Featured in ‘Off-Air 2’
Words: Andy Ross
Three seasons, three best-of-the-rest finishes, Motherwell were living the dream under the guidance of Stuart McCall.
After the departure of Craig Brown to Aberdeen late in 2010, McCall was offered the chance to manage in Scotland for the first time in his career.
McCall had been out of management for 10 months, having left Bradford City after two and a half years in the job.
“For me it was a great chance to get back into football, I knew how successful Craig (Brown) and Archie (Knox) had been and that does create a bit of added pressure, sometimes it’s easier to go into a team that’s struggling,” said McCall who took charge of his first game in a Lanarkshire Derby against Hamilton.
“My mum and dad are from Hamilton and I used to go to Accies games as a kid during the school holidays. The game was an instantly forgettable 0-0, a really poor game – at the four teams I have managed at I’ve started with a draw so it’s probably no surprise it was the case in that Hamilton game.”
While his first game in charge may not have been one to remember, McCall’s second game saw his side record an impressive 4-0 victory over Dundee in a Scottish Cup clash at Dens Park.
That game marked the first step in Motherwell’s fantastic run to the Scottish Cup final in 2011, where they eventually came up short to Celtic.
“The run to the final was undoubtedly one of the best memories of my first season at Motherwell, when I went into the club the tasks that are given are trying to get into the top-six, reach the semi-final or final of a cup and maybe sell a player,” McCall remembered.
“Within two weeks Mark Reynolds was sold to Sheffield Wednesday and Nick Blackman who was top-scorer up until that point returned to Blackburn, so the focus was then on consolidating a place in the top-half and the cups.
“The St Johnstone semi-final was brilliant, we got off to a great start through ‘Craggs’ (Stephen Craigan) he didn’t get many goals for us – well certainly not in the oppositions goal. John Sutton added a second and then Jamie Murphy got a goal too.
“It was a fantastic day for the supporters and to come back to Fir Park that night was magnificent. It was great to see how the whole town got behind the team for the final.
“In the final Celtic’s only real threat in the first-half was from a 30-yarder that they scored with, we had a similar effort from Gavin Gunning and it came off the under-side of the bar.
“We got to 75 minutes and were still in the game, made the changes to allow us to go four-four-two, but within a minute second goal which killed us off.
“It was disappointing, you always look back on whether you could have done things differently. I think if you had said before the game that at 75 minutes we’d have still been in the game we would have taken that. Sometimes games can be decided on such fine-lines, no doubt they were the better team on the day, but on another day it might have gone slightly differently.”
The summer of 2011 would see McCall makes moves in the transfer-market, most notably bringing in Michael Higdon and Nicky Law. John Sutton left the club to join Hearts, but the Leeds born gaffer managed to retain much of his squad from the previous season.
McCall believes that the squad that he inherited contained a great deal of quality and therefore his responsibility was to add the key elements.
“We inherited a really good group and what we had to do was add key components to that. We managed to get ‘Jenno’ (Steve Jennings) to sign another year on the cup final night and Stephen Craigan tied down to another deal which was important as it helped develop ‘Hutchy’ (Shaun Hutchinson).
“We lost John Sutton who had went to Hearts, who had offered to double his wages. There was no finger pointing there, it was a big chance for him and football is a short career.
“I then went out to find a number nine, which was important as I liked to play with two wingers – we had watched Higgy (Michael Higdon) and couldn’t have foreseen how well he did do.”
The current Bradford City boss’ signings made a superb impact in their first season at the club and the January acquisition of Estonian Henrik Ojamaa, proved to be an inspired bit of business.
A third-place league finish coupled with Rangers’ financial woes meant Motherwell had achieved the incredible feat of qualifying for the Champions League qualifying stages.
“I remember going to Hearts and winning 1-0 to qualify for the Champions League – that will always live with me, it was a fantastic evening.
“We had a really solid team and it was just a case of adding the extra bits to it which we managed to keep doing along the way. We tried to improve the squad and went down the route of trying to bring in quality over bringing in a large number of players. It’s sometimes easier managing a tight-knit group of 16-18 rather than 20-22, so we took the decision to pay a bit more for a few of the guys in terms of wages and to go with quality over quantity.
We paid the price ultimately for doing that in my final season as we got too many injuries, but certainly for a couple of seasons that’s how he did it and it worked well.”
Motherwell would make their Champions League bow in a glamour encounter with Greek giants Panathinaikos and despite losing the tie 5-0 on aggregate, McCall believes everyone at the club should be proud of playing their part in the history of the football club.
“To walk out to Champions League music at Fir Park was brilliant for the fans, the players and all the staff who had worked so hard. It was also a great learning curve for the players and gave them the chance to be a big part of the history of the club,” he smiled.
“The one regret is that over these European ties we didn’t manage a goal, but we certainly can look back upon these games with really fond memories.”
It was clear that the Steelmen had built a taste for European football and they would follow-up their third-place finish by finishing second in the 2012/13 campaign.
Michael Higdon would play a key-role in their success, banging in an incredible 26 goals, earning him both the league’s ‘Golden Boot’ and ‘Players Player of the Year’ awards
“It was a great season with some fantastic memories, being 2-0 down and coming back to win 3-2 against Hibs, 5-1 at Inverness and getting two wins over Celtic too. There was a really special bond and spirit not just between the players but the fans as well.
“We were going toe-to-toe with Celtic who had a wealth of quality at the time too, beating them twice that season, the home fixtures against Celtic were really good games and we showed what a good, good side we were.”
Following their incredibly successful campaign, it came as little surprise that there was a huge amount of interest in several key-members of the ‘Well squad.
Darren Randolph, Chris Humphrey, Henrik Ojamaa, Michael Higdon and Tom Hateley all headed for new opportunities and it wasn’t only the playing squad that were catching the eye.
Sheffield United offered the 52-year-old a chance to return to the club where he finished his playing career as manager.
McCall would attend an interview for the role, but after a great deal of consideration opted to remain at Fir Park.
“Everyone I spoke to thought that I would be crazy to stay at Motherwell given we had lost seven first-team regulars and told me I had taken the club as far as I could,” he explained
“I spoke to Sheffield United and financially I would have been better off by taking the job, but some things just weren’t right. It would have been really easy to leave but I felt I owed Motherwell that loyalty.
“It was a challenge to build another side too, there’s no doubt we didn’t build as good a side as the one that we had, but that was always going to be tough given the quality we lost.”
Eight new faces arrived during the summer and despite perhaps lacking the flair and swagger of the previous two years, the squad more than made up with it through desire, togetherness and the ability to grind out a result – finishing second again and bettering their previous season’s tally by seven-points.
The battle to finish in second would go right down to the final games of the season, where in the most dramatic of circumstances, Craig Reid’s scrambled goal in the final seconds, meant the boys in Claret and Amber were celebrating again.
“That was a tremendous achievement. I have some fantastic memories in football, but that last minute win at Aberdeen is right up there at the very top,” said McCall, who was capped 40-times as a player with Scotland.
The celebrations on the way back – that was the best coach journey I have ever been on. For us to get to 70 points was incredible – it was more about a team-effort than an individual effort,” McCall said.
“It was a really good club, small on resources squad wise and staff wise, but everyone just mucked in together – there was a real family atmosphere.
I’ve got to say though, looking back I’m proud of what we achieved at Motherwell, finishing best of the rest three times was incredible of a team of our stature.
“There were so many teams blowing us out the water budget wise, I think when you achieve things as underdogs it makes those achievements that little bit more special.”
After enjoying what could only be described as ‘much success without winning any silverware’, McCall’s time at Motherwell came to a disappointing end in November 2014.
The team were struggling at the wrong end of the Scottish Premiership table and following a frustrating 2-1 loss at St Johnstone, he decided it was time to end his fantastic time at the club.
“You always look on things and what you do and there were no bigger signs that it was going to be one of those seasons than the Europa League games against Stjarnan,” he reflected.
“We were 2-0 up after 25 minutes in the first-leg and I was thinking ‘wow, what a great start’. Then unbelievably ‘Las’ (Keith Lasley) gives two penalties away, one in the final minute and the game ends 2-2.
“We go over there and he gives another penalty away and we go on to lose the game in extra-time – that was a real downer to start the season. After that we suffered a few key injuries and things just didn’t click.
“It was after the St Johnstone game on the Friday night that I felt it maybe just wasn’t going to go right and that it was maybe time for a fresh voice.
“Me and Kenny (Black) had been there for three and a half years and maybe it was time for a new manager came to come in and inherit what was a good group of players, to change a couple of things up and take the club forward again.
“I took the decision for the sake of the club, it would have been easy for me to have stayed, there were rumours of a foreign owner coming in and bringing in his own gaffer so I could have stayed on and maybe get paid up.
“I didn’t envisage the team would continue to struggle, Kenny won his first game in temporary charge, but things didn’t turn around like I expected.
“I have nothing but fond memories of the club and will always have them, it was sad to finish on a downer, but that first three months of the last season shouldn’t ever take away the success, joy and great memories of the time I had working there.”
Motherwell were unable to turn around their fortunes and finished the season in the relegation play-off position.
McCall had returned to management as boss of Rangers and as fate would have it, the former ‘Well gaffer would come up against his old side in a huge pressure encounter.
He describes the fixture as a ‘nightmare scenario’, one which ended in Motherwell clinching safety – ending a disappointing campaign in style.
“After leaving Motherwell I had a chance to go to a few clubs including one in Scotland and I totally didn’t want to do that because I would be going head-to-head with Motherwell,” said McCall.
“The Rangers job came totally out of the blue and as the weeks went on, the nightmare scenario of it being Rangers v Motherwell was on the horizon.
“I always thought Motherwell would get themselves out of the situation they were in and finish tenth, but obviously, that didn’t happen. It was something I was dreading for the last part of the season and obviously for myself and Rangers it ended badly, while for Motherwell it was a success in what was a disappointing season.”
Having returned to manage Bradford City in June 2016, Stuart has enjoyed a successful return to Valley Parade, with his side currently very much in the mix for the League One play-off places.
While he hasn’t managed to catch much of Motherwell during this season, he expressed his belief that Stephen Robinson’s side can battle their way to survival in the Scottish Premiership.
“I only manage to catch Motherwell games on the television, I thought they were really unlucky in the games against Celtic at Fir Park and in the cup against Rangers,” he said.
“They find themselves in a dog-fight, but the one thing about Motherwell is they have the likes of Louis Moult and Scott McDonald they will always have a goal threat. Despite being inconsistent, Lionel Ainsworth will always be a threat off the bench too. It’s probably just defensively where they need to tighten-up.
It’s going to be a nervous end to the season, when I was at the club thankfully it was always positive and we could look forward to the end of the season, but when things aren’t going well it makes games nervy and they aren’t pleasant for anyone involved and the supporters too.
“Obviously, it’s so important for a club like Motherwell to avoid relegation, you only have to look at the likes of St Mirren as to how difficult it is to come back up – I believe they will stay up though and really hope that’s the case.”