Third-place finishers the prior term, they were strong contenders for relegation when Stephen Robinson decided to quit before the turn of the year.
Graham Alexander was hired as his replacement with the remit of keeping Motherwell in the league, which is exactly what he did. There were a couple of embarrassments – the 4-1 home defeat to Hamilton Accies was pitiful – and it wasn’t always pretty, but it was a case of job done.
Eyes then turned to this summer and what Alexander’s plan for turning Motherwell back into a potential European contender. We’re only two league games into the new campaign and though they’ve played reasonably well in both, it doesn’t look likely this team is going to be impacting things at the right end of the table.
That’s because their Premier Sports Cup campaign was one big frustration, which ended with the players getting booed off the park as they lost 1-0 to Dundee at Den’s Park on Saturday.
It’s often easy to dismiss League Cup exits. The tournament largely takes place when the season is still in its infancy and it doesn’t have the prestige of the Scottish Cup. But fans in Scotland know it presents one of only two realistic opportunities to win silverware and have a day out at Hampden Park they’ll forever remember. And, to supporters, Motherwell looked like they treated this year’s competition like a training exercise.
The group stage, though ultimately successful, was a surprising struggle. They toiled against Queen’s Park in the opener, had to come from 2-0 down to defeat Queen of the South in Lanarkshire and lost 2-0 to Airdrieonians in the first contest between the old rivals in 14 years. The only match won with a degree of comfort was a 2-0 home triumph against Annan Athletic.
That would have been forgiven if Saturday hadn’t followed the pattern. Since the introduction of the League Cup group stages, clubs have often used those games as part of pre-season, but by the time of the last 16 the should be a squad fit and firing, and that’s not what the travelling support witnessed.
The backline had Liam Grimshaw making his first appearance in months and new signing Juhani Ojala in for his debut. In midfield Liam Donnelly looked very much like a man still getting up to speed after missing most of last season, while the front three – Connor Shields, Steven Lawless and Kaiyne Woolery – consisted of three players who are yet to convince, as popular fan-favourite and reigning club Player of the Year Tony Watt sat on the bench.
All in all, there were only three players – Liam Kelly, Jake Carroll and Barry Maguire – from the XI who didn’t have major question marks around them, whether it be due to fitness, ability or unfamiliarity. The departures of Devante Cole, Allan Campbell and, even if he dropped out at times last term, Declan Gallagher left huge holes to fill. It’s not clear yet whether any of them have been sufficiently replaced.
This might become a mere blip as they new boys find their footing, but the whole Premier Sports Cup experience feels like blown opportunity to get some momentum going into the new campaign.