Johnston enraged by Ashcroft sending off as Pars hold on against United

Referee Bobby Madden was at the centre of attention on Tuesday evening as the official sent Lee Ashcroft packing just 9 minutes into the second-half after the defender hauled down Scott McDonald. Despite their man advantage for 35 minutes, Dundee United were unable to capitalise as the Quarter-Final of the Premiership Promotion Play-Offs head to Tannadice on Friday evening for the final meeting of these two sides this term.

Dunfermline came into the match in good form, with Allan Johnston remaining with the same starting eleven that comfortably saw off Dumbarton on Saturday. The only change in the 18-man squad saw youngster Conner Duthie take a seat on the bench ahead of ex-Rangers midfielder Dean Shiels. Elsewhere, Jean-Yves M’Voto and Tom Beadling continued to miss out through injury while Sean Murdoch and Aaron Splaine continued their recoveries from long-term issues.

Csaba Laszlo on the other hand made two switches to his starting line-up following the weekend win over Livingston. Captain Willo Flood returned in central midfield while Danish forward Thomas Mikkelsen also took up a starting spot. Craig Slater and Sam Stanton missed out while Emil Lyng returned to the squad to take up a seat on the bench.

It was a ferocious start to the match by either side, as both sets of players set a good tempo to the game. However, the all-important quality required in the final third was sadly lacking in the opening stages of this encounter as neither goalkeeper was severely tested early on.

Andy Ryan did try a speculative effort from 25-yards, as the ball bounced favourably onto his left-foot, but, he scuffed his attempt and it was an easy save for Deniz Mehmet in the end. Fraser Aird was causing Tony Ralston problems down the left but United were standing firm.

The first meaningful effort on goal by the visitors came from Scott McDonald but his left-footed shot from just inside the area was never troubling Lee Robinson as it flew well past the post. Then, the Pars were dealt a blow as on-form striker Ryan was replaced due to injury by Declan McManus as the home side continued to press forward.

Next, though, was a shot by Grant Gillespie: the former Hamilton man caught the ball powerfully with his right boot but it sailed high into the stand behind the goal. McManus would then win a free-kick directly in-front of goal, 20-yards out after a foul by Bilel Mohsni.

The Tunisian punched the ground in frustration as he presented Dunfermline with a glorious opportunity to break the deadlock. Aird’s shot was two or three inches too high with Mehmet untroubled on this occasion. Substitute McManus was in the thick of things again as he flicked on an in-swinging Aird cross but the former Fleetwood attacker was denied by what looked like a save from the Turkish shot-stopper before Nicky Clark nodded the re-bound wide of target after being put under severe pressure by the away defence.

Dundee loanee James Vincent was next to try his luck as he looked to score against his parent clubs biggest rivals, however, his left-footed volleyed attempt was off-target as it flew harmlessly into the away supporters. The final note of the half was for a Scott Fraser shot which went narrowly wide via a good block by the back-line of the hosts. Mikkelsen had done well to get to the byeline and cut the ball back, but, the Dunfermline defence was aware of the playmaker at the edge of the area and managed to do enough to snuff out the potential opportunity of a late first-half goal by the Arabs.

The Fifers began the second-half extremely well as Aird continued to cause issues. After swinging in a set-piece delivery, it fell to Kallum Higginbotham on the right who teased the United defence with his cross which saw Clark force a fantastic save, down low, by Mehmet to keep the score level.

Then, Aird cut in from the left to see a venomous effort blocked by Irishman Flood; he was back in the thick of the action straight away, though, as the Canadian floated into space on the left, 20-yards out, before curling a brilliant strike on-target which Mehmet was forced to tip over for a corner to the hosts. Next, came the controversial talking point of the evening…

After breaking forward following the set-piece by the Fifers, the City club saw forward Scott McDonald race forward to try and set his sights on goal: between he and the keeper was Lee Ashcroft, who – according to Bobby Madden – used an elbow to illegally obstruct the Aussie. The official was quick to show the red card and send off the ex-Kilmarnock defender, leaving Dunfermline a man light for the remainder of the tie.

Fraser lofted the free-kick over the wall but his attempt went wide of goal, with Robinson yet to be tested by Dundee United despite the visitors getting into some good positions. It would be Laszlo’s men who took control from here on in though as Fraser screwed the ball wide from a good position within the penalty area, with the midfielder having the quality to have done so much better with his finish on this occasion.

The Pars had reverted to a 4-4-1, with influential figures Aird and McManus now taking up new positions down the left. This wasn’t ideal for Johnston as the hosts began to look a little ragged – McDonald came so close to sending the away supporters into raptures, only for Robinson to pull off a wonder save, somehow managing to knock the ball past the post for a corner.

Despite the man advantage, United were still showing signs of nerves at the back – Aird swung in another cross from the left which found the head of Clark, with ex-Falkirk goalie Mehmet denying the East End Park club once again with another smart stop. Jason Talbot would then replace Higginbotham as Dunfermline tried to balance out the 10 remaining players on the park, with Aird now resuming his left-midfield role.

Gillespie also made way, with the visitors bringing on Sam Stanton in their first switch of the contest. The attacking midfielder was involved instantly as he dragged a shot wide of goal but a corner was given by Madden to ramp up the pressure on Robinson’s goal.

From the resultant delivery, Clark made a telling clearance off the line to keep the score at 0-0 as Dundee United continued to search for that elusive opening goal, which would be so vital in this play-off contest. Billy King would charge in on goal, only to be closed down quickly by Robinson, who forced an unorthodox effort by the winger, with Talbot seeing the ball behind to safety at the expense of a corner. Then, a header was deflected over the bar before the Pars could finally breathe another sigh of relief when the next delivery was sent across.

With time running out, it was panic stations at the back for Dunfermline: a corner couldn’t be properly cleared as Lewis Martin tried to hook the ball away from danger; it deflected off a Dundee United players’ shins but Robinson was alert enough to dive on the loose ball on his goal-line. Minutes later, Ryan Williamson was caught accidentally by an away player which left the full-back writhing around in pain. Despite treatment from the Pars physio, the Scotland Under-21 International was forced off late on, with Nat Wedderburn taking his place. This meant another reshuffle, as Aird was now deployed at right-back – his third position of the evening.

Despite the best efforts of both sets of players, the deadlock was unable to be broken during the first 90 minutes of this tie. The second leg will take place on Friday at Tannadice, with the visitors going into the match as slight favourites. With injuries to Ryan and Williamson, plus the sending-off of Ashcroft, the home side have a lot of patching up to do as they head to the City of Discovery in just a few days’ time.

Speaking to the media after the match, Allan Johnston commented:

“I thought the boys gave everything tonight, especially when we had 11 men on the pitch: it was a really good performance. We created chances and we were unlucky not to score. Obviously, the sending off changes the game. It was never a red card; I have seen it again on the video and we are going to appeal it. Hopefully the referee has a look at it as well and realises it is a poor decision.

I think [the reasoning behind the red card] was [denying] a goal-scoring opportunity – I don’t know how it is a goal-scoring opportunity, though, to be fair. Lee Ashcroft has got his body in the way and Scott McDonald has fallen down. The referee has been conned a bit and it is a decision which has cost us dear. I just hope a bit of common sense prevails when they have a look at it and realise it was a mistake. The boys kept on going to the end: they frustrated United and were unlucky not to catch them on the counter-attack a couple of times. We rode our luck, as well, when we were down to ten men in the second-half, but, the boys are confident going into the next game. We know Tannadice is a hard place to go and we are going to have to be at our very best; we are more than capable of going there and getting a result, however.

We have to make sure we go there and put in another really good performance. You can see that they [Dundee United] struggle to score goals against us – they had an extra man for a long period of tonight’s game, but, we still looked threatening. We are looking forward to Friday.”

Csaba Laszlo also spoke with the press following the draw at East End Park.

“I think both teams showed a good football game: both teams played a little bit different in terms of style. For the fans, it was good, but, for me, it wasn’t as enjoyable. After the red card, I think we should have scored; Deniz Mehmet in our goal also showed a good performance, so, at the end of the day, I think [a draw] is fair and the correct result. No, [we are not favourites heading into the second leg] because if you go to Tannadice, you have to score two goals especially if you had conceded one. It is always a dangerous game, 50-50, but, I think Dunfermline are still the favourites.

He [Scott Fraser] also has to learn to play simple; he has the talent and the possibility to be a great player – and a great player in this type of game has to show how good he actually is. I am not unsatisfied with his performance as he has come back from a long journey with his injury. Today, he played 90 minutes and until 80 minutes, he was a good player for us. To be honest with you, I was thinking that when you play with 10 men, you need more patience – you need to spread the ball from left to right and then right to left, you need an accurate cross, but, we didn’t do this. The Dunfermline goalkeeper had some good saves, also: Deniz Mehmet had some good saves, especially from set-pieces, not mainly in the game. At Tannadice on Friday evening, I think, again it will be another tough game. I am not the referee, but, if a player goes one-on-one with the goalkeeper and, from behind, he is fouled, then, according to the rules, it is a red card. I don’t want to make a judgement here because I also have to see the pictures on the TV. If I also told you it was a penalty on Bilel Mohsni…this was a clearer decision than the red card!”

FULL-TIME: Dunfermline Athletic 0-0 Dundee United

Team Line-Ups:

Dunfermline

25. Lee Robinson

2. Ryan Williamson (Nat Wedderburn 88′)

5. Callum Morris (Captain)

6. Lee Ashcroft

3. Lewis Martin

7. Kallum Higginbotham (Jason Talbot 63′)

26. James Vincent

28. James Craigen

17. Fraser Aird

10. Nicky Clark

16. Andy Ryan (Declan McManus 25′)

Subs:

20. Cammy Gill (GK)

8. Nat Wedderburn

9. Declan McManus

11. Joe Cardle

12. Daniel Armstrong

14. Jason Talbot

18. Conner Duthie 

Dundee United

21. Deniz Mehmet

29. Tony Ralston

2. Stewart Murdoch

91. Bilil Mohsni

17. Jamie Robson

16. Willo Flood (Captain)

24. Grant Gillespie (Sam Stanton 68′)

10. Scott Fraser

8. Scott McDonald

11. Billy King

9. Thomas Mikkelsen (Emil Lyng 75′)

Subs:

25. Harry Lewis (GK)

3. Tam Scobbie

7. Paul McMullan

12. Sam Stanton

14. William Edjenguele

15. Craig Slater

58. Emil Lyng

Referee: Bobby Madden

Attendance: 6,474

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