THERE was a gasp, followed by a murmur of appreciation.

Then the applause began. It came haltingly at first, the self-conscious Kilmarnock fans not entirely sure that they should be acclaiming an opposition player, before reaching a crescendo just as Gary Mackay-Steven's legs were swiped from beneath him. "Ach, away ye go!" rasped one home supporter as Craig Thomson blew for a free kick. "He's a diving wee bassa!"

The default dissent had returned amid a cloud of spit and swear words, but it is indicative of the Dundee United winger's ability that, for a few seconds, followers of both teams were in thrall to his talents.

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Little wonder. Hemmed in at the touchline in front of the dugouts, there seemed scant opportunity to escape as a header looped towards him, but Mackay-Steven took the ball on his chest, killed it with a foot and held it atop his laces for a second before flicking over one defender, heading past another and scampering away. That he was then, in a deliciously Scottish twist, cemented by an infuriated Ross Barbour only added to the moment.

Asked later to articulate the incident, the 22-year-old appeared more embarrassed than anything else. "I just like doing tricks and thankfully that one came off," he said, blushing and staring at the floor. "It just kind of happens; I went to stop it with my foot and noticed there was a wee space in behind -"

His voice tailed off, Mackay-Steven clearly more adept as expressing himself on the pitch. Certainly, he appeared to revel in the chance to play again after seven weeks out with a broken hand, his 88-minute appearance much more prolonged than expected and enough to make his participation from the start against Celtic tomorrow doubtful.

Even though he was barely able to break into a trot when he was eventually replaced, there was an enthusiasm about the winger's play that was in keeping with that of the entire United team. Downtrodden and surly during a recent run of five games without a victory, the confirmation Peter Houston will be leaving in the summer seems to have eased a psychological burden on the players, who were unencumbered by uncertainty all of a sudden.

Granted, their performance was still scarred by familiar flaws – another two sloppy goals conceded from corners, for example – but there was none of the self-harm that has contributed to the recent results. The defence was, for the most part, resolute against a muted Kilmarnock attack; the midfield rarely relinquished their grip on the game; while Johnny Russell's three finishes for his 'perfect' hat-trick were unerring.

"If anything, what has happened this week will make us more determined to push on," said Mackay-Steven. "The players are as together as we have ever been and we're ready to kick on."

The win moves United ahead of Kilmarnock in the chase to secure a place in the upper half of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, but perhaps of more concern for the hosts than the loss of a five-game unbeaten record were reports of financial problems at Rugby Park.

Although chairman Michael Johnston dismissed reports that the club were "on the brink" because of an unpaid invoice for £16,000 to a local food supplier, it must be difficult for supporters and staff not to worry about the £10m of debt the club are carrying. Granted, much of that is attributable to the hotel complex adjacent to the stadium but, while Johnston insisted the recent sales of Liam Kelly and Michael Nelson were not motivated by a pressing need to generate income, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the squad is ripe for asset strippers.

After the game Kenny Shiels angrily refuted claims Gary Harkins might make a mooted move to Dundee – even if his chairman said a deal might still be done this week depending on the players' preference – but the Northern Irishman did state just a few days ago that he would relish the opportunity to introduce youngsters should other senior players leave.

On Saturday, as Kilmarnock chased the game, both Jude Winchester and Rory McKenzie were thrown on to join the impressive Barbour and Rory McKeown and, although they were unable to dictate the outcome, the game time will have helped their development. "We've lost a couple of good players but that just gives someone else a chance, maybe one of the young boys," said club veteran James Fowler. "I'm involved with the under-20s and sometimes they just need a chance because ability is nothing without opportunity."