Rangers’ seven straight clean sheets earlier this season attracted plenty plaudits. But in the not-too-distant past, the Steelmen were also embarking on a similar run which ensured Premier Division safety.
Rangers’ 2-2 draw with Hibernian last weekend ended a run of seven consecutive clean sheets for Steven Gerrard’s men.
While the Light Blues were rightly being lauded for their defensive form, the goals conceded in Edinburgh ensured that they could only match a record set by Motherwell 24 years ago.
The 1995-96 season was a strange campaign from a Motherwell perspective.
Coming off the back of a third-place finish in 93-94 and ending the following season as runners-up there was understandably great optimism among the claret and amber faithful for more success for the Steelmen.
The team had forged a reputation of challenging at the summit of the Scottish game, while playing an attractive and expansive brand of football. Among their ranks they had players such as Rob McKinnon, Paul Lambert, Dougie Arnott and Tommy Coyne – experienced and quality footballers who were reaching great heights for ‘Well.
Alex McLeish was heading into his second season in charge at Fir Park and the young boss followed up splashing out a then club record transfer fee of £400,000 on Mitchell van der Gaag from PSV Eindhoven towards the end of the previous season with the capture of striker John Hendry from Tottenham Hotspur looking like a move that would help bolster his attacking options.
Despite the additions of some high-profile new faces with the experience and quality of the side that had seen ‘Well challenge at the top end of the Scottish football in the previous two years, they would endure a disappointing start to the new season.
Exiting the UEFA Cup at the first hurdle to Mypa-47 started the season on a disappointing note and that was coupled with a serious injury to Van Der Gaag in the first-leg defeat at Fir Park which ruled him out for six months.
Motherwell opened the season with four draws on the spin before getting their first three points after a 3-0 success over Kilmarnock at Fir Park.
The joy was short-lived however, and a 2-1 midweek defeat at Ibrox was followed by a 2-0 defeat at home to Raith Rovers.
Defeating Aberdeen 2-1 at Fir Park seemed to have put things back on the right track for McLeish, though few could have predicted the horrendous run that followed – sending the team hurtling towards a relegation dogfight.
A 4-2 loss at Easter Road set the ball rolling on a fifteen-game run in which Motherwell would fail to record a single victory – losing nine times and drawing six.
During the height of their slump, ‘Well would go eight games in succession without finding the net – a record that remains the club’s longest run of matches without scoring a goal in their 134-year history.
Ironically when that elusive goal finally arrived, it was a Falkirk player who scored Motherwell’s goal. On a drab Tuesday evening at Brockville, Joe McLaughlin put the ball into his own-net to clinch a 1-0 victory at Brockville and end a painful wait for the ‘Well fans who could have been forgiven for forgetting what it felt like to celebrate the ball hitting the net.
After the exhilaration of seeing their team win a match and scoring a goal (sort of), normal service was resumed one week later as Aberdeen recorded a 2-0 victory at Fir Park to send the Steelmen spinning out the Scottish Cup.
There were more league goals for McLeish’s side in their next league game against Rangers at Ibrox. Martin fired home a wonderful long-range effort and Willie Falconer notched his first goal for the club, but ‘Well were denied a well-deserved share of the spoils when Ally McCoist rolled home a penalty with 13 minutes left on the clock.
Having lost the next two matches after finally getting back to winning ways it was vitally important that Motherwell got back to winning ways when Aberdeen visited Lanarkshire for the second time in a fortnight and they managed to do just that when Alex Burns notched his fifth goal of the season to clinch a 1-0 success.
McLeish’s side would have to wait 11 days for their next league encounter, taking on Raith Rovers at Fir Park. Rovers had been rocked days prior to the fixture after seeing their extraordinarily successful boss Jimmy Nicholl depart the club for Millwall leaving Jimmy Thomson and Jim McInally in temporary stewardship.
Again, the match was decided by a single goal, Falconer getting his first on home soil to help ‘Well move off the foot of the Premier League table.
The Bairns were next up at as Motherwell enjoyed their third successive home fixture and again it was Falconer who netted the winner – the striker had endured the disappointment of missing a penalty on his debut against Kilmarnock, but was beginning to demonstrate his abilities to pop-up with a big goal and this was the case yet again as Falkirk were defeated 1-0.
Falconer lifted the ball over Tony Parks in the Falkirk goal before nodding the ball into the net, a goal of real quality, style and huge magnitude.
‘One-Nil, to the Motherwell’ was becoming a real favourite for ‘Well fans and for the fourth successive game the team battled to three-points in that fashion when Paul Lambert’s first half penalty was enough to see off Kilmarnock at Rugby Park.
It was a case of another game and another clean sheet when Tommy Burns’ exciting Celtic side came to Fir Park. The Hoops were harbouring strong hopes of ending Rangers’ quest for an eighth successive league title, though they couldn’t breach the strong Motherwell backline featuring the likes of McKinnon, Van Der Gaag, Martin and McCart – it wasn’t a fifth successive win, but another game without conceding.
Given the team looked to be in serious relegation trouble, it had taken a quite superb run of form to turn Motherwell’s season around and defeating Partick Thistle 2-0 at Firhill in their final game of March moved them six points clear of the Jags who were occupying the relegation play-off position.
Billy Davies opened the scoring in the first half and Van Der Gaag put the game beyond doubt after the break. Theresult was made even more impressive by the fact their opponents were themselves enjoying a good run of results including a very impressive 5-2 demolition of Hearts at Tynecastle just one week earlier.
A club record seventh successive clean sheet was secured as Hibernian were swept aside at Fir Park in emphatic style. Coyne opened the scoring before Falconer and Martin put gloss on a fine afternoon’s work.
It was the most comprehensive victory in a tremendous run that saw the Steelmen ensure their top-flight safety – taking 19 points from a possible 21 – scoring nine goals without reply.
The run would end on game eight when Brian Irvine netted a second half equaliser for Aberdeen at Pittodrie to cancel out Falconer’s opener and the Dons would go on to take all three points after McCart’s own goal late in the game.
In the final three encounters of the season, Motherwell managed only a single point meaning they ended the campaign in eighth place – nine points clear of Partick Thistle who finished second bottom and 15 ahead of Falkirk who suffered automatic relegation after only picking up one point in their final 10 fixtures.
Following on from a season where the team were record breakers for both good and bad reasons, McLeish’s side again would struggle in the league during the 1996-97 season – only avoiding the relegation play-off on the final day of the season.