The change around in Motherwell’s fortunes in 1993/94 compared to the previous season was incredible. So much so that whereas in 92/93 they were heading into the penultimate game of the season needing to win to ensure their Premier League survival, in 93/94 ‘Well headed into the penultimate game of the season still in with a chance of winning the title!
After the previous term manager Tommy McLean had another huge clear out with no less than 11 players being freed or transfer listed including Joe McLeod, Neil Simpson, Billy Thomson, Iain Ferguson, and Alan Sneddon. First team wise though the side was relatively unchanged except in defence where Luc Nijholt had departed to Swindon Town for £250,000 and in came Miodrag Krivokapic and Rab Shannon to replace him.
No one quite really expected the impact that Krivokapic would have on the side but when he looks back McLean will surely recognise this free transfer to be one of the finest pieces of business he ever did. Krivokapic brought a calmness and skill to a defence that suddenly came of age.
Motherwell began to play from the back spraying the ball about with confidence and at times arrogance, all of which stemmed from the play of Mio in the centre of defence. His popularity with the supporters was sky high too. After a spell at Dundee Utd where he had fallen out with Jim McLean, Mio was absolutely loving life at Fir Park where he was a hero to the Motherwell support and a key figure in Tommy McLean’s side that season.
‘Well had looked impressive from their first pre-season match and were in perfect shape when the big kick-off came, after pre-season games that included beating Blackburn Rovers 1-0 at Fir Park and thrashing First Division favourites Dunfermline Athletic 4-1 at East End Park.
After just 40 minutes against Celtic in the opening game, ‘Well had exploded into a two goal lead through debutant Alex Burns and Stevie Kirk goals. Sadly an error just before the break gave the Parkhead outfit a lifeline and it finished all square. It didn’t dampen the enthusiasm any and ‘Well thrashed Ayr Utd 6-0 in the League Cup with the goals coming between no less than four different strikers. The momentum was kept going with a win against Dundee at bogey ground Dens and a late winner from Paul McGrillen at Rugby Park put ‘Well ahead at the top of the table.
There was a temporary blip in proceedings in the League Cup where ‘Well went out in somewhat cruel circumstances. Trailing 1-0 they had fought back to lead Aberdeen 2-1 with just eight minutes remaining before disaster struck and the Dons equalised. In the end a 5-2 extra time defeat was hard to take after the effort that had been put in during the 90 minutes.
It didn’t put ‘Well off too much though in the League as they quickly got back to winning ways with a 4-1 thrashing of Raith Rovers, taking their revenge for the League Cup defeat of 1991. ‘Well lost their first league game of the season to St Johnstone but bounced back again with a memorable 2-0 defeat of Hearts where Paul Lambert made his debut after signing from St Mirren for around £250,000.
Thereafter the season just got better and better for the Dossers. They continually confounded their critics who said they wouldn’t last the pace and were playing some brilliant stuff. Memorable results were being achieved week after week with one of the finest perhaps the come from behind victory at Ibrox where 2 late Dougie Arnott goals saw ‘Well beat Rangers 2-1 and keep themselves in joint first place. The wee man him was enjoying a great start to the season and had already bagged five goals before his winning goal at Ibrox.
Motherwell’s success was being recognised at international level too and Rab McKinnon made his Scotland debut against Malta in a 2-0 win. Phil O’Donnell had earlier in the season played his first game for his country against Switzerland and Brian Martin too was waiting in the wings.
As Christmas came around, ‘Well were still right up at the top and once again Tommy McLean made another vital signing when he brought Tommy Coyne to the club for £150,000. It was a fantastic buy and the former Celtic striker soon set about repaying his new gaffer by scoring a barrow load of goals.
As Dossers ate their turkey and trifle on Christmas Day 1993 they did so safe in the knowledge that their team were joint top of the table. The New Year arrived and with it came more good results including a double victory over Celtic in the space of a few days beating them 2-1 in the league then 1-0 in the Scottish Cup, both at Fir Park.
The reward for beating Celtic could hardly have been trickier and the timing of the Cup match meant we would face Dundee Utd at Tannadice on consecutive Saturdays. The first was perhaps fortuitous but two own goals helped ‘Well to a 2-1 win and did the league challenge no harm whatsoever. The following Saturday saw one of the great matches of the tournament that year that saw the initiative swing back and forth before the game ended all square. Motherwell went 1-0 through Stevie Kirk but were soon behind to two powerful Craig Brewster strikes. Midway through the way we passed up a great opportunity when Tommy Coyne missed the first penalty of his career. With the game deep into injury time, ‘Well threw everyone upfront. With seconds left they earned a corner and when the ball landed at John Philliben’s feet he blasted it high into the net and sparked absolute bedlam amongst the ‘Well support.
Incredibly over 13,000 turned up at Fir Park for the replay but the quality of the game never came close to repeating the first tie. In the end Motherwell were bitterly disappointing and went out to a Brian Welsh goal.
Perhaps suffering a Cup hangover the players faced their two biggest challengers in the space of four days but failed to register a win against either of them. A thumping 25 yarder from Paul Lambert gave ‘Well the lead at Ibrox but a late equaliser and agonising last minute penalty saw the reigning champions edge further away from ‘Well. Things looked even bleaker a few days later at Fir Park when Aberdeen took an undeserved lead and proceeded to hold out for almost 90 minutes as ‘Well laid siege to their goal. Who would have believed then that when Alex McLeish put through his own net with a minute to play he would be back at Fir Park for in a permanent capacity as player/manager just a few months later.
Through March and April the team continued to challenge and went on a nine game unbeaten run. Unfortunately for ‘Well five of those games were drawn and a just a couple of points extra such, as when Thistle were gifted a 2nd half equaliser with the game all but in the bag, could have made all the difference at the end.
For all that with five games left Motherwell gave eventual winners Rangers, one of the roasting of the season. The 2-1 score line flattered the Gers beyond belief as Fir Park witnessed one of Motherwell’s best displays for years.
That was followed up by a hard fought 1-0 victory over Kilmarnock who had packed their defence in an attempt to snatch a point in their battle against the drop. Thanks to a late Tommy Coyne strike with just eight minutes to go, Motherwell’s qualification to the UEFA Cup was secured.
As the end of the season approached and seemingly having the title in the bag, Rangers lead had been clawed back by both Motherwell and Aberdeen. With 3 games left there were some fans in red, white and blue who were also showing shades of brown on their underwear and one of the tensest evenings of the season was to have the overall bearing on where the title would go.
Looking absolutely shattered after the exertions in recent weeks, Motherwell went a goal behind to Dundee Utd at Fir Park. They recovered however in the second half and made it all square when Stevie Kirk equalised. News from Easter Road brought Fir Park to life when it was revealed that Hibs were beating Rangers.
Sadly though ‘Well weren’t able to maintain their performance and energy and a Sieb Dijkstra blunder, one of the few mistakes he made that season, allowed Utd to snatch the 3 points and although Rangers lost against the Hibees our title bid was all but killed off. Going into the final two games, mathematically it was still possible for Motherwell to do it but realistically it was never going to happen and Tommy McLean took the opportunity to freshen the side re-introducing Alex Burns and giving Stephen McMillan a debut. Old head George Burley also got the opportunity to say a second farewell to the Motherwell fans before heading back south to manage Colchester United.
In the end the team finished a creditable 3rd place just four points behind Champions Rangers. Quite remarkable really given the gaps they’ve left between 2nd and 3rd placed teams since.
Though we didn’t know it at the time it really was the end of an era as we left the last area of terracing at the Knowetop End before it was demolished for the Cooper Stand. Not only would George Burley, our terracing and Sieb Dijkstra be off but most significantly of all within days of the season ending manager Tommy McLean resigned from the board of directors. A few days later he quit the club completely blaming a lack of ambition and desire to build on what been the club’s finest league campaign in decades.