The effectiveness had been displayed by the visitors, who established such an abrupt advantage that United never looked wholly capable of overcoming the early setbacks. Even if accomplishment wasn't widespread, and some of the play was ragged, Motherwell were worthy of their victory.
The assumption was that the game would be a toil. When referee Bobby Madden blew the whistle for kick-off, Tannadice suddenly fell silent. United's support might have been gripped by fear, since the team's recent form has continued to be erratic. Opponents have tended to take full advantage of vulnerabilities that leave the United defenders performing as though in a neurotic state.
Fears were justified, since the visitors were able to be freely adventurous, and the hapless behaviour was not contained to one area of the United team. When Chris Humphrey made room to cross in the seventh minute, Gavin Gunning missed it with a swipe of his left foot and the ball landed at the feet of Michael Higdon, who dinked a shot over Radoslaw Cierzniak, the United goalkeeper.
"It's getting beyond a joke," bemoaned Houston. "That's five games we've gone behind in, and I don't know why we have to wait until then before we start putting tackles in. It's crisis management every week in the dugout, and it shouldn't be as hard as that. We're giving away cheap goals. We'll need to look at why."
United's habits have come to infuriate the manager, but he at least wasn't caught unawares as his side displayed a calamitous air. Henrik Ojamaa was pursued by two defenders as he broke upfield on a counter-attack, but he was still able to turn them both before slipping a crossfield pass into the path of Humphrey, who lashed a shot beyond Cierzniak into the top corner from 25 yards out. "It was a goal worthy of winning any game," said Stuart McCall, the Motherwell manager.
The visitors are inclined to be self-assured, but the uncertainty among the United defenders, particularly the full-backs, emboldened them. Tom Hateley felt entitled, for instance, to hit another effort from distance after carrying the ball deep into the United half. Motherwell could afford to be ambitious because the game already seemed under their control.
Darren Randolph was barely troubled, although even the obligation to retain his concentration would have been a welcome distraction from being offered a two-match ban by the Scottish Football Association's compliance officer yesterday. Randolph was adjudged to have caught Calum Paterson with a dangerously high kick in last weekend's game against Hearts, although Motherwell have until today to lodge an appeal. If they do, it will be heard by the SFA's fast-track tribunal tomorrow. "We have until three o'clock to appeal," said McCall. "I haven't seen all the evidence yet, so I'll need to read it all. If we don't appeal, I have 100% confidence in Lee Hollis going up to Aberdeen."
Controversy was a backdrop to the game. Stephen Thompson, the United chairman, stood down from the Scottish Premier League board yesterday, with suggestions last night that it was due to a difference of opinion with Ralph Topping, the SPL chairman. The politicking, even of the administrators, provided greater intrigue than events on the pitch, although Motherwell might have been lulled into a sense of complacency.
There seemed no danger when Brian McLean slung a deep cross into the penalty area, but then Hateley slipped and Shaun Hutchison misjudged the flight of the ball. John Daly then had time to bring it down on his chest before carefully placing a shot beyond Randolph. The goal must have felt like a reprieve, since there had been no suggestion that United would mount a fightback, but it made little impact on the visitors.
Motherwell remained assured, and Jamie Murphy almost undid United's efforts with a drive that Cierzniak did well to parry. The visitors did, however, eventually succumbed to the widespread lack of aplomb, and the second half became untidy. That was, in part, due to United's pressing for an equaliser, and Motherwell's attempts to maintain their advantage.
It was seldom convincing, though, and even when Skacel converted Daly's header down from close range, the assistant already had his flag raised for offside. "There are different ways to win,' said McCall. "We had to show grit."
analysis Houston suffers more 'crisis management' in the dugout