Greg Strong joins Sparra to discuss his time at Motherwell, including fitting into a dressing room of big characters, playing under Billy Davies and Eric Black, the emergence of a number of young talents at the club, the pain of administration, his career after leaving Fir Park and much, much more.
Words: Andy Ross
It’s 10pm. Eddie Wolecki Black and his Motherwell Ladies side have been on the go for almost 12 hours. The mood on the bus has lifted after a stop at Pizza Hut and the players seem to be trying to put the 1-1 draw with Aberdeen hours earlier to the back of their minds.
Wolecki Black however, seems unable to switch off from all things football. He has his head buried in Johan Cruyff’s autobiography, following a few hours of watching back footage of the controversial game that saw his side’s nine game winning run come to an end.
The ‘Well boss was sent to the stand and two of his players saw red during the course of the 90 minutes. Following the full time whistle another player in claret and amber saw red for offering her viewpoint on the refereeing display she had just witnessed – it’s fair to say it was an eventful afternoon.
You only need to be in Eddie’s company for a short time to realise how massive a part of his life is taken up by football, so spare a thought for his wife (and Motherwell Ladies defender) Emma, who witnesses and lives with her husband’s obsession for the game on a daily basis.
“I think you’d be right to say I’m a football obsessive,” he laughed.
“While myself and Emma were watching a game the other night she actually said to me ‘can you not just switch off for a minute?’ I was sitting analysing every detail, I can no longer watch football as a game – I have to analyse it all.
“I was brought up in a football family, everyone in the house was mad about football. It was impossible to avoid it, my dad managed youth team and then became a referee, then obviously my own career took off when in my teens – it’s always been there for me and I don’t know any different.
“It wasn’t a good night’s sleep on Sunday night that’s for sure and yet if we had taken one of the two chances we had late on I would probably have slept like a baby. It’s all about the end result, people talk about performances and I get that, there’s a way to win, of course there is, but there’s no right way to play football – if there was we’d all be playing that way.
“I’m very demanding of others as well as myself. I expect 100%, if you can’t give that then what’s the point of doing it? You’d be as well not bothering.
“That’s why I get so annoyed when people miss training sessions, what players don’t realise when they miss training sessions is that I’ve planned the session with them in mind.”
Eddie’s full-on approach to his work is clear, but it hasn’t been without consequence. During his time as manager of Airdrie he suffered a brain hemorrhage at half time in their meeting with Cowdenbeath at Central Park.
The road to recovery has been a difficult one, it’s a true testimony to the man, the extent of his recovery, though he is well aware he needs to be careful not to overdo things and credits his coaching staff for helping him avoiding that.
“When I was Airdrie I was in charge of the first team, the under 20s and the whole academy, then people wonder why I had a brain hemorrhage,” Wolecki Black said.
“It’s important for me to be able to take a step back and that’s why it was so crucial that I have the right staff. In Donald (Jennow) and Andy (Moran) I have staff that I can trust, so if I am away, whether it be for a training session or a game, things will still be done properly.”
Recently Eddie travelled to America for pioneering treatment that was brought to his and Emma’s attention when watching a documentary by Andrew Marr, who has also undergone the same procedure. There are clear positive changes in his appearance since his return, he has noted change in his moods too and although he continues to walk with the aid of a walking stick his coordination has improved.
Following his time with Airdrie coming to an end, he would undertake various jobs around football, before being offered the job as boss of Motherwell Ladies.
Eddie can’t speak highly enough of ‘Well Chief Executive, Alan Burrows for ‘seeing past the prejudice’ and offering the chance to return to management, although he has certainly gone a long way to demonstrating that he has lost none of his abilities as a coach – guiding Motherwell to the top-spot in SWPL2, where they currently hold an eight-point lead with 10 games of the season remaining.
“I was never really away from football, after parting company with Airdire, BSC Glasgow opened their doors to let me in and asked if I would go coach there – that was brilliant for me. Ironically I actually met Graeme McArthur, who was coaching at Motherwell at that time and we became good friends,” Eddie added.
“I am very, very grateful for the opportunity that Motherwell gave me, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. It takes a special type of person to overlook the prejudice and say ‘I can employ that guy’ and buy into his vision. Alan Burrows bought into my vision for the club, probably the biggest thing he knew was I’d be able to attract players here as I’ve been around the women’s game for a fair number of years so know the teams, most of the players and have an understanding of what it takes to be successful in the women’s game.
“The thing in football is that you can never say anything is long term. You can be one phone call away or one mishap away from ending the acquaintance. I don’t look too far ahead that’s for sure, what I do look at is what is there right now and what is needed to take the team forward.
“Alan and myself get on very well personally, he’s a Motherwell fan at heart and only wants the best for the club no matter what bracket of the club it is – he wants the club to be the very best it can be.”
Motherwell are currently on a two-week break from competitive action due to the international break and at the end of the month the league action will stop for its summer break. Typically, of Eddie though, football will remain at the forefront of his mind, even when some of his players are setting off on their summer holidays.
“A break gives you a wee chance to mull over where you are and what you are doing. You can also look ahead a wee bit and think ‘what if?,” he pondered.
“What if this team gets promoted? Are we strong enough? What do we need? We can then start looking about the other club’s and see what they’ve got. I always think in any walk of life there’s more questions than answers, I’m a great believer of that.”
One of the most prominent figures in Scottish women’s football, Eddie is well placed to assess how the game is progressing. This season the league is backed by a sponsor and the media coverage of the game is gradually improving, having overcome negative perceptions and stereotypes.
The former Glasgow City boss has experienced the popularity of the women’s game across Europe during the 10-in-a-row title winners’ Champions League campaigns and feels the key to their success is match-day experience.
“I heard all the stuff back at the start, ‘wummin playing fitba are ye kidding’ and all the stereotypes that were thrown at them,” the 53-year-old recalled.
“There were accusations about their sexuality for example, that spoke more about them than it did us. As individuals if that’s how they were brought up then I actually feel sorry for them. Women’s tennis was in that place not so long ago and now look at it – a person on the street would pay just as much for a women’s match as they would a men’s.
“The game is getting there; I’ll never forget going to the quarter-finals of the Champions League with Glasgow City. At the second-leg against Paris, we played at the Parc des Princes and there were 17,000 at the game.
“Then in Berlin there’s a team called Turbine Potsdam who have won the Champions League on a few occasions. They’ve got an official women’s team souvenir shop in Berlin, with all sorts of merchandise around the team. The newspapers devote pages to women’s football and they take great pride in their team – that’s exactly how it should be.
“I asked a guy in Frankfurt, who were one of the first winners of the Champions League, how they maintain such impressive attendances of four and five thousand at home matches – when you think about it, that’s what Motherwell get at home games.
“He told me it was because they promote the day and not just the football match like they do in the UK. In Germany they have all sorts of activities going on around the game, it encourages all the family to attend, we need to learn to promote the day and not just the game – we could learn a lot from that.”
In the final episode of the 2017-18 season, Sparra is joined by Busta and Jay to look back on the Scottish Cup final defeat to Celtic, review the campaign as a whole, discuss potential summer transfers in and out of Fir Park and much, much more.
A question that my group of Motherwell supporting mates quite often ponder, whether it be on the back of over celebrating a good victory in the early stages of a cup competition, a brilliant three points in the league, toppling one of the teams of bigger stature or even ensuring our status in the top-flight of Scottish football.
When Stevie Kirk nodded the ball into Alan Main’s net to secure the Scottish Cup for the Steelmen in 1991, I was too young to know what was going on, never mind soak up the build-up to the event, make plans for after the game, or indeed appreciate in any sort of way the magnitude of the occasion – a game that is widely regarded as the greatest Scottish Cup final of all time – just my luck that it came too soon for me!
It would be another 14 years until ‘Well next booked their place at a Hampden final, the 2005 League Cup final. At the age of 18, it was up until then, easily the most exciting experience following the club, we had won the semi-final in incredible fashion – defeating Hearts with the last kick of the ball in extra-time and there was a belief that our luck was in…until the game began.
Terry Butcher’s team were destroyed 5-1 against Rangers on a day where many who featured for the team have confessed that occasion got the better of them. During the build-up I somewhat naively had never had considered coming off second best, never mind losing by a four-goal margin, instead of sharing the moment where the team lifted the cup surrounded by more Motherwell fans than I had ever seen packed into the one stadium, I remained behind with the few who had resisted the urge to head for the nearest pub – the players walked up the famous steps with their heads slumped, clearly embarrassed at what had been a crushing defeat.
We had a night out afterwards, but it was much more drowning of sorrows, despite the achievement of reaching our first final in 14 years, what had occurred on the day badly soured the occasion. I can recall sitting down to torture myself with the highlights the following day and my mum walking into the living room to me sitting with tears streaming down my face, I wasn’t sure if I wanted Motherwell to ever reach the big stage again if that was how badly a defeat hurt.
Fast-forward six years to 2011 and 20-years on from the historic success in 1991 the team had a chance to mark the milestone by lifting the Scottish Cup again. The evening before there was parties across the town, fans had travelled from far and wide to make sure they were part of the Hampden showpiece, but again the day would go far from how we hoped.
It began with a bus journey where the driver appeared to take issues with bus routes that were allocated to avoid the very scenario that would unfold. With kick-off just 10 minutes away we eventually opted to get off the bus which was crawling round the streets leading to the opposite end of Hampden from where our fans would be housed and into the pouring rain.
We missed the teams coming out and the fantastic display that went with both sides entering the field of play. The first sight that greeted me inside the stadium was an early Celtic effort coming back off the crossbar.
In truth it never at any stage on that day felt like we ever stood much of a chance, Celtic took the lead in the first-half and although we responded with Gavin Gunning’s shot rattling the crossbar after that it was a match dominated by Neil Lennon’s team. In the second-half Stephen Craigan would deflect an effort into his own net with 14 minutes remaining and Charlie Mulgrew’s free-kick put the finishing touches on what had been a rather dismal day. Time for another night out, without much of a reason to celebrate.
Again, it would be another six years until the team would find themselves in a national final and while the League Cup final in November 2017 brought another defeat to Celtic and a failure to find to the net, there was a totally different feeling at the full-time whistle.
Celtic went into the final on the back of an unbeaten run which spanned almost a season and a half, any challenge that they faced domestically they took on with what seemed like an element of ease, yet on that day at Hampden, Motherwell demonstrated no fear and went toe-to-toe with their opponents. Indeed, had it not been for a wonderful stop from Craig Gordon to keep out Louis Moult’s header or Craig Thomson’s ludicrous decision to award a penalty and send-off Cedric Kipre, who knows how the game may have unfolded – what was clear though was that Motherwell had shown up – it had taken 26 years, but it finally had happened.
By the time the full-time whistle went it was the ‘Well fans who could be heard, showing their appreciation for the spirit that their side had shown. The players could hold their heads high as they collected their runner-up medals too, they may have been beaten, but they were far from disgraced.
The number six has been prominent since that 2005 final, with six-year gaps between finals. This time though, the gap has been just six months and we are currently counting down to the Scottish Cup final. In what has been an incredible season for the Steelmen, manager Stephen Robinson has lead the team to finals in both cup competitions, beating a host of top-flight teams on the way.
We are now just three days away from what is just the third time the club have reached the Scottish Cup final in 66 years and for only the second time in their history can celebrate reaching two finals during the course of one season.
Claret and amber is on display throughout the town, local shops are showing their support and the fans have reached a state of fever pitch. With the football club now being under the ownership of the fans through the Well Society, there has never been a feeling of such togetherness between the club and supporters.
Again, we go into the game as big underdogs and for the third successive final, Celtic will provide the opposition, however this season has been unlike any I’ve ever experienced during my time supporting this magnificent club.
These feelings of excitement have been present prior to the previous three finals I have reflected on at length, but never have I felt the connection to the players and staff on these levels – only yesterday I had the opportunity to record a podcast with Stephen Robinson, which did nothing but heighten my excitement levels. In Robinson, Motherwell have a manager who is driven and determined to put in as many hours as possible to ensure the team and the football club is the very best it can be. He believes in his players and in turn they believe and respect him, he also understands and embraces the ethos of the football club, that has brought supporters and players closer together – a vital element in the success.
Given the size of the club, we can’t afford the big transfer fees or the big wage demands, what Robinson has done is assemble a team of hungry young players, who are willing to learn, work-hard and do their very best for the team every time they pull on a ‘Well shirt.
Having a bond between payers and fans may seem to some as a strange thing to describe such a thing as vital, however I don’t think it can be understated. As Motherwell supporters we don’t expect to win every game, we appreciate that times also quite often can be tough, even in the league campaign just completed there have been spells where results haven’t been good.
The difference this season is that due to the personnel brought in over the course of the two transfer windows by the management team, coupled with the sublime work done by the club’s media team to enhance that feeling of being ‘as one’, the majority of the fans feel totally assured that everyone is doing the very best they can for the club, there is an air of positivity in almost everything the club does – it’s near impossible not to get excited by it all. Anyone who isn’t convinced that the effort is what it should be, only needs to watch the team in action – they are a group of players who seemingly would run through a brick wall for the cause.
On the park, I’ve no illusions as to how difficult it will be to defeat Celtic, they are an incredibly strong team, but by the same token, I don’t foresee any possibility that the occasion with overawe anyone in claret and amber.
For me there will be no bus, that’s not an experience I’m quite ready to replicate, I’ll be travelling by taxi, with a day alongside family and friends ahead. I hope with everything I have that we can do it, it would mean so much to everyone with an association to this football club, these days don’t come around very often and it’s important to make the very most of it – we’ll get along early, we’ll sing our hearts out, meet with friends who have moved far away, but wouldn’t dream of missing our big day, we’ll laugh and maybe even shed the odd tear – whatever happens though, we’ll never forget the day whether the result be good or bad.
We’ll go together as one – players, staff and supporters – can you imagine what would happen if we won the cup?
With just four days to go before the Scottish Cup final, Sparra sat down with Motherwell boss Stephen Robinson for an insight on preparations ahead of the big day, discuss his career at Fir Park as both assistant boss and as manager, Euro 2016, disappointment at Oldham and much, much more.
As we continue the build up to the Scottish Cup final, 1991 hero Ally Maxwell joins Sparra to countdown to the big day, look back on the season so far, discuss his involvement with the Well Society’s Exiles Club, look ahead to the Scottish Premiership fixture with Hamilton and much more.
Sparra is joined by the head of the Motherwell Youth Academy and club legend, Steven Hammell to discuss how he’s settling into his new role after hanging up his boots in January, reflect on the highs and lows during his fantastic career with the Steelmen, continue the build-up to the Scottish Cup final and much, much more.
Sparra, Busta and Jay look back on the meetings with Dundee and Hibernian, give further reaction on the fall-out from the Betfred League Cup semi-final victory, discuss a new deal for assistant boss Keith Lasley, preview the trip to Ross County and more.
In our latest summer special podcast, Sparra was joined by Steven McGarry to discuss his time at Fir Park and beyond. We hear about Steven jumping at the chance to join the Steelmen back in January 2006, the team struggling under the guidance of Maurice Malpas, Mark McGhee’s transformation of the side and their fortunes, tough times following the arrival of Jim Gannon and much, much more.
Many of you will have seen the national news coverage relating to the Motherwell Disabled Association in the past few days.
After consolation with the MFC DSA, we have set the wheels in motion for fundraising efforts.
This will begin with donations via the podcast website and in the coming weeks a charity event featuring local bands will also be announced – this event will be free to all who have donated.
Donations can be made via the MFC Podcast website using the following link – http://www.mfc1886.com/product/motherwell-disabled-supporters-association-donation/
Donations can also be made to the Paypal Account directly – email@example.com.
Thanks again for your support.