Declan McManus replaced the injured Andy Ryan in the only change to Tuesday's starting 11. On the bench, Jean Yves M'Voto and Michael Paton were included with Ryan missing out and Conner Duthie not included. The other subs were as per the first leg.
A game that should have been won comfortably ended in a defeat that was incredibly hard to take; while chances were missed, United's substitute keeper made a crucial save, and for the second game running in this play-off double header we hit the bar. The first half was as good a performance as any Pars side have given in years. We completely dominated the game and went in at half time 1-0 ahead after Declan McManus converted a Fraser Aird cross after 14 minutes.
The pivotal moment of the game came in the 35th minute when McManus was put clean through on goal. A striker's instinct will always be to shoot but had McManus made a simple sideways pass to Aird, the winger would have had a tap-in to put Dunfermline 2-0 up. Instead, McManus shot and Mehmet saved the effort.
Seconds before half time Nicky Clark's bullet-header crashed off the bar - another moment that was to prove crucial later in the game.
United had barely threatened the Pars goal during the first half and made a half time change, with tall striker Thomas Mikkelsen replacing Wee Paul McMullan. Their more direct approach paid off with an equaliser after 57 minutes. Scott McDonald, once again allowed to co-referee the game, latched onto a Mikkelsen header from a corner and turned the ball in. The goal was met by disbelief by the Pars players and fans, but up the other end of the pitch, United keeper Mehmet celebrated by somersaulting and then injuring himself in the process. He had to be substituted and replaced by Harry Lewis.
Lewis was immediately called into action, making a great save from a Clark header.
United went ahead in the 70th minute when Sam Stanton ran through and put the ball past Robinson. A good goal from a United standpoint but where was the Pars midfield and central defence?
With 16 minutes remaining, Allan Johnston made the type of substitution that could have proved to be a masterstroke but instead caused the team to lose its shape. Jean Yves M'Voto was brought on to play up front, with Kallum Higginbotham being substituted. This also meant Fraser Aird moving into a midfield 3, when he was having a productive game wide left. Meanwhile, any width was now supplied by fullbacks Ryan Williamson and Lewis Martin (a converted centre half). M'Voto made no impact on the game and the team were less effective, with one of its most creative players withdrawn and less quality in wide areas.
Tiredness was also a huge factor as the game went on. Playing 35 minutes with 10 men on Tuesday with the same players who started tonight's game (McManus had already replaced Ryan on Tuesday when Lee Ashcroft was sent off) had clearly taken a toll on the team. There can be no suggestion of lack of bottle - there were other factors that led to the defeat, all described above, but lack of bottle was not one of them.
This was a sad way to end a period of games where the team have performed to a high level and given great hope for the future. Were we ready for the Premiership? Probably not, but that would have been a task for the manager in the summer. We were certainly far better than United over the 2 legs but ultimately they progressed and we were left to rue bad luck, missed chances and perhaps having played one game too many in a hectic schedule of games to end the season.
No changes to the starting 11 that defeated Dumbarton. Conner Duthie replaced Dean Shiels on the bench.
A result that can be viewed in different ways: to avoid defeat after playing so long with 10 men is obviously a huge positive to take onto the second leg. Yet the injustice over the very harsh 55th minute red card for Lee Ashcroft, robbing us of a key defender and (depending on the outcome of a likely appeal) also missing the game on Friday, could have a more telling impact. There was also frustration at the United keeper pulling off 3 outstanding saves to deny us a precious victory.
The game was evenly contested and even after the sending off, we still posed a threat on the break. Our attitude and mindset when facing United has improved considerably over the past 2 seasons. Although we have not recorded a win over them, in recent matches circumstances rather than our previously weak mentality against them have denied us a win on more than one occasion. Simply put, our luck must turn, as we have addressed our own issues and now can go into games against United knowing that we have no reason to feel inferior.
Dunfermline came closest to opening the scoring when Declan McManus, on for the injured Andy Ryan, hit the bar after 37 minutes. For all United's possession, they rarely tested Lee Robinson in the first half. After half time, that was to change and the Pars keeper, who has been such a success since signing in January, denied Scott McDonald with a great save at full stretch. Robinson was assured, confident and fully merited his 12th clean sheet in 20 games for the club.
Ashcroft was red carded after contact with Scott McDonald, fully 35 yards from goal and with other players in close attendance. Was it even a foul? It certainly was not "denying a goalscoring opportunity" and the appeal that Allan Johnston talked about post-match should see the decision downgraded to a yellow card at worst.
United had a few half chances but will be disappointed that they could not apply more pressure to a resolute Pars defence.
In the United goal, Deniz Mehmet kept his side in the game and in the play-offs with 3 incredible saves in the second half - 2 from Nicky Clark and the other from a long range goalbound Fraser Aird shot. Aird was the Pars' best outfield player, a direct runner who also showed his versatility by covering both fullback positions after the sending off and then late in the game when Ryan Williamson had to be subbed through injury.
We can be concerned with Ashcroft's possible absence on Friday and also the effect of the injury to Williamson, but for tonight we should feel proud of our team. We would require an element of rebuilding if we were to achieve promotion but there is a basis already there of a decent side, with skill and togetherness combining to extend our unbeaten run to 11 games and still in with a great chance of progressing through to the play-off semi final.
This Pars team do not accept defeat. The next step is to record a famous victory on Friday and move onto the next challenge.
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