IN THE rush to present Motherwell as patsies in their Premiership play-off final against Rangers, too little attention was paid to the past. Watching Stephen Pearson hare forward 40 yards with opponents bouncing off him to provide the opening for his team’s third goal, many memories were stirred. As they were in his snapping into tackles, and expertly choking off space for the Ibrox side to operate in.
Pearson produced the best performance of his second spell at Motherwell in the Fir Park side’s 3-1 victory; a win that makes them strong favourites to retain their top-flight status in today’s home second leg of the final. The 32-year-old’s efforts recalled him in his even more willowy youth. In that trip down yesteryear, his teenage talents which excited a nation in tandem with those of Motherwell team-mate James McFadden merely provide the starting point.
Everyone’s written us off from the word go, haven’t they?
For his contribution also recalled the midfielder holding his own against the Catalan sorcerers as Celtic ousted Barcelona from the UEFA Cup. Scoring to make it 3-0 against Benfica as Gordon Strachan’s side assembled the platform to reach the Champions League last 16. His Wembley clincher deemed the £60 million strike courtesy of it earning Derby County a play-off final victory that propelled them to the English Premier League. And the whirling dervish display as Scotland somehow sucker-punched the French on a famous night in Paris.
Regular Motherwell watchers maintain it was the arrival of Pearson in January, following a spell in Indian football, that prevented the club going the way of St Mirren. Among the ex-Celtic coterie at the club, Stephen McManus has the more impressive CV, and Scott McDonald has a superior gift for headline-making. Pearson, though, appears of greater influence.
It was no coincidence that his departure from the field with a tight hamstring after 82 minutes on Thursday night was followed seconds later by Rangers’ lifeline counter. As he stood behind the goal and watched Darren McGregor head in a corner, his frustration was palpable. “I had been picking him up,” Pearson said. “Sometimes, when you make a change at a set-piece, it’s difficult. We’re disappointed with it, but delighted with the performance overall. We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. But there’s still a long way to go and a lot of football to be played.”
Pearson was too polite to adjudge the dismantling of Rangers – which claimed the club a first win at Ibrox since 1997 – as a thumbing of the nose to the entire Scottish football populace that gave Ian Baraclough’s men no prospect of such a result. Yet equally he did admit that those within the Fir Park ranks have been fired up by the failure of any pundit to suggest that there might even be a possibility the Premiership’s 11th-placed side could be more than a match for the team that finished third in the Championship.
‘Everyone’s written us off from the word go, haven’t they?” he said. “Whoever won the Rangers-Hibs game was going to be automatically promoted. That seemed to be the general consensus. That’s driving us on. If we’re rated as underdogs then great, we’re happy to take that on and let Rangers have the pressure. The manager didn’t have to talk to us about that. The players read papers and when you are written off it motivates you and gets you going. We showed we’re a good side, with threats all over the pitch. We defended well and the keeper [George Long] was excellent when he needed to be with a lot of balls coming into the box. We were under pressure then, but dealt with it brilliantly.”
Now, Motherwell must deal with expectation. Their recent form – five wins, two draws and three defeats from their past ten games – isn’t bad. Indeed, it is no worse than that of Rangers, for all the blether about play-off momentum. However, not for nothing did Motherwell find themselves condemned to this survival shoot-out. In these past five months, the Lanarkshire club have rarely produced good showings back-to-back.
“That’s obviously the challenge,” Pearson said. “It’s our home game now, with our fans’ backing. We have to approach the game in the same manner, with confidence and discipline and see where that takes us. When you have a two-goal lead you tend to sit back but that’s not going to be the case for us because we know how vulnerable a scoreline that can be. We approach the game as if it’s 0-0 and we go again.”
Baraclough has earned few commendations for his coaching practices since taking charge of the club in December. His accordion-style formation at Ibrox, with sharp runners dotted right across the midfield in a 4-5-1 affording the flexibility to compress and expand as required, has forced his critics to change their tune.
“The manager’s game-plan worked well,” Pearson said. “We worked hard this week on our shape, and on a lot of defensive work without the ball, then obviously on breaking forward with pace. We’ve got that in the wide areas and the two lads [Lionel Ainsworth and Marvin Johnson] – along with big Lee [Erwin] – were great.
“The game-plan was never to come and sit behind the ball, to be picked off and dictated to. We’ve got threats of our own. You have to be wary of what Rangers possess because they’re a good side, but I thought the tactics were spot on. The lads carried it out perfectly. We have to do the same things, approach the second game in the same manner and play with the same discipline and determination. But it is only half-time, there’s a lot of football to be played and I’m sure Stuart McCall will be saying the same thing to his players.”