As the new season loomed Motherwell fans sensed something was stirring around Fir Park. From the turn of the year the side put together some decent results that saw Hamilton Accies easily relegated a number of points behind us with Stevie Kirk only one goal away from being the Premier Division’s top scorer.
As usual though almost everyone in the media had us down for relegation certainties, helped by the fact one of our star players, Fraser Wishart, refused to sign a new contract. Ultimately Wishart wasn’t missed as Motherwell enjoyed one of their most successful seasons in years.
With Wishart off to St Mirren for a ludicrous fee of £285,000 set by a transfer tribunal, Tommy McLean replaced him by signing former Scotland international defender George Burley on a free from Gillingham. Also to arrive at Fir Park were Paul McLean, a highly rated midfielder from Queen’s Park, Peterborough Utd striker Nicky Cusack and on the eve of the new season the inspired capture of Davie Cooper from Rangers for just £50,000.
The season started well with the only minor blips being a defeat against Hearts and a League Cup exit at the hands of a St Mirren side who just four days later ‘Well easily beat 3-1 at Fir Park in the League. Eyebrows were raised when a Craig Paterson header earned the club a point at Parkhead in a fine 1-1 draw but the pinnacle of the early season form came on the 3rd October when Motherwell defeated Rangers 1-0 thanks to a Bobby Russell goal to go top of the Premier Division for the first time in years. It really was a night to savour, particularly since it only lasted 24 hours before Celtic went back on top on goal difference the following evening.
With Motherwell playing some excellent football the media eye was often focused at Fir Park, particularly with the ex-Rangers duo of Bobby Russell and Davie Cooper orchestrating our rise up the table. Such was the impact made by Davie Cooper that at the age of 33 he was re-called to the Scotland squad for the vital World Cup Qualifier against Norway at Hampden. Coop did his bit, Scotland got the point they needed and the Tartan Army were on their way to Italia ’90.
Christmas was a good time to be a ‘Well fan that year and Motherwell gave their fans loads of festive cheer with some cracking results over the holiday period. A point at Tannadice, a 10 men comeback from 2-0 down against Aberdeen and then a very satisfying 2-0 win over St Mirren on the 2nd January made the turkey and steak pie taste all the better that season.
If that wasn’t good enough perhaps one of our best away performances of the entire decade came against Dunfermline Athletic on the 6th January 1990. The Pars had enjoyed a great return to the Premier League but few would have bet that ‘Well would have ripped them apart so convincingly that afternoon and returned to Lanarkshire 5-0 winners. Pars boss Jim Leishman was quoted as saying after the game: “The score line wasn’t a true reflection of the game – it should have been ten!” Typically of course Motherwell then went and lost their next two, to the Edinburgh clubs who so often have put a spanner in the Fir Park works.
Not to worry the Scottish Cup was soon upon us. On Radio Clyde beforehand Chick Young told all sundry to get their money on Clyde for the shock of the round. Certainly was a shock for the Bully Wee as the Mighty ‘Well put seven past them without reply. There were seven different goal scorers too with McCart, Gahagan, Russell, Arnott, Kirk, Cooper and Bryce all hitting the net. That result set ‘Well up for a nice wee run which saw them beat Celtic at Parkhead thanks to a Nicky Cusack header, Hibs at Easter Road, take a point at home against Rangers and then beat Dundee 3-1 at Fir Park.
Next on the agenda was a double header against the team we have never liked, but would grow to absolutely despise over the next couple of seasons, Heart of Midlothian. True to form thought they beat Motherwell twice, 4-0 in the Cup and then 2-0 in the League the following Saturday. It wasn’t so much the defeats that rankled the Fir Park faithful it was the way Hearts went about their business. So often players would get drawn into physical battles with the likes of Kidd, Sandison, Levein, McPherson and Robertson, which of course suited them right down to the ground. They’d rile Motherwell, Motherwell would lose their composure and Hearts would take advantage. There were red and yellow cards flying every time the sides met usually in our direction, while so often Hearts seemed to escape punishment.
Sadly those Hearts sparked off a run of poor results that would ultimately cost Motherwell a UEFA Cup place by just a single point. Just when Motherwell needed to keep their consistent run going they went off the boil completely and went 7 games without a victory, including a run of five matches without a goal.
With three games to go, and a clutch of sides all vying for the last UEFA spot Motherwell suddenly regained their form. A win against Hibernian was followed with a draw at home to Celtic, ensuring an undefeated season against the side from Parkhead and finally a 2-1 victory on the last day of the season away to Dundee. In a sense no-one really put too much thought on the UEFA Cup place it was only as we reflected when the season ended that it became apparent how close we had come. The priority had always been to avoid the drop and that was achieved with about three months to spare.
The season didn’t end there as John Gahagan enjoyed a testimonial match against a former ‘Well and Premier League select.
With the World Cup fast approaching there was excitement amongst ‘Well fans when Davie Cooper was selected in Andy Roxburgh’s preliminary squad. Sadly though Coop was injured in a friendly at Pittodrie against Egypt and despite extensive treatment he wasn’t fit enough to travel and the dream of a ‘Well player at the World Cup Finals was postponed for another four years.
Looking back season 1989/90 is one to look fondly back upon. It was perhaps our breakthrough season when for once we looked more than just a team battling against the drop. It might well have been down to former Old Firm stars such as Russell, McLean, Forsyth and of course Coop but suddenly we were seen in an a different light and not constantly referred to as dour and defensive.
This was also the season where many favourites made their mark, Ally Maxwell came on a ton, wee Dougie Arnott made the step up to the first team and began to score and Chris McCart continued to develop so well that Tam McAdam was allowed to leave to join Airdrie and John Philliben spent another period on the side-lines. Definitely a good year to look back on.