John Philliben on when Motherwell nearly downed Borussia Dortmund and other European adventures: "We felt we could beat anybody"

As a driving instructor on the hottest day of the year, Motherwell great John Philliben is relieved to take a break from sitting in a car to relive some adventures in claret and amber.

Motherwell coach John Philliben shows his frustration on the touchline against Hearts during his short spell as caretaker manager in 2001
Motherwell coach John Philliben shows his frustration on the touchline against Hearts during his short spell as caretaker manager in 2001

He is a busy man as he seeks to deal with the backlog of learners caused by Covid-19. Philliben is expert at reminding those seated next to him to keep their eyes on the road. It’s advice Motherwell should probably heed as well.

Graham Alexander’s side kick- off another European campaign against Sligo Rovers in the first leg of a Europa Conference League second qualifying round tie at Fir Park this evening. They have high hopes - and not only because the away goals rule has been abolished.

Motherwell are bidding to secure a clash with either Sparta Prague or Viking FK in the second edition of this competition.

Motherwell defender John Philliben (right) clears his line against Celtic's Gerry Creaney in a 3-1 defeat in October 1992

At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, history lies within their grasp. The Fir Park side must do something they have never done before to reach the group stage: prevail through three rounds of European competition.

Motherwell have qualified for Europe seven times since 2008-09, when they made their return after a 13-year absence against French side Nancy and suffered defeat in both legs. However, Philliben remembers when it really did feel like a new frontier.

The club’s first golden age existed before European football was underway. Supporters had to wait until 1991 for their first glimpse of competitive European action.

A first round Cup-Winners’ Cup tie versus GKS Katowice was the reward for beating Dundee United in a classic Scottish Cup final the previous May. But in no way could it be considered compensation for Philliben missing out on the memorable afternoon at Hampden. He was excluded by manager Tommy McLean from the final squad of 13 players. Davie Cooper searched out the besuited Philliben before kick-off. “I really feel for you big man, you deserve to be playing,” he told him.

“I don’t think anything could ever make up for missing the cup final, especially with Motherwell winning it and having played in every round up to the final,” says Philliben. “But playing in Europe was a bonus."

It proved a harsh introduction. "We lost 2-0 and then won 3-1 at home - out on away goals,” he recalls.

Things were more decisive when they returned to Europe three seasons later with a 7-1 aggregate victory in a Uefa Cup preliminary round tie against HB Torshavn from the then unfamiliar – in Scottish football terms - Faroes Isles.

The Scotland national side made their first visit there for a Euro '96 qualifier at the end of the season. “The ground had this huge rock face at one end. I remember we were all trying to see who could hit the ball highest up the cliff in the warm-up,” recalls Philliben, now 58.

Spirits were high in the team and why not? Motherwell had finished third the previous season and would go on to finish second behind Rangers in 1994-95. Borussia Dortmund, their next opponents in the first round, were packed full of international players, including Thomas Muller, Matthias Sammer and future Rangers goalkeeper Stefan Klos.

“We left on the Monday and the training session on the night before the game was one of the best. Everything went perfectly: bang, bang, bang,” he says.

“I wish I could get a full copy of the game. I have only seen about seven-or-eight minutes’ worth which are on YouTube. The chances we had in that first half were unbelievable. Unbelievable. It was a great experience – one of the best in my career.”

Sadly, Motherwell paid for the missed opportunities. Muller pounced in the second half for the game’s winner. Nevertheless, Motherwell were still in the tie. “The second leg is not to be missed,” stressed commentator Jock Brown.

Manager Alex McLeish believed his side’s performances was evidence that Scottish teams need not feel cowed by those from a country such as Germany. “If we can just get it into our heids that we must pass the ball,” he told Brown.

Motherwell had certainly given the Germans a fright. “I wouldn’t say we had superstars in the team, although Tommy Coyne and Paul Lambert - who eventually went to Borussia Dortmund of course – were certainly top drawer,” recalls Philliben. “But we had such a good work ethic and good team spirit. We felt as if we could beat anybody.”

It’s well recorded that Lambert initially came to the attention of the German club with an influential first leg performance. He made a surprise move there in the summer of 1996 at the end of his Motherwell contract and was a Champions League winner months later after marking Juventus’ Zinedine Zidane out of the game.

In the second leg against his future employers, Lambert, Philliben and co were simply striving to reach the second round of the Uefa Cup. They had every right to believe this was possible. However, their hopes were torpedoed when Dougie Arnott was sent off just after the half hour mark for a tackle on Swiss international forward Stephane Chapuisat.

Karl-Heinz Reidle scored twice and Motherwell - who also had Rab Shannon sent off later in the game - were eliminated. They returned to the same competition the following year but were knocked out on away goals - again - by part-timers MyPA-47, then managed by Harri Kampman.

That detail is relevant because the Finn took over at Motherwell three years later and signalled the end of Philliben’s Motherwell’s career. After 10 years and 367 appearances, the stalwart more than earned his testimonial match against West Ham United in July 1998.

“I had moved to take over at Stirling Albion the previous season,” he says. “He (Kampman) only played me for half an hour! Then he took me off. It was probably one of my better games as well!”

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