There is not much mettle in this Motherwell team now. They find themselves in tenth place in the cinch Premiership, above Dundee United only on goal difference and three points ahead of bottom-of-the-table Ross County. They have the worst home record in the league, five points taken from a possible 27, and have only won two leagues matches out of the last 15. Perhaps it’s a good omen that they take on the Staggies in a proverbial six-pointer on Saturday because one of their only victories was a resounding 5-0 success against them back in early October.
Make no mistake about it, Motherwell are dicing with relegation. Their manager Steven Hammell basically admitted as much when speaking to the press in the wake of losing to Hibs. “We're involved in a fight with the teams round about us now,” he said, looking ashen-faced and troubled. He knows that his club are in danger of suffering demotion for the first time since 1984.
Hammell is about as Motherwell through and through as you can get. An academy graduate, with 583 games in claret and amber, he is Motherwell’s post-war record appearance holder. He looked after the youth team and was handed the top job following the sacking of Graham Alexander at the start of the season. The problems at Fir Park had started before he took the reins, but it is clear that they are not going away.
You can go through the whole team and identify failings. Liam Kelly, a Scotland squad goalkeeper, has not been as good as in recent seasons. The defence is coughing up too many soft goals – “it's not doing the basics well, in terms of defending a cross, you don't need to be an expert to see that the goals we gave away are just basic, fundamental mistakes,” Hammell said of Hibs’ three strikes. Rickie Lamie and Sondre Solholm impressed last term but have gone off the boil, and reinforcements such as Jake Carroll, Nathan McGinley and Bevis Mugabi are injured. In midfield, Callum Slattery, Sean Goss and Dean Cornelius are overpowered too easily by opponents and in attack, if Kevin van Veen is not firing, then Motherwell can find goals hard to come by. Lewis Moult has returned to Burton Albion after injury wrecked his big homecoming, Connor Shields has been a shadow of the forward who shone at Queen of the South and the talented Blair Spittal struggles for consistency. A shining light has come in the form of Leeds loanee Stuart McKinstry, but his creativity and attacking gains are negated when so many goals are being conceded. Motherwell are one of the worst teams for defending from the front. Their back four needs better protection.
The alarm bells rang last month, when 2-0 up against fellow strugglers Kilmarnock and with a man advantage, Motherwell ended up collapsing and drawing 2-2. It emphasised the lack of resolve and low morale in this team. Fir Park used to be a difficult place to go for many, but this season Hibs, Killie, Celtic, Aberdeen, Rangers, Hearts, Dundee United and St Johnstone have all left with at least a point in their swag-bag. Only Livingston have been defeated.
Finishing fifth last season appeared, on paper, a fine achievement for Alexander and his squad. They qualified for Europe and crowned the moment with a 2-1 win over Hearts in May. That night, the players partied on the pitch and there was a feel-good factor at Fir Park that has quickly evaporated. Crashing out of Europe at the first hurdle to Irish minnows Sligo Rovers – they also took Motherwell’s scalp at ML1 – emphasised, however, what many believed, that Motherwell had benefitted from one of the poorest leagues for some time, where beneath Hearts, mediocrity ran through all the teams. That is not to dismiss what they achieved in 2021/22 but there has been no progression from that point, just regression.
This leaves one of the Premiership’s most established clubs in peril. Motherwell have survived administration in their recent past, avoided the drop in 2003 when finishing bottom only to saved by Falkirk’s lack of suitability for the top flight, while they overcame Rangers in the relegation play-offs in 2015. Usually they find a way to escape trouble. But talking to some of their supporters on Sunday, there is understandable concern that this could be the year they finally crash. Hammell is a very inexperienced manager and will require support and patience if he is to succeed. He is in desperate need of reinforcements, yet there is not a lot of money to spend. Motherwell live within their means and wheel and deal, with so much of their recent success down to the excellent mining of hidden gems in England’s lower leagues.
Roll this all together and it makes the visit of Ross County on Saturday absolutely huge. Motherwell were excellent when steamrollering the Staggies in the Highlands but with such a wretched recent home run and a jittery crowd, it would take a brave man to back them. Of course, a victory would give these embattled players some confidence and ease the burden on Hammell, but a defeat would put them at best joint-bottom of the league and questions would then be asked of the manager, given his callowness as a No 1. Chief executive Alan Burrows and the rest of the board would have some difficult conversations on their plate.
They will hope it doesn’t come to that. This is a resolute club steeped in tradition and at the heart of its community. If league positions were awarded for the incredible work it does with its people, Motherwell would have nothing to worry about at all. But as the jeers from their fans testify, matters on the field are becoming critical, with their established seat at Scotland’s top table looking a little wobbly.