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Dundee United 2-2 Hearts: Craig Halkett’s late header hands Edinburgh side crucial point

THIS could be viewed as two points dropped or one gained, but without doubt it was one heck of an eventful afternoon at Tannadice. 

Four goals, six injuries and a smattering of bookings ensured this strange, thrilling and, at times, bitty affair gave those who’d stumped up the cash their money’s worth as it lived up to its pre-match billing. 

When all was said and done, Robbie Neilson, who watched helplessly on as five of his starting XI hobbled off before the game had even reached half-time, will have been the happier of the two men in the dugout. 

Goals from Liam Boyce and Craig Halkett secured another point on their unstoppable march to third and made it just the two wins in 16 league games for United. A triumphant march to fourth spot this is not. 

Depending on your perspective, Dundee United’s recent form had either been stubbornly stable or sleep-inducingly dull and the pre-match body blow of losing Tony Watt and Charlie Mulgrew hardly improved the mood. 

HeraldScotland: Tam Courts men have only won twice in 16 league games Tam Courts men have only won twice in 16 league games

Again Watt, with his presence and his cunning, was sorely missed and, in a frantic opening minute, it appeared Mulgrew was too. 

In a helter-skelter exchange of early jabs United actually started on the front foot, Watt’s replacement Clark nearly getting on the end of Liam Smith’s clever cutback. From that moment, however, United were at sea. 

It owed so much to the quick-thinking of Craig Gordon, who could not have hurled the ball any better had been replaced by Daley Thompson in his pomp. His throw landed perfectly in Barrie McKay’s stride. One pass later it was with Gary Mackay-Steven on the left, another at the feet of Boyce and, in a flash, his curled finish was crashing off the post and into the net. 

The ferocity of the attack spooked United. Panic coursed through orange-clad shirts whenever McKay, only bettered by James Tavernier in assists this season, sounded the horn on the Hearts advance, while Marc McNulty and Clark struggled to see off the attention of John Souttar and Craig Halkett.  

Ross Graham, given such a torrid time by Joel Nouble on Wednesday, wasn’t having much better luck with McKay. Nor with Cammy Devlin. Or Ellis Simms. Or even Boyce. And the quartet soon combined, with only a miraculous save from Benjamin Siegrist keeping United in the contest. 

All four were involved, their movement pulling at the threads of the hosts’ backline before a Boyce-shaped hole appeared. Devlin had spotted it and poked the ball through, but the ever-willing Ilmari Niskanen inadvertently directed it towards his own goal. Somehow Siegrist adjusted his body to hook clear. 

A rare flicker of life aside from United, this looked every bit like Hearts back at their pomp, the shackles of that tricky early February spell well and truly thrown off. 

That was until injuries to Mackay-Steven, his replacement Alex Cochrane, who was forced off by concussion, and Devlin threatened to derail their assault. It turned into a bruising contest. Ryan Edwards, with blood gushing from his head, also departed. 

HeraldScotland: Barrie Mackay impressed Barrie Mackay impressed

The last 20 minutes or so of the half, unsurprisingly, descended into a bitty, stop-start affair, but the first minute of the second 45 exploded into life. 

This wasn’t quite lightning striking for a second time but it was another goal in the blink of an eye. Most inside Tannadice were still trying to make sense of Hearts’ new shape – Josh Ginnelly on and Andy Halliday moved to right back – when the ball landed at Smith’s feet 25 yards out. With all the confidence of a man who’d scored a matter of days ago, he arrowed it unstoppably beyond Gordon.

We now had a game on our hands and it was Hearts’ turn to look like they’d just been put on the canvas. Having emerged from the half-time oranges at a snail’s pace, Robbie Neilson’s men had got what they deserved and they were nearly behind moments later when McNulty drifted between Souttar and Halkett. On that occasion, the ball spun away from him. 

With Hearts still trying to stop the Tangerine whirlwind storming towards them with nothing more than positive vibes, it was only a matter of time. Souttar was culpable, nibbling at McNulty’s bait like an unexpectant fish and Willie Collum had no choice but to point to the spot. Clark made no mistake, arrowing it into the corner. 

When you’re down, you’re really down. Souttar was next to hobble off and all of that momentum the men from the capital had shown in the first-half had been replaced with the lethargy of a particularly unfamiliar herd of cattle. 

Passivity in a winning situation has been the bane of Tam Courts’ life in recent times and again it reared its ugly head. The warning signs were there when only a fine Graham block denied Simms but United failed to heed them. 

Instead they stood off, allowed Ginnelly to motor down the right and win a corner and timidly watched as Halkett powered McKay’s fine delivery beyond the despairing reach of Siegrist.

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