“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride – where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.”
Perhaps the first time an article about football has started with a quote from Jane Austen. But my rare football wanderings had taken me to Scotland where it was all about Pride. Motherwell came into their home game with Celtic in 4th place but if other results went against them, they could finish in the bottom six, meaning that they would play out the final weeks of the season in the “relegation” group rather than the top six “European” group. Sitting 15 points behind 3rd place and a Europa League spot, and 15 points above the relegation Play-off, the season is essentially over for ‘Well. Not so for the visitors to Celtic who are just a few wins from their fifth consecutive Premiership Championship.
The whole Promotion/Relegation split for the final five games of the season has rarely led to any excitement in the Scottish game. This season the clubs who entered the final five games in 4th, 5th and 6th had nothing to play for in terms of the title or European football, whilst those in 7th, 8th and 9th were safe from relegation. If the concept of introducing the system was to stop a hatful of dead rubbers at the end of the season then I think it may have failed, with at least half of the league already on their sun loungers. Still, it could be worse – they could have adopted the Belgian Play-off system which Stephen Hawking tried to describe a few years ago, gave up and published his book “A Brief History of Time”.
Let me rewind just a few paragraphs and start again. Hi! How are you? So with Lewes already relegated, and an inevitable 2-2 draw on the cards for their home game with Staines Town (it end 2-2 as well), I took advantage of a work trip to stay on in Glasgow and “tick off” two more Scottish Premiership grounds. Not just any old two either – two that are separated by just three miles a river, a motorway and a racecourse. Motherwell have been an almost permanent fixture in the top flight of Scottish football without ever really having the golden period that clubs such as Dundee United or Aberdeen had had. In fact, this May marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of their last major honour, when they won the Scottish Cup. The absence of Rangers from the top flight had given them the opportunity to try to be the “best of the rest” and had finished runners-up, inevitably to Celtic, two seasons ago.
Thanks to those pesky people at Sky Sports re-arranging this game, I could see two games in my afternoon with nothing more than an eight minute train ride and a ten minute walk, with Fir Park my first destination for the 12.30pm start.
My train from Glasgow Central would eventually end up, some thirteen hours later, in Penzance so not one to just have a little snooze on. Twitter told me to head for the Brandon Works, just a couple of minutes from the station, for a decent beer. Alas, even at 11.07am, it was heaving with away fans as too were all the bars en route to the ground. The Football Grounds Guide suggested the Fir Park Social Club next to the ground which was doing a good impression of Jessops when I arrived (i.e closed down). I had to console myself with a new pair of football socks (£5 in the sale) and a greetings card that said “Get ‘Well Soon” before I headed into the ground.
Not many people know that just over a year ago Motherwell manager Mark McGhee was sort-of assisting good-old Lewes FC in their quest for cup glory. We had parted ways with our management team but had the small matter of a Sussex Senior Cup Semi-Final to prepare for. McGhee, in his role as Assistant to Scottish National Team boss Gordon Strachan, living on the South Coast and a School run acquaintance of one of our directors agreed to help on a “let me give you a bit of my ample experience” basis – nothing formal you understand but a few pointers as to what we could be doing better. We beat Loxwood 3-0 and that will forever see Mark immortalised as the most successful non-manager that we’ve ever had.
12 months later and McGhee is doing a fine job in what must be a less stressful environment than Sussex Non-League football. Manager of the month for the second time in just a few months, Motherwell had more than held their own in the top half of the league, actually beating Celtic away earlier in the season. Despite the futility of the league split in their current situation, pride meant that a top half finish was desired and that almost certainly meant needing a point, or more, against the champions elect.
My good friend Stoffers had told me prior to the games that I would “love” Fir Park and “hate” New Douglas Park. Michael knows we well and he was not far from the truth. Fir Park was rocking with noise as the two teams emerged. Celtic had filled the gigantic South Stand with their voracious support, whilst the Motherwell band of hardcore fans in the corner nearest the visitors tried to raise the roof themselves. Talking of roofs, on the opposite side of the pitch from me was the strange Main Stand, named after former captain Phil O’Donnell stand which according to Simon Inglis in his book ‘The Football Grounds Of Great Britain’, was supposed to run the full length of the pitch and the frame was built accordingly but due to a dispute with a an owner of a house beyond the corner of that ground (a dispute which the club lost) it was never completed as intended. And we thought NIMBY’s were a modern thing.
Motherwell 1 Celtic 2 – Fir Park – Saturday 9th April 2016
It was a case of what could have been as the full-time whistle blew. The stats will show that the visitors dominated the game, with 23 attempts on goal to Motherwell’s 9, but it could have so nearly been a point apiece. The hero and villain of the game was Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths who bagged two goals, one in each half, but missed an earlier penalty, given for a soft challenge on the promising Patrick Roberts.
For most of the first half it looked like Men versus Boys (as opposed to Bhoys). Even the ultra-neutral BBC website said “Celtic lorded it early on”. It’s fair to say that Motherwell keeper Connor Ripley was the Man of the Match, making a string of saves when Celtic threatened to run away with it. Somehow they needed 44 minutes to open the scoring, with Griffiths finally getting his goal and then running the full length of the pitch, evading his team mates, shedding his shirt on the way to reveal a natty black sports bra thing and picking up a yellow card for his fashion show. Pointless.
McGhee must have read to The Dossiers (surely one of the best football club nicknames ever) as they came out firing on all cylinders. McDonald had the ball in the Celtic net on 55 minutes but a linesman’s flag denied them their goal. Five minutes later McDonald got his goal, against his old club, thumping the ball home from close range. A point was probably enough for Motherwell, but they could sniff all three.
Celtic’s players started to bicker among themselves. Kazim-Richards should have seen red for his reaction to a challenge from a Motherwell player and nothing appeared to be going right for them. The title was never in doubt – for them the small matter of a long-overdue Old Firm meeting in the Scottish Cup Semi-Final in eight days was on their mind. However, Griffiths once again proved to be their saviour, finally beating Ripley to score the winner with fifteen minutes left.
“Well done ‘Well. Blown it again” said a chap as we filed out of the ground. Apparently, it now needed Partick Thistle, St Johnstone and Dundee all to lose for Motherwell to stay in the top half. And that, as my new friend told me, was as likely to happen as “Lulu marrying the Pope”.
Hamilton Academicals 2 Dundee 1 – New Douglas Park – Saturday 9th April 2016
As you get off the train at Hamilton West you follow the path that runs along side the track to get to New Douglas Park. You walk past Sainsbury’s which was built back in 1995 on the site of Douglas Park, Hamilton Academicals former home. Despite the new ground having been open for nearly fifteen years, it is still only two-sided with skin-flint fans able to watch the whole game from the Sainsbury’s loading bays. It simply doesn’t look right, and whilst the facilities are adequate for the club and its ambitions, the whole ground feels unfinished.
It would be hard for even the most fanatical of fans to whip up an atmosphere here, especially in freezing cold and wet conditions but the Dundee fans tried. After Motherwell’s defeat earlier they knew that a point could be enough for their top six finish, with Hamilton, without a win at home for six months, there for the taking. Alas, it wasn’t until the final few minutes of this game that Dundee realised that when it was too late.
Hamilton started the brighter of the two sides and took the lead after fifteen minutes when Crawford turned the ball into the bottom corner of the net. Ten minutes later they were 2-0 up when a harsh penalty was given against Extabeguren and Garica Tena scored from the spot.
The game wasn’t the best – in fact the most enjoyable aspect was watching the Hamilton “youths” in the main stand trying to flex their muscles with a group of stewards. One accidentally knocked a cap off a steward and was meekly forced to go and fetch it.
Scores from elsewhere meant that Dundee now needed to win and they finally woke up with fifteen minutes to play. The substitute Harkins scored at last with minutes to go but they needed a win rather than a draw to give them an unlikely boost back into the top six.
Alas, it was not to be and I joined the disappointed Dundee fans as they headed out of the ground, in the realisation they had nothing left to play for in the season.
Another successful mission accomplished in Scotland. News of Lewes’s standard 2-2 draw didn’t fill me with joy but a couple of pints of Candy Kaiser in the Brewdog pub before I headed back to England soon put that right.