Hearts would have moved into second position above Celtic had they prevailed here but, in football parlance, they Hibsed it. After a misleadingly bright start they fell away badly and Motherwell won this game by the length of the M8.

The visitors did not look like a team competing at the top of the table, with only goalkeeper Craig Gordon and winger Barrie McKay earning pass marks on the day. The dismissal of Taylor Moore in the 64th minute wrecked any slim hopes they had of salvaging something from the afternoon.

“I’m disappointed,” admitted manager Robbie Neilson. "I didn't think we played well today, it was probably one of the worst games I have seen from us for a while.

"The game didn't flow, it was free-kick, throw-in, corner, free-kick, throw-in corner and we couldn't get any flow in the game.

"When you come to these matches you need... I'll not say too much or I will end up getting banned but it wasn’t a game we will be looking back on too much.

Asked whether Hearts might have had a first-half penalty, he replied: "I don't know: you had no idea what was going to happen at any point in the game, the way it was, “It could have gone for us, it could have went for them, it could have been play on, it was one of those days, it wasn't pretty. Their first goal is a blocked shot and it falls to their player. To be honest, in the first half we probably had the better of the chances. In the second half, if three consecutive passes gave you a goal it would still be 0-0.”

The early exchanges were light on goalmouth action, apart from a lovely Cruyff turn from home goalkeeper Liam Kelly to drag a through ball away from a bamboozled Josh Ginnelly. McKay’s incisive pass then released Ben Woodburn in acres of space but a heavy first touch cost him the opportunity to get a shot away.

Motherwell took time to find a foothold in the contest but gradually they found themselves in a commanding position. Winger Kaiyne Woolery was inches away with a shot from distance and he was instrumental in the home side taking the lead midway through the first half.

Hearts failed to deal with his driven cross and the ball ricocheted benignly off former Rangers midfielder Sean Goss into the path of Connor Shields and the striker hammered the ball behind Gordon from six yards for his first goal since arriving from Queen of the South in the summer.

The Scotland goalkeeper was helpless on that occasion but he showed his class shortly afterwards when he beat away a netbound 20-yarder from midfielder Barry Maguire, who had been picked out by Callum Slattery’s corner in a training ground move.

Josh Ginnelly appealed for a penalty on the stroke of half-time when he went down following a challenge from Ricki Lamie but the striker had been favourite to reach McKay’s clever pass and his attempt to reach it lacked conviction.

Motherwell continued to hold the upper hand after the break and would probably have gone on to claim all three points in any case but Taylor Moore made certain of that in the 64th minute. The full-back, who had been booked immediately after the restart for bringing down Nathan McGinley, repeated the offence in the 64th with Shields and referee Willie Collum didn’t need any time to think before producing a second yellow card.

To make matters worse, Sean Goss’s free-kick was met emphatically at the far post by Ricki Lamie, who beat Gordon with a downward header. Gordon then spared Hearts’ blushed with a magnificent double save to keep out a header from Woolery and Shields’ shot from the loose ball.

Hearts offered little in an attacking sense and when substitute Liam Boyce found himself one on one with Liam Kelly, the goalkeeper saved with his legs.

“I don’t think anyone can complain with the result and I thought it was a brilliant performance,” said Motherwell manager Graham Alexander. “It’s great to see they’re confident in what we’ve tried to put in place over the last few weeks after the Rangers game.

“They go over that white line and produce performances like that so I’m really proud of them. We know we’ve got creators and goalscorers in the squad and we showed that today. We had numerous chances all game.”