KEEPING a clean sheet may have been a positive reaction of sorts by a team which had shipped six goals the week before. But there is little margin for error entering the closing stages of a title race. It is very hard to see Dundee United lifting the Ladbrokes Championship now after dropping two more points.
The goalless draw they were held to by their Fife rivals Dunfermline in a forgettable encounter at East End Park yesterday saw them lose even further ground on second tier leaders St. Mirren. They now trail the increasingly impressive looking Paisley club by eight points.
They may have a game in hand and there might still be 15 league matches to play and 45 points up for grabs. But their form of late is not that of champions. They have now won just one of their last four league games and that was at home against bottom-placed Brechin. The absences of Fraser Fyvie and Scott Fraser are clearly being keenly felt. They will be doing well to secure a play-off spot on this evidence.
Only the outstanding play of Harry Lewis, the on-loan Southampton goalkeeper who had picked the ball out of his net six times in the heavy loss against Falkirk seven days earlier, prevented the Tannadice club from suffering another defeat here.
Csaba Laszlo, the United manager, predictably insisted his side could still secure automatic promotion. “We are another two points behind St Mirren, but there are 15 games to go, and every team that comes to Dunfermline will suffer because they’re not a bad team,” he said. “It’s not nice, this is clear. But the season is not finished.”
Laszlo, though, knows that his men need to do far better to halt the slide. “I’m not happy, but, on the other side, I’m also not unhappy,” he said. “We must be more clinical. I’m more sad that we don’t have players on the pitch like Fyvie and Fraser.”
The race to finish in the play-off spots in the Championship is a fascinating one with six teams currently all having a realistic chance. Allan Johnston, the Dunfermline manager, believes is side is one of them.
“I think we should have won,” he said. “Their keeper pulled off a lot of good saves and we really unlucky not to win. We did well against a top team, but we are frustrated not to get a win. We need to build on this now. We have a tough period but it’s important we go on a run.”
The less said about the opening 45 minutes the better. Dundee United midfielder Paul McMullan forced Dunfermline keeper Lee Robinson to make a save with a shot from a tight angle early on. But that was pretty much it as far as goalmouth action went. There was little football for the 7,139-strong crowd to savour.
The second half wasn’t much better. But there was drama at the end as both sides pushed for a winner. Craig Slater sent the evergreen Willo Flood into the Dunfermline box in the 78th minute and the diminutive midfielder cut the ball back to Emil Lyng. His diving header sailed just over the crossbar.
Just four minutes later Declan McManus rose well and got an attempt on target after Michael Paton had picked him out with a high ball from wide on the right of the park. But Lewis reacted well and tipped the ball over.
It was certainly a tasty meeting between these two local rivals with no fewer than six yellow cards being shown by referee Bobby Madden. When the match official cautioned McManus for dissent it provoked an angry response from the home dugout and he felt the need to have a few quiet words with assistant manager Sandy Clark.
McManus grazed the post with a long-range effort in injury-time. The visitors were probably the happier of the two teams with the point they collected for their efforts at the end of the 90 minutes.