Anthony Brown: Fantasy football is now taken as read at Fir Park
The way things are going right now, Motherwell fans would be perfectly entitled to wake up of a morning and ask: “Why is our team so good these days?”
As more illustrious clubs like Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen give the impression of running head-long into a gale in the SPL’s bottom six, the buoyant Lanarkshire side swan serenely towards Europe for the fifth time in six seasons amid what is fast emerging as Scottish football’s finest feelgood story of the current century.
They have finished in the top six in five of the last six seasons – more than any other non-Old Firm club – and are now all but assured of second place in the SPL, meaning they will have finished best of the rest outwith the Old Firm three times in the past six seasons.
To put that in context, Hearts have been best of the rest twice in that period; Dundee United once. In the last six seasons, Hibs and Aberdeen have never finished higher than fourth, while, in that time, Well have finished beneath Hearts just twice and only once below Hibs and Aberdeen respectively.
Bearing in mind how much the landscape in football can change over the course of a year – never mind six – they are evidently no flash in the pan. For any kid who just started following football around 2007 – perhaps those aged 10-13 just now – Motherwell have to be viewed as the top club in Scotland outside the Old Firm.
Aside from John Hughes’ Hibs in 2009 and Jim Jefferies’ Hearts the following season, the upwardly-mobile Fir Park side are the only team who have been able to give the Old Firm any cause to look over their shoulder since Mark McGhee first kicked off this remarkable adventure six years ago. If we’re looking for logic behind their unlikely status as the country’s most consistent non-Old Firm club, there isn’t much beyond the fact that, since their lurch into administration 11 years ago, the club have made a concerted effort to ensure they are as well-run as possible on and off the field.
They are reliant on no particular individual and, although they have kicked on to new heights under Stuart McCall and the current crop of players over the past two seasons, the fact they were previously perennial top-six finishers under the likes of McGhee and Craig Brown before both were head-hunted by Aberdeen suggests the club have in place a structure which will ensure they are able to cope fine when McCall eventually leaves for more illustrious pastures.
Even Jim Gannon, the one boss who hasn’t worked out in the past six years, wasn’t exactly a flop in his six months in charge. He won manager of the month just two months before departing with the club safely perched in the top six in December 2009. It was effectively a clash of personalities between club and manager that did for the controversial Englishman, who, among others, fell out with senior players like Keith Lasley and Stephen Craigan. In typical modern-day-Motherwell fashion, the parting of ways was carried out swiftly enough to allow Brown to step in from the cold and get things back on track. McCall has since merely continued the club’s seemingly-effortless progression.
Like managerial changes, the annual departure of key players has done little to disrupt their flow. At the start of each season, observers question how the Fir Park side will cope with the loss of their main men from the previous year, and each time they just unearth some new ones. It is hard to imagine any other non-Old Firm club being able to cope as well when losing, in such a concentrated period of time, so many influential players like David Clarkson, Ross McCormack, Jamie Murphy, Nick Blackman, Chris Porter, John Sutton, Lukas Jutkiewicz, Jim O’Brien, Steve Jennings, Giles Coke, Stephen Hughes, Simon Lappin, Mark Reynolds, Tim Clancy, Paul Quinn and John Ruddy. None of them are world beaters, but all were well-sourced on relative peanuts and highly effective in a claret and amber shirt.
This summer, they’ll do well to hang on to the likes of Henrik Ojamaa, Nicky Law – my choice for SPL player of the year – James McFadden, Michael Higdon, Chris Humphrey, Shaun Hutchinson, Darren Randolph and Tom Hateley. Yet even if they lose the lot of them, only a fool would bet against them repeating this season’s exploits next term.
In an era when there has been precious little else to get excited about in Scottish football, Motherwell’s golden period, mercifully, shows no sign of abating.