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Dundee United head coach Tam Courts praised Charlie Mulgrew for rolling back the years in central midfield as his side took a major step towards sealing a European return.

Mulgrew lined up alongside 21-year-old goalscorer Dylan Levitt and 19-year-old Archie Meekison in the middle of the park as United beat Motherwell 1-0 at Tannadice to consolidate fourth place in the cinch Premiership.

Motherwell hit the frame of the goal through both Ross Tierney and Kaiyne Woolery before Levitt’s deflected strike in the 37th minute.

Courts was delighted with the way 36-year-old Mulgrew stepped forward from his usual centre-back role and helped look after his younger colleagues plus protect academy graduates Ross Graham and Lewis Neilson behind him.

“I think the last time he played central midfield was probably for Scotland five or six years ago,” he said.

“It was a bit of a calculated risk. It’s where we are at with the availability of players at the moment.

“I think he gave us real balance and a real measured performance and his experience was a part of the reason we won the game.

“I did worry when he went down and even more so because he was actually struggling with his hamstring but he asked to stay on. We asked him to be quite controlled and he did that. Him and Dylan really held the middle of the park well and controlled large parts of the game.

“Motherwell were still dangerous on the counter-attack and when they were going direct but I was almost happy to accept those moments because it felt like were getting back to being a football team.

“We played some nice stuff and looked dangerous going down the sides and over the top. I think we just recognised it was a must-win game.”

United are now four points and nine goals ahead of Motherwell and two points above Ross County in the race for two Europa Conference League spots.

Courts said: “I was delighted for a few reasons – clean sheet, I thought we were really controlled after we went in front and we played some lovely stuff at times. And on top of that we started with three academy graduates. Lewis Neilson at 18 years old had his first victory in a tangerine shirt.”

Motherwell have now won just once in 14 league games but their performance was among their better recent displays.

Manager Graham Alexander said: “I thought we deserved something from the game, without a shadow of a doubt.

“We were unfortunate to go a goal down from nothing but the focus and the discipline of the players was excellent. We didn’t become disjointed and chase an equaliser too quickly.

“We were controlled and we had some great chances to score.

“I was delighted with the players. The fine margins went against us but I can’t ask anymore from the players. I thought they were excellent.”