1996/97 Season Review

Despite an impressive last couple of months in the previous season it became pretty obvious as the new season wore on that Alex McLeish and his team were still struggling to keep themselves afloat. Lessons appeared not to have been learnt by the management as Motherwell continued to flounder in the lower reaches of the Premier League.

Having said that McLeish did have to endure the frustration of watching Rab McKinnon take advantage of the Bosman ruling to move to Holland and Paul Lambert do even better in signing for Borussia Dortmund, where he would ultimately go on to win a Champions Cup winners medal. Around £1.5m worth of talent and we never got a penny.

To replace them we had err, emm Fraser Wishart, now in the veteran stages returning to his first club after seven years away and err, emm that was it sadly.

A reasonable enough start which included an easy 3-0 win over Raith Rovers and draws away to newly promoted Dundee Utd and at Tynecastle gave the ‘Well faithful some hope that Big Eck had learned from the experiences of the previous season and after the first couple of months Motherwell sat a healthy looking fourth in the table.

It wasn’t to last though and by Christmas it was inevitable that we would be embroiled in yet another relegation battle. Motherwell’s inexplicable inconsistency meant you never fully knew what to expect but for every fantastic result like beating Celtic (with Jamie Dolan in goals for 20 minutes!!) there was a soul destroying loss to the likes of Raith Rovers just around the corner. For every win over a team like Kilmarnock there was loss to the likes of Dunfermline waiting to shatter your new found optimism.

For all our ability to pluck an unexpected result out of the bag by the New Year things looked pretty bleak. By early January we had dropped to the play-off position, were 6 games without a win and had conceded 14 goals in our last 4 outings.

As in the previous season, McLeish was able to turn things around thanks to some very astute dealings in the transfer market.

The signings of Owen Coyle in January, Simo Valakari in February and the unlikely capture of Mickey Weir in March, quite possibly kept McLeish in a job and Motherwell’s head above water. Their combined impact revitalised Motherwell’s season.

Coyle in particular had an immediate impact helping ‘Well to three victories in his first four games, netting three goals in the process. As part of the deal that saw Coyle come to Fir Park, Jamie Dolan was sacrificed and moved to Tannadice to link up with his old gaffer Tommy McLean. That left a gap in the middle of the park which was soon to be filled by unknown Finn Simo Valakari. The Finn would go on to become one of Motherwell’s most capped players and become immensely popular with the Motherwell fans. At that time though ‘Well fans were just ecstatic to see someone they could identify with the same battling qualities and desire for the first time since the days of Colin O’Neill.

By early March the signings looked to have done the trick as Motherwell rose to 7th in the table, but an alarming slump of form saw stress levels rise once again up Fir Park way. Defeats to fellow strugglers Kilmarnock and to Hearts saw ‘Well slip back into the play-off place. March turned to April and with games fast running out Motherwell miraculously began to turn the corner – just when it seemed a play-off against Lanarkshire rivals Airdrie, on a rich vein of form and clearly gunning for a tie against ‘Well, seemed almost inevitable.

On a sunny April afternoon things clicked and Motherwell destroyed doomed Raith Rovers 5-0 at Fir Park giving everyone hope that maybe we could just sneak our way out of it. With three games to go we had a home fixture against Dundee Utd, a trip to Ibrox to play Rangers and a final league match at home to Dunfermline Athletic. It certainly wouldn’t be easy.

Tommy Coyne put ‘Well ahead against United but we weren’t able to hold it and a draw saw us remain in 9th place. Clearly it was an opportunity lost and there was an air of resignation amongst Dossers as they trooped out of Fir Park that afternoon, particularly when the news came through that Kilmarnock and Hibernian had shared the spoils at Rugby Park.

The reckoning was that clearly we would be lions to the slaughter at Ibrox where the home side were aiming to clinch their 9th successive Premier League Championship. So eager were SKY to show the party that the game was moved to holiday Monday, two days after the rest of the Premier League card. The fact that Hibs had to play Raith Rovers on the final day seemed only to confirm that we were destined to play Airdrie.

In a sense the move to the Monday was a huge benefit to us as it let us know exactly what was required as went to Ibrox. Despite a 3-1 loss on the Saturday, Kilmarnock looked pretty safe in 7th place leading us by four points. Hibernian then had to be the target but again despite a 3-1 loss to Celtic on the Sunday were still three points ahead of us as we went to Ibrox.

Despite everyone fearing the worst, that Monday afternoon turned out to be one of Alex McLeish’s finest hours during his time at Fir Park as he lead his side to a sensational 2-0 victory over the Champions. Motherwell came out of the blocks like a house on fire and simply never let up. Owen Coyle put ‘Well ahead after just five minutes and that’s the way it remained until Iain Durrant felled Mickey Weir in the box late on allowing Coyle to grab his second of the day from the spot. The few hundred Motherwell fans in the stadium went absolutely berserk at the unbelievable score line. When the dust settled we had jumped above Hibernian and had dragged Kilmarnock right back into the thick of it.

When the final Saturday of the season came Motherwell were at home to Dunfermline, Kilmarnock home to Aberdeen and Raith Rovers at home to Hibs. Match the Hibees, and by virtue of our superior goal difference – ‘Well would be staying up.

It was one of those afternoons when the initiative swung back and forth putting you through every possible emotion. By hook or by crook the ‘Well game kicked off late and gave us a couple minutes advantage over events elsewhere. The news initially was good when unexpectedly Raith took an early lead against Hibs and then Aberdeen scored against Kilmarnock. Hibs later equalised but that was deemed irrelevant when Mickey Weir volleyed the Dossers ahead just after the half hour. Our delight was short-lived though when goals before and after the interval put Dunfermline ahead and when word filtered through that Kilmarnock had equalised, the harsh reality very quickly dawned on the Dossers faithful. Despite all our efforts at Ibrox we were very quickly heading for the play-offs unless something changed fast.

And that miracle came in the form of one Mitchell Van der Gaag. Lining up a free-kick around 25 yards out from Ian Westwater’s goal, Mickey Weir tee’d it up and Van der Gaag lashed it past the ‘keeper sparking delirium around the ground.

As the seconds ticked away, word reached us that both Hibs and Kilmarnock had drawn and it was once again all down to us. A few very, very, very nerve racking minutes later and at last our Premier League place was assured. Fans poured on to the pitch to celebrate and players were mobbed by ecstatic fans, the relief clearly evident all around the stadium. The great escape had happened yet again.

In the cups there was once again very little to write home about. The League Cup in fact was a total embarrassment as Motherwell lost in the second round at home to Alloa on penalties. Despite the fact the Clackmannanshire side finished 39th out of 40 Scottish sides the previous season Motherwell still failed to put the ball in the net after 120 minutes of trying and slumped out 4-2 on penalties.

The Scottish Cup was slightly better, well for a couple of rounds anyway. Partick Thistle were comfortably seen off at Firhill where a travelling support of over 3000 enjoyed a relatively easy victory thanks to goals from McSkimming and Davies. The draw for the following round was greeted with roars of approval from both sides of the Clyde when Motherwell and Hamilton were paired together in the fourth round. Once again Motherwell failed to deliver though and Accies took most of the credit. An early Owen Coyle header was cancelled out in the second half and once again Motherwell had struggled against lower league opposition. There was to be no mistake second time around though and the Accies were put firmly in their place thanks to two Owen Coyle strikes. The Quarter Final brought more disappointment however when ‘Well were easily brushed aside by Dundee Utd at Tannadice.