Eighteen-years have passed since Tommy Coyne departed Motherwell after nearly five magnificent years with the club.
Over that time the Republic of Ireland international forged the reputation as one of the most popular strikers to have ever played at Fir Park.
The fondness for Coyne amongst the Motherwell support remains although he admits that despite topping Scottish Premier League scoring charts during his first-spell with Dundee and then with Celtic, he had to prove himself all over again following his move to Lanarkshire in November 1993.
He wasted little time in making a mark, notching 12 goals in 26 games during his first season, a huge factor in the side coming just four-points off eventual title winners Rangers.
Despite coming so close to league glory, Tommy McLean’s side had to settle for a third-place finish, this did however bring the club’s first ever qualification for Europa via the league.
“I don’t think there was pressure when I arrived as such, it is the same any time you join a new club, you have to prove yourself as a footballer and that’s what I set out to do,” Coyne explained.
“When I joined Motherwell I thought straight away that I would score a load of goals because of Davie’s service but within a few weeks he was sold to Clydebank – I’d have loved the chance to have played in his team for longer.
“Looking back on that season our squad probably wasn’t quite big enough, to miss out on winning the league was disappointing of course but there was a lot of satisfaction that came with having such a great season too.
“We were all well aware of how big an achievement qualifying for Europe through the league was, it was the first time the club had achieved that feat.”
Following the conclusion of the domestic season Coyne moved on to international matters and the World Cup in America with the Republic of Ireland.
A late bloomer in international football, Tommy was delighted to have the opportunity to play on the biggest stage and the Irish captured the hearts of many at the tournament as Jack Charlton’s side progressed through the group stages – defeating the eventual beaten finalists, Italy on the way.
“I was 31 when I won my first-cap and it all just snowballed from there – it was fabulous,” said the striker, who was capped 22-times at international level.
“The call-up to the World Cup squad came quite late, Niall Quinn was injured and maybe if he hadn’t picked up the injury I wouldn’t have made it.
“Going to America I expected to be a back-up, it was an incredible feeling when Jack told me I would be starting – every footballer dreams of playing in the World Cup and I got to do it as a Motherwell player.”
One of the memorable aspects of the 1994 World Cup in America was the sheer heat that players had to put up with during the tournament.
This threw up a dangerous situation with Tommy, who needed a massive intake of fluid in order to be able to urinate for a drugs test following their 2-1 second-round defeat to Mexico.
“My focus was just on the football at the time, but the effects certainly took their toll afterwards,” he recalled.
“I had consumed too much water in a short period of time and suffered from water intoxication – it was a pretty dangerous situation but I wasn’t really aware of that at the time.”
Born in Glasgow, Tommy qualified to play for the Republic through his grandparents. In recent years the likes of James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady have both faced major backlash for opting to play for Ireland over Scotland, however Coyne admits it wasn’t as much of an issue for him.
“Back then there wasn’t as much media attention given to the situation, it was late in my career and I had never been asked to play for Scotland. It was a huge honour to play for my Grandmother’s country of birth and I have some fantastic memories.”
A disagreement with the Motherwell board towards the end of the 1993-94 season saw Tommy McLean depart Fir Park and he was replaced by Alex McLeish who was taking his first steps into football management.
Coyne was sad to see the man who brought him to the club move on, however quickly adapted to life under McLeish.
“It was disappointing on one level but brought new opportunities on another, Alex McLeish brought different things to the job and the players had to adapt – I liked working under both,” he explained.
“I don’t think it was a great surprise, he was a very forthright character and was a real leader. He has gone on to manage numerous top clubs and has done well at most of the places he went.”
After successfully negotiating their UEFA Cup first-round tie with Faroese side Havnar Bóltfelag, Motherwell were matched with German giants Borussia Dortmund in round-two.
Despite being massive underdogs, the Steelmen came mightily close to an upset in the first-leg at the Westfalenstadion and Coyne has some regrets over the 1-0 defeat on the night.
“It was a fantastic place to play, a really great experience for the team. I look back and think that I had a few chances and maybe I should have converted at least one of them, who knows how it could have ended up if I had managed to do so,” said the 53-year-old.
“The second-leg didn’t go the way we hoped, the afternoon kick-off spoiled the atmosphere, you tend to think of European games as played at night under the lights – the afternoon kick-off felt strange too.
“I remember my son was the mascot for that game, it was a special occasion for him but the outcome wasn’t what we hoped for.”
McLeish’s ‘Well side boasted huge quality from back to front and Coyne believes that the team had great confidence regardless of the opposition, there was also one member of the defence that stood out for him.
“We had a great team from back to front, I couldn’t believe how good a player Brian Martin was as a footballer, defensively he came up against so many big players but more often than not got the better of them. Playing alongside Chris McCart and Miodrag Krivokapić certainly enhanced his game too.
“We never had the fear coming up against Rangers or Celtic, especially at Fir Park and more often than not we got a positive result. My one regret is that we didn’t quite manage to go that one step further, Leicester City winning the title last season showed that smaller teams can go on and achieve incredible things.
“Maybe we just lacked the extra bit of edge at times, where Rangers seemed to be able to sneak over the line and claim a win, on occasion we would drop points and that was the difference between the two teams.
“When I first arrived at Fir Park there was a wage-cap in place, I liked that – there was no huge difference between the wages of our players and I think it helped the team spirit that we were all treated equally.”
The first season under the guidance of McLeish ended with Motherwell clinching second-spot and as a result registering their highest league finish since the 1930’s.
More UEFA Cup football would follow in the 1995-96 season, but ended in disappointment as the team crashed out to the relatively unknown Finnish outfit MyPa 47.
“You can’t show disrespect to any team you come up against and I don’t think we did against MyPa. It’s true however that we had never heard of them until the draw and maybe there was a bit at the back of our minds that we should be winning the game fairly easily,” Tommy remembered.
“Obviously it didn’t work out that way and after losing three goals in the first-leg it was a massive ask to turn it round in Finland – we came close but lost out on away goals.”
Given the great success in his first two campaigns with Motherwell, 95-96 was memorable for battles at the other end of the table and the slump continued into the next season.
Despite the struggles of the team, there were still some stand-out moments, including Coyne netting a stunning hat-trick at Rugby Park in a 4-2 win.
In that game John Philliben also grabbed a rare goal and Coyne confesses it was nice to see his team-mate score at the right end.
“We ribbed ‘Softy’ all the time for his own-goals, he was great about it all – he just laughed it off. That day was really special and he added a goal from a fantastic free-kick.
“There was a lot of pressure on me when I came up against Kilmarnock, before I came to Motherwell I had trained at Rugby Park, Tommy Burns was the manager at the time and he wanted to sign me, however when it was time to sign the chairman changed his mind and obviously the rest is history.
“There were all sorts of stories that I was demanding all sorts to go to Killie and their fans gave me dogs abuse as a result – I was always out to show them what they were missing.”
With the season approaching its conclusion, Motherwell looked to be heading for a relegation play-off. The penultimate game of the season saw the Fir Parkers take on Rangers at Ibrox, with the hosts needing a win to clinch nine-in-a-row in front of their own fans.
Motherwell had other ideas however and a stunning display in-front of the Sky cameras on a Bank-Holiday-Monday spoiled the Rangers party and kept our survival hopes alive.
“The game at Ibrox was pressure free, we were going to their party and everyone expected us to take a tanking, however in our dressing room we thought we could spoil their day and that’s exactly how it went,” said Coyne, who relished his role in the victory.
“I was brought out 50-yards from Ibrox, albeit I wasn’t brought up a Rangers supporter, I was desperate to score against them that day – that would have really topped off the day.”
That win at Ibrox meant that Motherwell’s fate would be decided on the final day with Dunfermline the visitors to Fir Park.
At 2-1 down it seemed like a play-off was on the cards, however Mitchell Van der Gaag’s sensational free-kick with 17 minutes remaining ensured that Hibs and not Motherwell would contest two-leg relegation decider.
“Mitch tried those free-kicks all the time in training and they never came off, he was lucky he got to take it in the first place,” laughed Coyne.
“Thankfully this time he hit it brilliantly and it rocketed into the net – it was a massive goal.”
The struggles at the wrong of the table continued during the next season and the departure of McLeish to take up the managerial reigns at Hibs, then the subsequent arrival of Harri Kampman in February of 1998, signalled the end of Coyne’s time at the club.
In true Coyne style however, the man labelled affectionately by ‘Well fans as the ‘Cobra’ still played a part in the closing stages of the 1997-98 campaign, again netting against Rangers in a 2-1 triumph at Fir Park.
Tommy admits he felt the writing was on the wall following the arrival of Kampman and felt he and many of the more experienced players within the squad who were also let go at the end of the season should have remained at the club longer.
Four members of the squad inherited by Kampman from McLeish all moved on to join newly-promoted Dundee.
“Harri came in and never gave me much of a chance, it was the same with a number of the older players who also just didn’t get a chance. Maybe it was the case that he saw some of us as a threat and that if it had been the case that team wasn’t doing so well he may be replaced as manager by some of the older members of the squad, “he explained.
“These things happen in football, I think he made a mistake to come in and try change things overnight and a number of the players released should have stayed at Motherwell longer.
“Four of us (Coyne, Willie Falconer, Shaun McSkimming and Eric Garcin) all moved to the same club in the same league, the club shouldn’t have been selling players who have served the club well in groups like that.
“I didn’t get many chances at Dundee, I worked with Jocky Scott before and thought it would work out, at 36 I needed games but it just didn’t really happen for me.”
Now 53, Coyne still follows Motherwell games on television and tries to get along to Fir Park when possible.
His oldest son (also Tommy), currently plays with Linlithgow Rose, where he has been following in his father’s footsteps by banging in the goals on a regular basis.
“I follow mainly via television now, my youngest son plays football on a Saturday morning and my older boy plays for Linlithgow in the afternoon.
“I still make the odd game however and I’m a member of the Former Players Club, anytime I go to Fir Park I always receive a nice welcome.
“My youngest son is constantly asking for me to take him to Motherwell games, we went to Hamilton away last season and enjoyed the game amongst the Motherwell fans. I couldn’t believe we were all being searched on the way into the game and all of the police on horses, it was clear that it was a very big game for the fans.
“I have only got praise for the Motherwell fans, they always got behind the team and didn’t single out players for stick.
“I never had any doubts about joining the club and have fantastic memories of my time there, I really wish I had been there longer – the time seemed to just flash by, Motherwell was the club I remained at longest in my career and I wish I had been there for longer.”