Season 1999/00 was supposed to be the launch pad for the club to begin its climb to the higher echelons of Scottish football. While in a sense that came true, for almost everyone it was an ultimately fruitless experience.
Having secured their SPL status the season before and laid the foundations of the side with the ambitious signings of Goram, Spencer, Goodman, Brannan and the like, big things were expected. In anticipation of this great leap forward the club embarked on a campaign to boost the Fir Park crowd by leafleting every home in Lanarkshire explaining just how good a deal the football at Motherwell would be in the new season. The results unfortunately were negligible with the only real change being those previously bought expensive tickets enjoying cheaper fare. The anticipated jump of around 1000 people per season, clearly wasn’t going to be easily achieved.
The squad was boosted by the arrival of Derek Townsley from Queen of the South on a free along with Kevin Twaddle who arrived from Morton for £150,000. While both attack-minded players they raised eyebrows amongst sections of the support who were keen to see more big names arrive.
When the season started for real, it looked as though nothing had changed and we were as inconsistent as ever. Dundee Utd for example were blown away for 45 minutes of the first home game of the campaign yet still came away with a point, as ‘Well collapsed in the second half. Killie were tactically outfought at Rugby Park, only for Dundee to do the exact same to us just a week later.
Unrest was mounting and reached a peak as ‘Well went down 6-5 to Aberdeen in an incredible fixture at Fir Park. It was The Dons first points of the season and only days after they had lost 7-0 to Celtic. Yet they still managed to beat us! The result left ‘Well 2nd bottom and the fans desperately concerned.
Fortunately for us better days were just around the corner. Sparked by the return to fitness of Kevin Twaddle, who had missed the opening months of the season through illness and the signings of defender Benito Kemble and midfielder Paul Harvey, things began to take an immediate upswing.
Dundee Utd were beaten comfortably at Tannadice and three days later ‘Well sensationally beat Celtic 1-0 at Parkhead thanks to Twaddle’s first goal for the club. The result was all the more remarkable since the men from Lanarkshire had to play with 10 men for almost an hour. Suddenly confidence was brimming and with Billy Davies using a 4-2-4 formation ‘Well were taking everyone in their stride. The Dossers surged on an eight game unbeaten run including memorable victories over Hearts and Celtic again, both live on TV.
Even after a 5-1 drubbing to Rangers, which burst the bubble on the final game before the winter break, we were still very well placed in fourth spot. And then it all started to crumble as Motherwell endured a torrid January.
The first bombshell came when Shaun Teale was sacked by the club for comments made about the manager and chairman of the lack of a new contract offer. The outspoken defender was told he would never play for the club again and a war of words between the club and player ensued for several days.
Next it was Rob Matthaei’s turn to speak out, claiming he felt like punching the manager. His punishment was to rot in the Motherwell reserves until his contract expired some months later.
And just when it looked like things were settling down an almighty hoo-ha broke out when it was claimed that Motherwell wanted to merge with Airdrie to form a Lanarkshire Utd side. This too dragged on for some time with claims and counterclaims being made by the media, Motherwell and Airdrie.
It was almost hardly unnoticed that the season kicked off again and the break it seemed had come at the wrong time for ‘Well. The results after the re-start were less than startling as the team won only one of their next six games, with that even being a total steal against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park. While we were faltering Hearts on the other hand, with almost £1m worth of investment were putting a powerful run together and by March had moved into pole position for the last UEFA Cup place.
While the Edinburgh side began to motor further and further ahead, ‘Well could only slip back into their early season inconsistency, all the more frustrating now than ever because of what was at stake. Four days in April seemed to consign our fate when firstly Celtic won 4-0 at Parkhead and Dundee thrashed us 4-1 at Dens Park. At this point there seemed no way back.
But suddenly things began to change once again. Whether Hearts thought they were too far ahead to be caught or started to get jittery who knows, but with four games to go ‘Well began pulling back their nine point lead as Hearts struggled to collect those final points needed to tie up third place.
A 1-1 draw at home to Celtic, where Steven Hammell made an excellent home debut and subsequent 2-0 success over Hibs were seen at the time as little more than good end of season results. But when the news came through that Hearts still hadn’t tied up 3rd place, things began to get a bit exciting.
In the penultimate game of the campaign ‘Well triumphed 2-1 at Tannadice and yet again the news about Hearts was good. So after being totally out of the picture just a couple of weeks earlier we had taken the battle to the final game.
Unfortunately for us it was against Champions Rangers, at Fir Park, who had been unbeaten away from home all season. Hearts were at home to Hibs so there was at least some hope there. Hearts of course held all the aces, and most importantly a 2 point lead over ‘Well. As it was they did enough to win 2-1 against their Edinburgh rivals rendering an absolutely brilliant display by Motherwell in beating Rangers 2-0 pointless. What made it worse for the players were rumours flying around that Hearts had actually lost 2-1.
So Billy Davies and the board got their step forward on the park, but it felt sickening to be so close and looking back at silly points dropped that cost us a UEFA Cup place.
There was to be no route to Europe, or even Hampden through the cups either. The League Cup campaign was reasonable enough as we scraped past First Division sides Raith Rovers and Inverness Caley (who later beat Celtic in the Scottish Cup and took Aberdeen to a replay) before going down 3-2 to Dundee Utd at Tannadice in the Quarters.
The Scottish Cup on the other hand was much less fulfilling. The tie against Arbroath in the Third Round just became one almighty pain in the backside after an abandonment, a draw at Gayfield and several postponements later before the whining that accompanied every Smokie that opened his or her mouth returned north nursing a 2-0 defeat. The Fourth Round brought a classic but again it ended in anger and frustration as Ayr Utd showed they wanted the victory more. A 4-3 success was entirely deserved as Motherwell produced a woeful second display that saw a total lack of belief, fight and inspiration. What made it even more galling was the fact that we already knew that Second Division Partick Thistle would have awaited us at home in the Quarters.
So all in all a season that saw a great step forward but one that left us thinking about what might have been.