Aidan Smith: Support act Motherwell hog limelight

WE HAD only just welcomed the play-offs into our tiny, battered hearts as real, not contrived, season showstoppers and there was Motherwell’s Stephen McManus telling us that as a concept they were about to peak.

Motherwell fans celebrate beating Rangers in the first-leg of their Scottish Premiership play-off final. Picture: SNS
Motherwell fans celebrate beating Rangers in the first-leg of their Scottish Premiership play-off final. Picture: SNS

“These are probably the biggest play-off games there are ever going to be in Scotland,” the centre-half said before taking the field at a sold-out Ibrox. We know what he meant but, still, it was difficult news to have to digest.

The play-offs are the polar opposite of the league split – they work. Tense, absorbing and exciting, they inspire fans – well, Rangers fans – to Google the best rallying cries and make stand-length banners out of them. In the last round against Hibernian they blew up a quote from Admiral Lord Nelson. Against Queen of the South the words of their own 1st Viscount, Bill Struth, were deemed most appropriate. What was it going to be last night? Something from the collected philosophies of Andy Cameron? Tina Turner? Yogi Bear?

Well, I have to say I was disappointed. Just an outsized bedsheet reading “Blue Order”. Weren’t they a 1980s pop band? Had a big hit with New Monday? That’s certainly what Rangers want come the first day of June. New Monday, new beginnings.

Motherwell fans celebrate beating Rangers in the first-leg of their Scottish Premiership play-off final. Picture: SNS

The beginnings of this one brought a dangerous Lee Wallace cross which Marvin Johnson replicated for the visitors, a shape of things to come. Although Keith Lasley was nutmegged delightfully by Kenny Miller before the striker went close with his dipping right-foot shot, the Motherwell captain was a cool customer in the midfield rammy until the game settled into a pattern.

Banner-wise, “So long, suckers” must have been a contender. The play-offs were peaking with what would be their biggest crowd – 49,200 – because Celtic were highly unlikely to be involved in them in the future and there was no way Rangers would ever again want to open up the Big Hoose to this kind of stress, this lack of certainty about how the proceedings were going to pan out.

Two games running at Ibrox, Rangers had driven the faithful mildly demented by defending what they’d got long before the end. It’s bad enough being a Bear in the final 20 minutes when you want to concentrate all your mental energy on travel anxiety and the trip home – a long-standing Ibrox ritual – without play-off palpitations being added to the mix.

This blockbuster version of the play-off has been viewed by some as Rangers’ melodrama. They’re the stars; the other teams were there simply to get blown up. Fir Park manager Ian Baraclough noted this beforehand. The rest of Scottish football, he said, wanted Rangers in the Premiership.

But Motherwell had a plan in this game and they were executing it very well. Through Johnson and Lionel Ainsworth, just as bold, they broke quickly, often and well. Scott McDonald, lurking with intent, was booed at every turn, which seemed hard on the Helicopter Sunday hero. Further upfield, because McDonald doesn’t always get there these days, Lee Erwin was a lanky, muscular presence, and seemed to become more troublesome with every involvement, culminating in the opening goal. This team had no interest in being mere supporting cast.

Motherwell hadn’t really been any kind of story in the build-up to the final. They hadn’t fallen like a stone to 11th place in the Premiership, like Hibernian last season, and they didn’t have Hibs’ lustre.

To get the result they wanted, according to McManus, Motherwell would have to demonstrate “gonads”. Now there’s a word you’d like to see in a banner; unfortunately the 950 from Lanarkshire hadn’t obliged. No worries, though. Mr Gonads himself scored the second, from a free-kick from man-of-the-first-half Johnson, leading to Rangers being booed off at the interval.

It would get even worse for Stuart McCall’s men. Stephen Pearson, who would have a fine second half, reminded us of what a powerful runner he used to be with a thundering break from the halfway line.

He zipped the ball to Erwin who, in turn, set up Ainsworth for a low finish, and after such a quick and deadly move you wonder how on earth this team had contrived to finish second from bottom of their league.

This was too much for some in the Copland Road Stand who headed into the glowering night to beat the traffic. Their team looked tired, the grinding games catching up with them, and although Darren McGregor’s goal gives them some hope for Sunday, this was Motherwell’s big starring night.