JOHN HUGHES was the kind of fiery player willing to take a sore one for the team.

It seems old habits die hard.

The Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager required treatment at half-time, having hit his head on the dug-out roof, and later sported an angry purple bump above the eye.

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Arguably, this outcome represented a hefty whack to both clubs' ambitions. The real winners were Aberdeen and Motherwell in the chase for European places, with a widening gap between third and fourth place after five games without victory for either Inverness or Dundee United.

Both camps had cause to feel they might have won yesterday. The hosts had a Nick Ross penalty saved and United were irked at the failure to award one as Gary Mackay-Steven tumbled under a Gary Warren tackle midway through the second half.

United were also left counting the cost of an injury to striker Brian Graham, who damaged ankle ligaments on a frosted, slippery surface manager Jackie McNamara had expressed concern about before kick-off. "The game could have gone either way. It was probably a fair result," McNamara said. "We hit the post a couple of times and our goalkeeper had a fantastic penalty save.

"The pitch was very firm. [Inverness] said they put the heating on, but maybe it's not working. It was very firm in the goalmouths. The referee said it was fine and we just got on with it, but you couldn't get a key into [certain parts]. I always felt it was going to be a game with slips and mistakes. Fortunately, there weren't too many. I don't know if the pitch played a part in Brian's injury. It looks a sore one. We'll need to wait and see how bad it is."

The hosts had a conspicuous hole in the heart of midfield with captain Richie Foran still injured and Ross Draper suspended.

Opportunity knocked for local lad Liam Polworth, who performed solidly in only his third start for the club. Beside him came tenacious vice-captain Graeme Shinnie, moved from his usual full-back role, who would later create the missed penalty.

Dundee United placed signing Farid El Alagui, the ex-Falkirk striker back from Brentford, on the bench ahead of his debut. Disappointing any watching scouts, Ryan Gauld was also seated in the technical area, with Keith Watson returned to the starting line-up and making an early impact.

First, though, there was a return to scoring ways for Inverness striker Billy McKay after a three-match dry spell. Home defender Warren met Danny Williams' corner with a strong, downward header. Goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak seemed slow to react and McKay swivelled to finish close in - his 18th goal of the season coming after five minutes.

Within four minutes, however, United drew level. Chris Erskine was bumped over by Shinnie on the left edge of the box. Stuart Armstrong's low-driven free-kick rattled like a pinball in the crowded area before being hurriedly hacked for a corner, and, from Mackay-Steven's delivery Watson headed high past Dean Brill.

Play grew increasingly chaotic, especially in and around the Inverness penalty area where their early-season poise and solidity has waned of late.

There was certainly panic when Brill parried another Mackay-Steven corner straight to John Rankin square on goal outside the box.

Rankin's low strike hit a blue shirt, before Graham rattled the rebound against a post and another attempt off Josh Meekings' body.

More goals seemed certain before the break, but failed to materialise, despite John Souttar's slip letting McKay in for a low shot that was soundly clutched by Cierzniak.

The hosts finished the half on the front foot with a jinking Aaron Doran run and cross to set up McKay. The diminutive striker outleapt Souttar to arc a header towards the postage-stamp corner, only for the leaping Cierzniak to flick it to safety - leaving the score tied at half-time.

On a positive note, there had been no echoes of the fiery meeting between the sides in October, in which Nadir Ciftci had manhandled an official during a mass ruckus. There was, though, a negative for the visitors early in the second half as Graham fell and damaged his ankle, leaving the field on a stretcher, and paving the way for the introduction of Frenchman El Alagui early in the second half.

Warren fluffed a header in front of goal a few yards out and the ragged play continued just after the hour, with Brill letting a Shinnie pass-back slip under his foot, before scrambling it off his line.

The hosts then broke and Ross fed Shinnie into the box, only for Rankin to clip his heels. Ross's, kick, though, was beaten away by Cierzniak.

Erskine again struck a post for United but a game that had seemed to promise goals galore fizzled out, before a late flurry of stoppage-time action in the Dundee United box.

Hughes, who also felt the draw was a fair reflection, believes Scotland under-21 cap Ross will bounce back from his costly miss.

"I love the boy to bits and really feel for him," the Inverness manager said. "He has been a star since I've come to the club. It was Nick's wee turn that slotted Shinnie in for the penalty. He's only going to get better. If there was anybody who needed a goal it was Nick. He's going to have to take it on the chin and come back next week and be the match winner, hopefully."