The sight of Nicky Clark popping up in the box would usually be greeted with delight by Dundee United fans.
Right now, it shouldn’t, as United’s top scorer is finding himself defending his own area more than threatening the opposition’s. It’s indicative of the problems facing Micky Mellon’s men.
For all they had moments in the 2-1 defeat at Motherwell last night, rallying late to pull one back through the returning Ryan Edwards, for large parts they simply weren’t at the races.
Playing in a midfield no man’s land, Clark was, at times, the last line of defence for the Terrors as well as the man picking up possession to start rare attacks in the opening period.
His struggle was a sign of system failure on Mellon’s part as the United boss changed things at half-time, hooking Clark for Peter Pawlett who instantly improved his side’s offering.
However, the damage was already done. First-half goals from Devante Cole and Chris Long, both given up too easily, gave the Tangerines a mountain to climb.
Once more, set-plays and individual errors were their undoing at Fir Park.
It was a simple task for Cole to poke home Barry Maguire’s corner in the six-yard box on 23 minutes before a misplaced Ian Harkes pass allowed Long to double his side’s advantage five minutes later.
It probably felt harsh for United, given they had been keeping the ball well and were passing neatly up until that point.
However, they can’t afford to feel sorry for themselves, as their winless run now stands at eight and they appear to be getting sucked into a relegation battle.
Natural midfielder Pawlett got United going
There was little penetration on show from the Terrors, particularly in the opening period, but they did look more threatening after the break.
Pawlett injected a little bit of a spark into their attacks and they saw a few penalty claims turned down with Marc McNulty’s on 52 minutes probably their strongest shout.
Adrian Sporle and Lawrence Shankland both fired wide before stand-in captain Calum Butcher, finally, called Liam Kelly into action with 10 minutes remaining.
The Englishman’s raking drive forced Kelly into a terrific save and from the resultant Sporle corner defender Edwards rose highest to nod home and give his side hope.
United pressed for one more in the Lanarkshire snow with Argentine wide man Sporle, also returning to the starting line-up, forcing more heroics from ’Well keeper Kelly.
Mellon questions ‘intensity’ of his troops
However, it was too little, too late, again, from United as boss Mellon picked over the bones of his team’s latest loss which leaves them just five points ahead of Ross County in the play-off spot.
United head to Dingwall to take on the Staggies at the weekend.
“I’m disappointed that, after 20 minutes when the game changed a little bit, we didn’t answer the questions,” Mellon said.
“We started really well, passing it around but then, as a group, we need to get better at understanding the game won’t always go the way we want it to go.
“Sometimes you get asked to do things where you need to roll your sleeves up, dig in and go in and deal with things. We didn’t do that enough after that first 20 minutes.
“We had a chat at half time and then we went out in the second half better.
“That’s the thing that’s confusing for me and made me a wee bit more angry – we found another 30% and looked like a completely different team as if I’d made 11 subs.
“That’s something that we, as a group, have to look at ourselves and ask why that happened.
“Why couldn’t we find that level of intensity? Why don’t we find the answers to the asks?
“My job is to try to make them better players and understand that, when that happens, you’ve just got to dig in and find that place when the game becomes about dealing with corners and knockdowns.
“That’s the way football goes and you’ve just got to accept that – that’s the big thing.
“You’ve got to be good at it even if that’s not the way you feel the game should be played.
“We have to keep working hard to get them to understand that.”
Terrors continue to be irked by officials
United saw penalty decisions go against them in defeats to St Mirren and Hibs last week and again last night in Lanarkshire.
Mellon was, once more, frustrated at the calls, this time from referee Don Robertson.
Asked if he thought they could’ve had a couple of spot-kicks, he continued: “Yeah. I don’t want to sit here and talk about penalties again or referees but I think they’re real stonewallers from where I am.
“You can see the reaction of the players and they came at important times that would’ve gave us more time.
“We very nearly did it at the end with Adrian but the keeper’s made a good save from their point of view. We very nearly pulled it out the jaws.
“But, like I say, the disappointing thing is we showed that level of intensity we should’ve found earlier too late.”
Covid disruption no excuse for Tangerines
United had a false positive Covid-19 test for one of their players on the eve on the match in Motherwell, disrupting their preparations with training cancelled on Tuesday.
Mellon said they ‘just got on with it’ and wasn’t using it as an excuse for yet another poor result and performance.
“We got the results back late on Tuesday night and it was a false positive,” he said.
“We just got on with it.
“We’re aware of all the rules, spoke to who we needed to and we waited.
“The people who came back to us with the necessary information did and we just moved on.”