Lionel Ainsworth, a winger who has played for no fewer than 13 clubs in his under-the-radar career so far, scored a goal-of-the-season contender in the Tayside sunshine to earn Motherwell a valuable Premiership point.
Scorers: Dundee United - Ciftci 54, Robertson 57; Motherwell - Anier 30, Ainsworth 76
Referee: K Clancy
Dundee United looked on course for victory when Nadir Ciftci and Andrew Robertson scored in the space of four second-half minutes to overturn Henri Anier’s first-half opener for the visitors. But substitute Ainsworth, on loan from Rotherham United, struck a spectacular 76th minute leveller for Stuart McCall’s side.
It was just about the right outcome to a match which eventually provided some decent entertainment after a largely underwhelming opening period.
In a disappointingly disjointed first half, Motherwell were certainly the more threatening side and merited their interval advantage. Fluid football was at a premium, but it was McCall’s men who were first to impose themselves on proceedings.
With Motherwell captain Keith Lasley using all his experience to keep United’s midfield prodigy Ryan Gauld in check, Jackie McNamara’s side struggled to find any attacking rhythm of real significance.
Motherwell should perhaps have gone in front as early as the seventh minute. Poor defending by United at an Iain Vigurs corner from the right allowed Stephen McManus a free run at the ball. The big defender got plenty of power behind his flying header but wastefully directed it wide of Radoslaw Cierzniak’s right-hand post.
Vigurs was prominent in most of Motherwell’s best work and his pass allowed Anier to get in behind the United defence for the first time, the forward’s deflected shot from a tight angle held by Cierzniak.
The same combination cut United open again in the 17th minute, Anier this time driving a first-time, left-foot shot over the top.
It finally sparked a response from the home team, who threatened for the first time a minute later, John Rankin providing a decent cross from the left which Stuart Armstrong headed just off target.
It heralded a slightly improved spell for United but, just as they seemed to be building some momentum, they were caught by a lightning counter-attack from Motherwell which led to Anier’s opener.
Zaine Francis-Angol vindicated McCall’s decision to name him in the starting line-up ahead of the benched James McFadden, the young Antigua and Barbuda international racing almost the length of the pitch down the left and skipping beyond two United challenges. Showing good composure, Francis-Angol cut the ball back into the path of Anier, who rifled a low left-foot shot beyond Cierzniak’s left hand into the corner of the net from around 15 yards.
Motherwell looked to build on the breakthrough and threatened to double their lead when Simon Ramsden found space down the right to whip over a cross which John Sutton was unable to direct on target from a difficult angle at the near post.
United rallied in the closing stages of the first half and Ryan Dow failed to make the most of an opening created by Ciftci’s knockdown from a Robertson cross, the midfielder blazing his shot wildly over the top.
The hosts came much closer in the 43rd minute, Armstrong showing power and purpose as he burst into the Motherwell penalty area and drove a low shot narrowly wide of Lee Hollis’s left-hand post.
United were markedly more energised after the break, suddenly finding the cohesion and accuracy of passing which had eluded them earlier. But it was an unforced error by Motherwell which presented the opening from which they drew level in the 53rd minute.
It was a horrible moment for Lasley, the Motherwell skipper holding his head in his hands as he uncharacteristically gave the ball away with a badly misjudged square pass. It was seized upon by Rankin, who found Ciftci on the left-hand side of the penalty area. With Shaun Hutchinson backing off him, Ciftci accepted the invitation to drive on and smash a low left-foot shot beyond Hollis from around 12 yards.
Four minutes later, the dramatic turnaround was complete for United when they went in front. It was an outstanding solo effort by Robertson, although he was given a remarkable amount of time and space by the Motherwell defence to make the surging run from inside his own half which ended with a low drive into Hollis’s left-hand corner of the net from 22 yards.
It was now a far more absorbing and entertaining contest, and Lasley was desperately unfortunate not to atone for his earlier blunder when his superbly struck free kick from 25 yards struck Cierzniak’s right-hand upright.
Armstrong should have put the match all but out of Motherwell’s reach when he tamely volleyed a Ciftci cross straight into the arms of Hollis from close range. United paid for that profligacy when Motherwell equalised in stunning fashion with 14 minutes left.
There seemed little obvious threat when Ainsworth, who had replaced Vigurs in midfield, took possession all of 30 yards out. But he unleashed a magnificent swerving right-foot shot which beat the grasping Cierzniak to his left.
McNamara sent on strikers David Goodwillie and Brian Graham in a bid to retrieve all three points but it was Motherwell who came closest to a winner, Sutton heading wide from close range.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Watson, Souttar, Dillon, Robertson; Paton, Rankin; Dow (Graham 81), Gauld (Goodwillie 81), Armstrong; Ciftci (Oyenuga 88). Subs not used: McCallum, Butcher, Wilson, Petrie.
Motherwell: Hollis, Ramsden, Hutchinson, McManus, Hammell; Carswell, Lasley, Vigurs (Ainsworth 63), Francis-Angol; Anier (McFadden 75); Sutton. Subs not used: Nielsen, Lawson, Cummins, McHugh, Kerr.