MAKING an instructive observation amid the aftermath of this frenzied encounter was almost impossible.
Peter Houston began by fulminating at Dundee United's reliance on a stoppage-time penalty to eke out a point from a game in which they led 3-0, before segueing to praise for his side's sensational attacking. Terry Butcher, the Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager, was more succinct but equally without a considered conclusion. "We were 3-0 down, 3-3, 4-3 up, then 4-4 . . . f***ing hell, it was unbelievable."
Little wonder their emotions were scrambled. United scored three times in the opening eight minutes before a brace from the irrepressible Billy McKay hauled the visitors back in to the contest at the interval, the Northern Irish striker converting a penalty just after the hour to restore parity. Gary Warren's header looked to have earned Inverness an unlikely win until Jon Daly rolled in a 92nd-minute penalty after Richie Foran was censured for a handball.
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Stripped of the drama, a share of the points means Inverness slip a place in the division but extend their fine run to just one defeat in 17. United, meanwhile, have now just lost twice in 13 to creep in to the top six but are without a home win in nine matches. "It feels like a defeat," said Houston. "There is loads to frustrate and annoy me but we were sensational at times and created eight or 10 good chances."
The only thing more remarkable than the frequency of the goals that gave United their initial advantage was the manner of their conception. Take the opener. Barry Douglas' deep cross after a sharp move was perfect for Daly but, instead of cushioning it in to the net, he actually diverted it away from goal and against Josh Meekings. However, the surprised defender was helpless as it cannoned against his legs and crept past Antonio Reguero.
The visitors' misfortune did not end there. Within 60 seconds, another rebound had doubled the deficit, Graeme Shinnie's attempted clearance as he pursued the ball towards his own goal rattling against Daly at the edge of the area and scudding past an irate Reguero. The rattled left-back was then complicit in the concession of a third two minutes later. Another interchange by United found Shinnie out of position as Rudi Skacel ambled on to a Stuart Armstrong pass and rolled across the goalkeeper. "I thought the run was over; the gameplan was out of the window," said Butcher. "The fans were singing 'we're going to win 4-3' and I thought they'd been on the vodka." At that stage, Inverness were utterly discombobulated. United were first to every ball and afforded too much space, every pass and flick finding its intended recipient.
However, just as suddenly as the flurry began, it disappeared. Andrew Shinnie served notice of the visitors' latent threat with a rasping effort that Radoslaw Cierniak thrust over his crossbar and, from the subsequent corner, the division's top goal-scorers began their revival. Aaron Doran's deep delivery found Foran and, although Cierniak had his fierce shot covered, McKay darted in front of the Pole to divert it from his grasp. Then, within a minute, the whole complexion of the contest had been altered. From another Doran corner, the ball flashed into the net off McKay's thigh. "He's not for sale," Butcher said, grinning. "We'll have a few ringing up now. Did you see his goals? He's an opportunist striker and we've never really had that."
McKay is on the sort of run that can make careers, a three-week spell in which he has looked incapable of missing chances. There was never any doubt, then, that he would seize the opportunity to complete his hat-trick, sliding in his 10th goal since scoring at Celtic Park 21 days ago when the hitherto excellent Willo Flood was punished for halting Ross Draper's run in to the area.
By then, it was United who looked bereft. It was of little surprise when the Highlanders scored their fourth goal of the afternoon. Graeme Shinnie's delivery found Gary Warren, who planted a magnificent header in off the base of the post.
That appeared to be it but, to United's credit, they summoned a response. Foran was penalised as he blocked a cross and Daly sent the kick past Reguero. "Richie Fore-arm," mused Butcher. "The referee saw it as a penalty and we didn't but what can you do? In the end we're disappointed with a draw. Bonkers."