept Killie out midway through the second half as Craig Slater smashed the woodwork on a rare foray forward. This was as close as either team came to claiming the win – with the wind whipping up and neither team willing to gamble on losing the point, the game drably concluded.
Not a good point for either, but against ten men any team in United’s predicament needs to be getting a victory, although Paatelainen wasn’t too downbeat over the result – or even incandescent regarding his team being denied a second spot kick.
He said: “A point is better than nothing, but maybe it is points dropped.
“The referee obviously didn’t see the shirt pull, but we respect that and move on.”