EVERYTHING was against Albion Rovers, from the history books to the league positions and even the venue, but somehow they produced the shock of the Scottish Cup fourth round – and who knows, maybe even the tournament? – at New Douglas Park yesterday.
Scorer: Phillips 90
Gary Phillips’ goal, as the game spilled into stoppage time, gave the part-time side, third-bottom of League Two, their first-ever victory against Motherwell, third-top of the Scottish Premiership, in 35 meetings between the Lanarkshire clubs.
The tie looked for all the world as though it was heading for a replay when the ball fell to Phillips just outside the penalty area. The winger would have been entitled to panic, but he caught it perfectly with a low, left-foot shot that found the bottom corner despite a touch from Gunnar Neilsen, the Motherwell goalkeeper.
As the Rovers bench flooded on to the pitch, not a soul in the stadium could begrudge them their moment. In a match moved to Hamilton after fire damage to their Cliftonhill home, Rovers’ well-marshalled defence had restricted Motherwell to just a solitary attempt on target. More remarkable still was the superior quality of James Ward’s players in the final third.
Having already knocked out Spartans and Deveronvale, Rovers are now into the fifth round for the first time since 1999. Asked, inevitably, who he fancied in tomorrow’s draw, Ward joked: “The chairman is already mapping our way to Europe. I have had to cancel my honeymoon.
“We had a gameplan today, and every one of them did what we asked them to. Their desire and endeavour got them what they deserved, and that was a victory.”
Make no mistake, this was a momentous occasion for Rovers. Perennial occupants of the lower divisions, even in Scottish football’s early days, the Coatbridge club rarely encounter days like these. It even ranks alongside their finest hour, a Scottish Cup semi-final win against Rangers in 1920. They lost that year’s final to Kilmarnock.
All of which came as an utter humiliation to the furious Motherwell support, which comprised almost all of the 2,950 crowd. They booed their team off the pitch. Stuart McCall, their manager, said that he and his team had prepared properly, and that they could not be accused of complacency. His team had dominated possession, but their almost total failure to do anything with it was mystifying.
To his credit, McCall took full responsibility, describing himself as “numb” and embarrassed to go home to his family. He apologised to the fans as he headed up the tunnel. “What can you say to them? They are right to have a go. It is probably one of the worst results we have had. I have been very fortunate in my football life. In 34 years, I cannot recall being on the end of an upset anything like that.”
Having sacrificed home advantage, it was expected to be a long afternoon for Rovers, but they were so organised and resilient at the back that they permitted their opponents only the briefest glimpses of goal.
Instead, it was Rovers who threatened, albeit on the counter attack. Liam Cusack’s snap shot, tipped over by Neilsen, was their best effort in the first half. When Cusack later dummied a low cross by Phillips, there was a chance for Chris Dallas, but the striker couldn’t keep his shot down.
At the start of the second half, McCall replaced McHugh with John Sutton. While the change at least gave Motherwell a target to hit with the longer ball, they continued to make nothing of their possession. Sutton dipped a volley over the bar and a frustrated James McFadden swiped at one from an unlikely distance as their supporters grew increasingly disgruntled.
Neither was it a pleasant experience for McCall, who made a double substitution with 20 minutes left. That was supposed to lift Motherwell, but again, it was Rovers who almost scored on the break. Mark McGuigan, who had netted in each of the two previous rounds, left an opponent on the seat of his pants before drilling a shot just past the upright.
Motherwell’s best hope was that Rovers would tire in the closing stages, which says a lot about their struggle. There was just a sign that their opponents would oblige when, with 12 minutes left, Sutton rose to meet Paul Lawson’s corner, but Neil Parry made an instinctive block. It was a fine save, but Rovers’ best was yet to come.