Motherwell’s class of ‘91: a rare moment in the sun

Motherwell’s class of ‘91: a rare moment in the sun

It must be said that some teams win so often that their fans don’t quite know how to process a loss. Should their mighty club somehow conspire to lose enough games in one season that they end it fruitless, the fans begin to waver. Withdrawal from their newly ceased trophy addiction evident, troubled by a symphony of symptoms altogether unknown to them, at once their mouths dry, their palms become sweaty, nausea rushes upwards through them, consumed by an inexorable feeling of disappointment? They ask: what must it be like for the common folk to endure this every year?

The truth is, it isn’t like that every year. For the majority of teams, winning is more white rabbit than habit. Far from dining at the same table as the giants, most teams find themselves sat beneath it, fighting one another for the scraps that drop from it should the perennial winners cast a competition aside with a view to focusing on a greater prize.

Supporting these teams are the fans for whom losing is such a formality they don’t quite know how to process a win. Teams with entire century-long histories marked by barely even a smattering of silverware. Fans every bit as numbed to the feeling of losing as their more fortunate counterparts are to winning.

But while this involuntary abstinence from success sounds truly horrid, there is an upside. For the near perpetually impoverished, a single cup win is a potentially once-in-a-lifetime experience, a generation-defining event. For some, it is a moment that welds together the fans who in each other’s company endured for so long a barren existence. 

For the long-suffering followers of Scotland’s own Motherwell FC, their 1991 Scottish Cup triumph was just this. For one magical night, the heavy haze through which the football world has for so long viewed Scotland was temporarily lifted. No longer impossible to see beyond Glasgow for the shifting shades of green and white and blue, the country became enveloped in a triumphant veil of claret and amber, and fans of Motherwell promised never to forget the feeling.

Given that the 1990/91 season threatened to become Motherwell’s 39th consecutive year without a trophy, few would likely have been bold enough to foresee their lifting of the Scottish Cup come the season’s end. Nevertheless, there are few better ways to prove your title credentials than by surmounting the reigning champions at the earliest opportunity, so how fitting it was that the Steelmen’s cup journey began with a third round tie away to the previous year’s winners, Aberdeen.

At the Pittodrie Stadium spectators and pundits alike expected Aberdeen to vanquish their rivals without fuss, as the previous domestic season had seen Aberdeen finish as runners-up in the league, a disappointment largely tempered by their lifting of both the Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup, while Motherwell had languished in mid-table.

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Motherwell, however, travelled to Aberdeen buoyed by a carefree sense of optimism and a nothing-to-lose attitude, and their positivity paid off after a fine Stevie Kirk strike proved to be the game’s only goal. As the Dons were left licking their wounds, Motherwell rolled onwards, their reward coming in the form of a fourth round tie against second-tier Falkirk.

At the time of their tussle, Falkirk were busy cantering towards the Scottish second-tier title and their excellent league form meant they travelled to Fir Park without fear. Their unwillingness to be overawed by their higher league opposition was best evidenced by an envious display of determination, which saw them twice come from behind, frustrating the Motherwell fans whose side’s temporary 1-0 and 2-1 advantages were reduced almost as quickly as they were established.

But Motherwell’s superior quality eventually shone through as they scored twice more to send their side through to the quarter-finals as 4-2 winners. Motherwell were tasked with negotiating a path around another second-tier side, this time in the shape of Morton.

Sadly for the neutral, Motherwell’s tie with Falkirk seemed to use up more than its fair share of goals. Morton provided a test far sterner, and far more frustrating, for Motherwell having theorised that they needn’t share Falkirk’s aptitude for equalisers so long as they could prevent Motherwell from scoring in the first place. Their theory worked just as well in practice. Having been restricted to a stubborn stalemate at home, Motherwell were forced to replay the tie at Morton’s Cappielow Park.

Away from Fir Park, those originally suspended in hopeful anticipation of a pleasant, placid progression against lower league Morton had all but become resigned to their impending exit, fearing they’d seen it all before. In the end, of course, Motherwell did progress, and their fans’ fast-fermenting fears proved gratuitous, though the process that saw them onwards was certainly far from placid.

Thankfully goals did eventually arrive in the replay but they were shared one apiece and, still level after more than three-and-a-half hours of football, the two teams required penalties to part with parity. With Motherwell confidently dispatching all five of their attempts, nothing less than perfection would be enough to keep Morton’s cup dreams alive. Regrettably for the underdogs, when their fifth was missed, they awoke shivering in the cold chill of reality, powerless to prevent Motherwell from marching on towards the semi-finals.

Their arrival in the last four presented Motherwell with a dreaded, if not somewhat inevitable, prospect: Celtic. In the game itself, at Hampden Park, if either set of players had been inspired by the idea of a cup final potentially being just 90 minutes away then their performances hid it well.

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What should have been an electric, lurid encounter played out in lamentably languid fashion. Far from a classic, the sides could only draw 0-0, a result that did little to enliven either faithful. Motherwell were faced with a second consecutive replay. But there was no denying that the travelling Motherwell contingent were the happier of the two sets of fans as the soon-to-follow replay gifted their team with a second attempt at surmounting Celtic, and this time they would attempt to do so on home turf.

At the halfway stage of their semi-final replay, the Motherwell players found themselves in an all too familiar scenario, staring defeat in the face, 2-1 down to an odious Glaswegian giant that cared little for the romance of their run. But unlike so many times before – so many times they had failed to fell the giant – this time, they seemed to know, would be different.

In the second half, Motherwell embarked upon a remarkable comeback. Dougie Arnott almost single-handedly prevented Celtic from running away with the game, having grabbed his and Motherwell’s second equaliser shortly after the break, but it was Colin O’Neill’s name that was destined to remain on the lips of fans for years to come.

Having worked the ball into a pocket of space around 40 yards from goal, O’Neill lifted his head and looked not for a team-mate but for the net. Having prodded the ball out from under his feet, O’Neill thundered an audacious right-footed shot straight into the top corner. All in claret and amber erupted with joy as O’Neill immediately found himself mobbed by teammates whose jaws were still being picked up off the floor.

With the advantage in the tie for the first time, Motherwell would’ve been forgiven for battening down the hatches and clinging on desperately to what they had. But far from retreating, they looked for another – a clincher – and they got it courtesy of a tantalising Stevie Kirk hoist into the box which remarkably found its way into the same top corner his teammate O’Neill had fired into so spectacularly just minutes before. Whether or not Kirk meant it was a question destined for Celtic minds only. Motherwell were too busy being consumed by the euphoria.

On their way to the semi-finals, Celtic hadn’t allowed their opponents a single breach of their defence. They had shipped four and there was nothing they could do to stop Motherwell from progressing into the final.

Tenacity, artistry, discipline, luck were all needed in equal measure to ensure Motherwell’s safe passage forward. A blend of qualities that so rarely combine to precede a defeat, the game’s final whistle confirmed they had done enough to reach the promised land and, by this point it, was near impossible to prevent Motherwell supporters from thinking, dreaming, that this could be our year.

On the other side of the tournament tree fans of Dundee United, fresh from having witnessed victories against East Fife, Airdrieonians and local rivals Dundee, were experiencing similar revelations having watched their side dispatch of St Johnstone to book their own place in the final opposite Motherwell. The two sides would meet on 18 May 1991.

Read  |  How Dundee United overcame Barcelona to reach the UEFA Cup final in 1987

Throughout weeks of build-up, the media sought to stoke the fires of rivalry. But any superfluous spite was soothed by the unique subplot which ran parallel to the game, as the opposing managers happened to be siblings who sought to bear no grudge with the other, and so the media changed tack, dubbed the game “The Family Final” and advertised it as an unbelievable battle of brothers not to be missed by anybody.

In his seventh year in charge of Motherwell was 44-year-old Tommy McLean, of Kilmarnock and Rangers playing fame, who prepared in earnest to face-off against his older brother Jim, a man ten years his senior and with a distinct edge in terms of success in management.

When Tommy McLean signed on as manager of Motherwell in 1984, his brother Jim had already overseen 13 years in charge of Dundee United. By the time of their meeting in the cup final of  1991, Tommy had failed to guide his Motherwell team to a league finish above his brother’s Dundee United even once and, though he had successfully stabilised the Steelmen in the top tier after a brief period of yo-yoing between divisions, during the same time Jim McLean had guided Dundee United to a Scottish League title, two Scottish League Cups, a European Cup semi-final, a UEFA Cup final, and five Scottish Cup finals.

As such, when appraised alongside the experience and relative quality of the squads both McLean brothers presided over, Dundee United entered the final as favourites.

The final at Hampden Park was to be both clubs’ sixth appearance in the Scottish Cup final; evidently an unfamiliar prospect for neither side. But with just one win and 11 defeats between them, apprehension from both sides was palpable and many feared another tense goalless cup tie. On this occasion, as music to the neutrals’ ears, this apprehension manifested itself in the very opposite: an erratic, fast-paced festival of goals.

With over 57,000 fans squeezed into Hampden Park, the great sea of supporters were forced to wait just over 30 minutes for the game’s opening goal. First blood went to Motherwell, as Iain Ferguson’s smart back-post header nodded them into the lead, and they took their slender advantage into half-time.

In the second half, United were first to notch, drawing level through a long-range Dave Bowman strike that squirmed under the body of Motherwell goalkeeper Ally Maxwell, but Motherwell re-established their lead shortly after through a brave Phil O’Donnell diving header; the teenager choosing a mightily grand occasion to grab his first goal for Motherwell.

Next it was the turn of Ian Angus to add his name to the scoresheet, latching onto a beautifully deft layoff from Stevie Kirk and firing in from outside the box to give Motherwell some breathing room, but Motherwell’s lead soon evaporated in the searing heat of the tie.

Read  |  Jim McLean: the unheralded managerial master who took Dundee United to rare highs

A towering header from John O’Neil brought Dundee United to within just one and when Darren Jackson beat the onrushing Motherwell goalkeeper to the ball following a huge, hopeful kick up-field from his own ‘keeper, Jackson nodded in and the scores were even once more with just seconds remaining of normal time. Ending 3-3, the game would require extra-time.

If the pain of the equaliser wasn’t enough for Motherwell’s Ally Maxwell, the goalkeeper had suffered what was later found to have been two broken ribs and a lacerated stomach, earned during an earlier collision with John Clark and, without a substitute goalkeeper available on the bench for Motherwell, Maxwell was forced to honour the unforgiving nature of yesteryear’s brand of football and play through the agony.

Fortunately for Maxwell and his teammates, just five minutes after the restart Motherwell found the resolve to forget their setbacks and score a fourth cup final goal. When Dundee United ‘keeper Alan Main attempted to claim an in-swinging corner, the maelstrom of bodies in the box shackled him to the ground, leaving him flailing at its flight, allowing the ball to find its way to Motherwell’s ever-willing super-sub Stevie Kirk, ready and waiting to head the ball between the statuesque bodies frozen on the line and make it 4-3 Motherwell.

Though another 25 frenetic minutes remained, neither net would be troubled again and when the referee sounded the game’s final whistle, it wasn’t only the tournament that came to a close. With it, the curtain fell on 39 years of hurt for Motherwell, etching into their hearts and minds forever just how it feels to be a champion.

On that day at Hampden Park, into the hands of every man, woman and child adorned in claret and amber was placed an invitation to sit around their living room in 10, 20, 50 years’ time with their loved ones close by, to tell a treasured tale that begins with the words, “I was there when …”

In the 28 years since Motherwell’s famous Scottish Cup triumph the club has graced another three cup finals, two as recently last year, and finished as runners-up in three league campaigns, but sadly no major trophy has followed. However, the absence of on-field success unfortunately only accounts for a fraction of the club’s heartache as in the subsequent years as many as four of Motherwell’s unforgettable Class of ‘91 have lost their lives.

There is really never any true solace to be found in the musings of writers when lives are lost. After all, words can only say so much. But what can be said is that the spirit of football is most alive when the game is performed by players with vigour, determination and passion, and should anybody be looking for a team, a victory, a journey that best embodies those qualities then Davie Cooper, Phil O’Donnell, Jamie Dolan, Paul McGrillen and every other member of Motherwell’s class of ‘91 certainly do that better than most.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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