TOM Hateley has sampled Champions League nights before. As a youngster he used to watch his dad, Mark, take on the Continent’s best at Ibrox. But before long, the Motherwell full-back could be getting a taste of the big-time himself.
If Rangers’ administration problems prohibit them from securing a licence to enter European competition, the side finishing third in the SPL would take their place in next season’s Champions League qualifiers. At the moment that is Motherwell, but the Fir Park team could yet render that charitable scenario an insignificance by finishing ahead of the under-seige Old Firm side.
An emphatic victory over nearest chasers Hearts on Saturday was a strong signal of intent. Two goals within three first-half minutes and a third, despite being down to 10 men in the second half, set them apart from their guests. Not only did it see Stuart McCall’s men stretch their advantage over the Tynecastle side to nine points, but it moved them just six points behind Rangers and they still have a game in hand. Three points against Hibs in their rearranged fixture on Wednesday and it could all get very interesting.
“Obviously everybody would love to play in the Champions League, but we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” said Hateley. “It’s a boring cliche, but we’ll take each game at a time and come the end of the season we’ll see where we are. If it’s getting close near the end, it would be a great feat for everyone, but it is not something we are particularly looking at right now. We were talking about how the Hearts result was great for us but now we go on to Wednesday and it is massive for us to make the gap between ourselves and fourth spot a little bit bigger, then push on from there.
“You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself and start chasing things like that. It’s a hard time for everyone at Rangers and nobody likes to see a team going through what they are going through. But all we can do is concentrate on ourselves, and if we keep winning at home and getting results away, we’ll see where we end up. I’m sure there will be a lot of ups and downs between now and the end of the season.”
But this Motherwell team are not kid-on pretenders. The events of Saturday proved that. While Rangers had their own pressure to deal with, at Fir Park it was a key head-to-head. Aware that Hearts were keen to close the gap, instead of allowing them to do just that, Motherwell produced a performance as diligent and direct as it was fluent and focused to distance themselves.
“We knew how big a game it was going to be,” said the full-back. “It was always going to be massive and we did well. We covered each other all over the park and when we went down to 10 men, I don’t think anybody was particularly worried, to be honest. We had the bit between our teeth and knew what we had to do to get the result.”
It means that, while Motherwell manager McCall refuses to publicly admit to a switch in ambitions for the remainder of the season, they can now turn their attentions to catching those above them instead of trying to simply fend off those below.
“It’s better to be looking up and chasing the teams above you than looking down,” said Hateley. “It’s a good position to be in at the moment and we are enjoying it. Maybe a couple of months ago results weren’t going our way, but now we are creating chances and taking them again. Thankfully we are getting the results that I think we deserve.
“I think we are a young group of lads who have a lot of match-winners out there. You look at Henrik [Ojamaa] in the second-half – it’s impossible to get the ball off him sometimes.
“We’ve got players like him and Nicky Law, who will score you goals, and it is hard for people to play against us and we are keeping lots of clean sheets. We have a belief in our ability and it is great to be a part of it.”
Ojamaa has been a massive inspiration since he arrived at the club and at times he was unplayable. But he wasn’t the only player to shine in Motherwell colours. Hearts manager Paulo Sergio blamed the cluttered fixture list for a lack of energy in his own team’s performance, while also claiming it would be unfair to expect his side to finish third given the club’s off-field demons and the fact that they lost first team regulars in January. But all over the park Motherwell outplayed them.
The first goal came in the 38th minute when Hateley’s corner wasn’t cleared and Keith Lasley fired a pacy ball into the six-yard box. Andy Webster couldn’t get out the way and deflected it into his own net. Three minutes later Lasley chipped a delightful pass for Jamie Murphy, whose looping header tucked just under Jamie MacDonald’s bar.
In the second-half things could have unravelled for the home team when Lasley picked up his second yellow card for his second rash challenge on Ian Black, but Hearts couldn’t make the most of their extra man advantage as Motherwell kept up the pressure, eventually adding a third in the 65th minute. Not for the first time Ojamaa’s foray forward left a few Hearts players in his wake and when he picked out Jamie Murphy, he played in Nicky Law. The midfielder had earlier been denied by the post, but this time his angled drive from the right found the net.
It was no more than Motherwell deserved as Hearts’ poor form away from home continued.