The fact that Stephen Robinson runs back from Motherwell’s Dalziel Park training every day tells him that his side do not face an impossible task when ranged against a double-treble chasing Celtic in tomorrow’s Scottish Cup final. And tells him he has the mental fortitude to guide his men to what would be one of the all-time upsets in the showpiece.
The Lanarkshire club’s manager was 15 when a back injury had surgeons informing him that, despite then being signed for Tottenham Hotspur, he would never fulfil his ambition of becoming a professional footballer.
“I managed to get nearly 500 games in the end. I’m not sure how many good ones, but I got 500 anyway,” said the Lisburn-born 43-year-old who had playing spells with Bournemouth, Preston North End and Luton Town. “It’s nice to prove people wrong, it makes it sweeter. Back then, the way I looked at it was ‘I know better and I’ll prove them wrong’. Three operations and about 15 epidurals and I’m still here. I think a lot of people from Northern Ireland have that attitude to try to succeed.”
Robinson has succeeded with knobs on in his first full season in charge of Motherwell. Some might say with tackety boots on, with his team’s belligerent approach seeing them presented as some sort of footballing bovver boys.
“It is sometimes laziness with people’s opinions,” he said, this perception making it more possible to see the final as a beauty and the beast match-up.
“A lot of the critics haven’t seen us play or if they have it has only been once or twice. We play a lot better than people give us credit for but it doesn’t bother me.
“If people are talking about our physicality and nature then it is good because people are now thinking about us when maybe they weren’t before.
“As a manager you have to get the best out of your squad. I have a very limited budget. If I have players who can receive the ball from the goalkeeper and play all the way through I will do that. I don’t have that but I have honest boys with a real physicality, energy and tempo. Boys like Chris Cadden, Craig Tanner, who isn’t fit, and Elliott Frear and the two boys up front [in Curtis Main and Ryan Bowman] – they are all talented, talented boys. They’ll show that.
“What I’ll say is that, playing football the way Celtic do, they come through all the thirds. They are fantastic on the eye at times. They suck people in and they break the press and break through you. But we are organised, we know what our strengths are.
“We get the ball into our strikers early because we are very good when we do that.
“We get the ball down the sides because we are very good when we do that. As a manager I think it would be unwise of me to ask the players to do something that is not in their game. It’s about playing our way, playing our style.
“The reality is that if we go toe to toe with Celtic and try to outplay them, Celtic will win. It’s as simple as that. So we have to find an energy about us and a way to beat them and a way to beat the top sides.
“I said on numerous occasions the financial disparity between the two clubs and a lot of the clubs in the division is huge.
“We know if we go toe to toe with them and let them have the ball they will win. We have to make it as competitive as we can. We have to play in their faces and have to play at a tempo which hopefully affects their style.”
Motherwell have been able to knock Celtic off their stride more than any other team this season, with the possible exception of Kilmarnock. The knocks they have taken in return have been of the officiating variety.
Cedric Kipre was red-carded controversially when they were threatening an equaliser in the League Cup final. Two draws between the teams at Fir Park were overshadowed by a last-minute penalty in the 1-1 game in November, and Kipre being wrongly dismissed early into a 0-0 draw between the pair in March.
“You could say that but you make your own luck,” Robinson said on being asked if his team were “due something”. “You can only affect the things you can influence. What I can influence is being prepared to the max and the players’ mindsets. You hope you get the right decisions but that is what makes football. I didn’t make anything of the decisions. We got on with it.”