Dundee United 1 - 0 Dunfermline: Nicky Clark lifts Tangerines

Somehow out of a game that nearly drowned in nothingness, Dundee United wrenched away three points and are right back in it when it comes to the race for automatic promotion from the Championship.

Nicky Clark flashes a header past goalkeeper Lee Robinson to move Dundee United to within three points of top spot in the Championship.  Photograph: Alan Harvey/SNS
Nicky Clark flashes a header past goalkeeper Lee Robinson to move Dundee United to within three points of top spot in the Championship. Photograph: Alan Harvey/SNS

It had looked a sure thing that they were going to again squander an opportunity to close the gap at the top afforded them by Ross County and Ayr United’s fit of the jitters. But then, with only nine minutes left, substitute Nicky Clark did what former players so often do against their old club – bag the winning goal.

It was pretty tough to take for Dunfermline in all sorts of ways, let alone Clark coming back to haunt them. The post-Allan Johnston era began with a solid enough display under new head coach Stevie Crawford, although excitement was all but non-existent.

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United manager Robbie Neilson is in the process of wheeling and dealing in the transfer market as he tries to inject some consistency and momentum into his side’s promotion challenge but he was refreshingly realistic about it being a work in progress on the back of unconvincing displays like this.

“It’s a big three points for us,” he reflected. “I think we’ll all agree that it wasn’t a great performance but sometimes to win titles you just have to grind it out. I’d prefer to put on a bit of a show, enjoy it and score more goals. But it wasn’t to be today.”

What morsels of positives that could feasibly be gleaned from an otherwise dreadfully dull opening 45 minutes fell the way of the visitors. Despite the upheavals of the preceding days they looked cohesive, particularly at the back where they comfortably dealt with United’s feckless attempts to find a way through.

At the other end the Fifers carried a bit of a threat and were not unwilling to have a go but their final ball and attempts on goal were little better than the hosts’. A James Vincent effort that was wayward after some decent play on the right by Myles Hippolyte was about their best. Near perfect symmetry was offered by United’s Pavol Safranko squandering a tempting cross from Stewart Murdoch by heading weakly into Lee Robinson’s arms.

Neilson started to shuffle his pack at the interval, withdrawing Matthew Smith and introducing January transfer window recruit Aidan Nesbitt. Further changes followed by both sides but for a long spell it was just more of the same. Formless stalemate, more wholehearted but scrappy defending and a smorgasbord of misplaced passes and misunderstandings between team-mates.

Safranko managed to draw a decent save from Robinson with a ground shot, while Hippolyte toiled admirably to make something happen for the Pars. There was not an end in sight to the soreness inflicted on the eyes when out of nothing Nesbitt made his presence count, delivering a decent cross and Clark lost his marker to flash a header into the net. There was as much relief as jubilation around Tannadice – only at the full-time whistle did the United fans acclaim a result ground out of hard labour.

“It’s a sore one,” observed Crawford. “Possibly we could have created a few more chances in the second half but, listen, we’ve had two training sessions with them – it’s been an unsettling week.”