Dubliner Conor Keeley last night hit a deadly double at the Showgrounds to send Linfield crashing to their first defeat in six outings.
But David Healy’s boys will be wondering how they let this one slip from their grasp as they dominated practically from the off — but had only an Andy Waterworth spot-kick to show for their efforts.
They looked to have done enough to secure a point until defender Keeley pounced to score with the last kick of the game.
And, to make matters worse for the visitors, they had Joel Cooper dismissed deep into injury-time just before the winner for a late challenge on Shay McCartan.
Both teams approached the game in the best possible shape. Linfield had won their last five league games, clocking up an impressive 16 goals, and conceding only once — that was against Crusaders last time out.
David Jeffrey’s Braidmen were on a seven-game unbeaten run of results, although four of those matches finished in draws.
Although he refused to discuss the off-field problems, manager Jeffrey’s team was depleted by injuries.
He made five changes to the team that drew with Warrenpoint Town at the weekend, handing goalkeeper Ross Glendinning a starting shirt along with Tony Kane, Owen McKeown, Jim Ervin and Joe McCready.
The Blues, of course, were without top goalscorer Shayne Lavery, who was called into the Northern Ireland squad for their World Cup 2022 qualifiers against Italy and Bulgaria and friendly against the USA.
It meant that Healy had to reshape his team. He drafted in Michael Newberry, Waterworth and Matthew Clarke.
It was the Blues who asked all the early questions. Cooper was hauled down by Ross Redman on the right and when Niall Quinn whipped in a free-kick, Keeley managed to flick the ball off the head of Jimmy Callacher, who looked a certain scorer.
Then, on 14 minutes, Mark Haughey’s raking 40-yard pass sent Cooper rampaging down the left and after tricking his way past McKeown, his blistering drive fizzed past the post.
The Sky Blues survived another scare in Linfield’s next attack.
Kirk Millar and Waterworth combined to create space for Jordan Stewart, whose wicked low shot again flashed inches wide.
It was all Linfield and they almost broke the deadlock on 24 minutes. This time, Millar’s precise 50-yard pass was gobbled up by Cooper and after cutting in from the left, his blockbuster was brilliantly pushed to safety by Glendinning.
Just before the break, Healy’s boys had another decent chance. This time, Clarke delivered a ball to the back post, which broke kindly for Cammy Palmer, only for the former Rangers man to completely miscue his effort.
There was still time for the Blues to carve out one more opportunity when Palmer’s shot was deflected to Millar, whose volley from the edge of the box scraped by the post with Glendinning totally beaten.
Incredibly, United could have nicked a goal in their first meaningful attack but it was courtesy of a howler from Linfield goalkeeper Chris Johns.
He had his pocket picked by the alert McCready, but Josh Kelly had his shot kicked off the line by Haughey.
The second half was again one-way traffic, with the Blues probing and teasing without really cutting out the big chance they craved.
Cooper again brought a wonderful save from Glendinning with a shot from distance that the big shot-stopper managed to scoop behind for a corner-kick.
But against all the odds, United forged ahead on 67 minutes. Newberry flattened McCartan with a late challenge and, when Kane fired in the free-kick, Keeley slotted past Johns.
Linfield were level eight minutes later. Substitute Navid Nasseri buckled under a challenge from McKeown and, although referee Shane Andrews hesitated, he eventually pointed to the spot.
Waterworth stepped up to squeeze the ball past the outstretched arm of Glendinning.
United then had strong appeals for a penalty themselves when Haughey’s clearance appeared to bounce off his arm before former Northern Ireland international McCartan galloped through on his own, only to see his low drive saved by goalkeeper Johns.
But, following Cooper’s red card for a lunge, deep into injury-time, Kane whipped in another corner-kick which Keeley managed to fumble over the line.