Stevie Kirk: 1991 Cup heroics, going in goals and the breath of life

Tam Cowan could probably have scored it. Christian, the light-entertainment legend, could probably have scored it. So could Tom Devine, Scotland's pre-eminent historian, and the Delgados, indie-pop favourites of DJ John Peel, and any of Motherwell's other famous sons and daughters. (What, that's pretty much all of them? You're not counting Craig Whyte, the man who ruined Rangers? Fair enough'¦).
Pic Lisa Ferguson 17/05/2018

Saturday Interview - Stevie Kirk The Motherwell 1991 Scottish Cup-winning heroPic Lisa Ferguson 17/05/2018

Saturday Interview - Stevie Kirk The Motherwell 1991 Scottish Cup-winning hero
Pic Lisa Ferguson 17/05/2018 Saturday Interview - Stevie Kirk The Motherwell 1991 Scottish Cup-winning hero

But they didn’t score it. The “supersub” who netted the straightforward back-post header which last won the town team the Scottish Cup is sitting opposite me in a hotel lounge, reminiscing over his coffee. Stevie Kirk is the Fifer who became an adopted Motherwellian that glorious day 27 years ago and seconds after the final whistle, blurted on national television: “Ya beezer!” So how often do you think about the goal, Stevie?

“Every day,” he says. “This may sound weird but there’s a ritual I have. I think about my wife and two kids every day and I think about my mum and dad. I think about the four members of that cup-winning squad who’re sadly no longer with us: David Cooper, Phil O’Donnell, Jamie Dolan and Paul McGrillen, all dead before they were 40. I think about the moment when I seriously wondered if I was about to join them. And I think about that goal.”

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Eight years ago while on a family holiday in Florida Kirk thought he was going to die. “I woke up in hospital to find this guy at the bottom of my bed. ‘Who are you?’ I said. ‘The chaplain,’ he said. ‘Everyone gets a blessing whether they’re coming or going.’ So what’s happening to me?’ ‘Oh, you’re going’.” We’ll return to Florida but first Mount Florida, that goal, and maybe Tom, Tam and the rest of the North Lanarkshire notables are right now stretching their necks, craning for an imaginary ball sent over from the right in the fourth minute of extra-time – but who said the crucial strike in the 1991 showpiece against Dundee United was easy-peasy? Not Kirk, that’s for sure.

“I’m just an ordinary guy from an estate in Leven called the Broom,” he says. “Alex Smith, who’s just retired from the game, once told me: ‘Good players react, great players anticipate.’ Now I’m not saying I was a great player. I didn’t have much pace although I think I had a decent first touch and was no’ bad in the air. But that day I’d like to think I anticipated.

“We won a corner and Coop [Cooper], as he always did, swung it into a great area. When one of those deliveries came over I always like to hang around the back post.” Yes, Stevie, but didn’t Chris McCart foul United goalkeeper Alan Main? “Chris sort of jumped into him, as did Jim Griffin. I was at my station, eight yards out. I moved back, away from one of their boys, and then moved again. Now I was four yards from the line, on the diagonal. The ball squirted out of Alan’s hands and the rest is history.”

You can tell, I think, that he’s told this story before. Once or twice or five thousand times. But he never tires of it. “I’m humbled that people still go on about the ’91 final. To be forever in the folklore of Motherwell as the guys who won the cup is fantastic.” Can the Steelmen do it again today? Their old lucky charm will be at Hampden, willing them on.

’91 was dubbed the Family Final: Fir Park manager Tommy McLean versus big brother Jim. By the day of the game, though, both men were in mourning following the death of their father the previous week. And for the Motherwell contingent, there was additional sadness: the Ravenscraig steelworks were doomed. So many townsfolk were dependent on them and there was a fear Hampden would be half-empty.

“That was a massive blow,” recalls Kirk, now 55. “The shockwaves went right through the town. The club felt it because we trained next to the Dalzell plant. If you didn’t have family who were losing their jobs then you knew of someone who was. Before too long, the shops in Brandon Parade were closing down. But the support we had at the final was magnificent.”

The crowd witnessed a classic: United 3, ’Well 4, the best final of the modern era, only challenged by Hibernian’s victory two years ago.

And for the goal-nabbing hero it could have been an oh so different outcome: he might have been down the other end of the park, saving shots.

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“The referee David Syme could hardly have blown for a foul on United’s ’keeper when he didn’t do anything about John Clark clattering ours,” adds Kirk. Ally Maxwell suffered broken ribs and a ruptured spleen in that collision but soldiered on. “He was in agony for the rest of the game. I don’t know how he got through it but he did. When I was warming up, I thought: ‘Am I going to have to go in goals?’ Then later, when the game went to extra-time I was like: ‘Please, no, not today.’ I had to get myself a wee chance to score a goal and thankfully I did.”

Kirk started out a goalkeeper in his youth and with various clubs proved himself more than capable when donning the gloves in emergencies. “I played goalie for my primary and then for Fife Schools. If old photos of me – playing outfield – turn up on Facebook, a mate from those days always writes: ‘What a waste of goalkeeping talent.’ He thinks I could have been a Scotland keeper, which might be pushing it.

“The turning point was playing for Buckhaven Hibs against Kirkcaldy YM. We won 19-0 and I touched the ball twice. I had so little to do that, for a laugh, I sat on the crossbar. When I got home I bragged about the score to my mother and she said: ‘Your father wants a word with you.’ He told me: ‘You disrespected the opposition. Never do that again.’ The next match was the last of the season. I said to our coach: ‘Shorty, give me a game up front.’ Goalkeepers don’t score goals, they don’t get the headlines. I decided I wanted to be the player, the one who gets mentioned on telly. Soon after that I was signed by East Fife.”

Kirk would eventually make his name as an attacking midfielder and the bulk of his 700-odd senior games would come in a position which these days would be termed No 10 and in Fife parlance would involve “lots of drifting and skulking aboot”. He started off at Bayview at full-back, though, and after a year of part-time football there would get a move to Stoke City.

“I was serving an apprenticeship with [boilermakers] Henry Balfour and Mum didn’t want me to give that up. But Dad, who worked for the same firm, told me I should chase the dream. My debut for Stoke was against Manchester City. In the tunnel I stood next to Tommy Hutchison who I was going to be marking. He said: ‘Some racket, eh? Just wait ’til I’m on the ball’.” But then in a reserve game when the call went up, ‘Can anyone play in goals?”, he was forced to answer it.

Kirk kept a clean sheet that day, as he did when, back at East Fife, Gordon Marshall got injured against Queen’s Park at Hampden. Playing for Motherwell at Dens Park, he replaced the stricken Billy Thomson. Against Celtic in the 1986 League Cup semi-final ’Well’s John Gardiner dislocated a shoulder: “That went to penalties. I pleaded with Tommy to put me in goals because John couldn’t dive to his right but he wouldn’t. Not surprisingly all of Celtic’s spot-kicks went down John’s bad side and they won.”

His greatest game in the yellow jersey came against Hearts at Tynecastle when Cammy Duncan retired hurt after just six minutes. “I managed a few good saves and even stopped Wayne Foster’s penalty. We got away with a draw and I remember Roger [Brian] Whittaker shaking his head at the end and Robbo [John Robertson] saying to me: ‘Unbelievable, big fella.’ But at Hampden in ’91, even though if the final had gone to spot-kicks the sight of me in goals might have spooked the United players, I didn’t fancy it. There was just too much riding on the game.”

Kirk must have thought he’d be more use at the top end of the pitch, given that he’d netted in all of the previous rounds, usually after riding to the rescue for late cameos. There’s a funny story about how he came to be mostly used as a substitute that season, a painful one with a happy ending.

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“I had a few injuries, the worst of which was a double hernia. That was a nightmare and it was causing me problems at home because the missus wanted us to start a family. I was turning up for training, going for a sauna, but just standing around when the guys were running through the set-pieces. I went to see Tommy [McLean]. ‘Gaffer,’ I said, ‘I need the operation. We’re trying for a kid and I cannae even do that right now. I’ve been ordered by she who must be obeyed: ‘Get it sorted’.” The surgery happened, and Kirk and his wife Kay’s son would arrive during the following season, but when Motherwell’s cup campaign began with a daunting trip to holders Aberdeen, our man had to be content with a seat on the bench.

“Aberdeen were battering us, it was like the Alamo. I went on just as Coop was preparing to take a free-kick, 35 yards out. I said to Tommy: ‘I’m going to score from this.’ He said: ‘Get yourself to the back post, then.’ As I passed Coop I told him to float it in. Coop said: ‘Don’t you want to hit it?’ ‘What from way out here?’ ‘Aye, come on.’ He rolled it but not far enough for me to strike it with my good foot, the right. I shouted at him, ‘F***’s sake!’, and tried anyway with my left. The ball hit the back of the net with a lovely fade as if I’d really meant it.”

How did Kirk get on with the boss? “Pretty well. I was grateful to Tommy for giving me another chance to step up from the lower division and I think he’d say I was one of his better signings. I was usually the one to rap on his door if the team were unhappy. Chris [McCart] was captain but I think he was scared of Tommy. I got the guys spending money for a pre-season tour of Holland – they weren’t boarding the plane otherwise. My punishment for that, when I had a ticket to see U2 at the SECC, was being sent to Selkirk to play in a testimonial.”

Kirk was 12th man again in the next round of the cup against Falkirk and, with the teams locked at 2-2, repeated the trick by scoring with his very first touch. In the quarter-finals he struck one of the penalties which finally overcame Morton on the Cappielow gluepot. That tie needed a replay, as did the semi against Celtic when Kirk as usual entered the fray late, briefly wondered if he’d missed anything and rounded off the scoring for 4-2 to the ’Well with another stupendous effort struck with his standing leg. “Was it a cross or a shot? Who cares?!”

That goal was set up for him by Phil O’Donnell. Re-watching old footage, with so many team-mates having passed away, is always poignant. “When we see each other now it’s for reunions and, sadly, funerals. We had a great spirit in the camp. We played together and we partied together. Phil, Jamie and Paul came into the team as kids and were great lads. Coop, when he arrived from Rangers, was supposed to be ‘Moody Blue’, only playing when he liked. That wasn’t him at all. He was fantastic for us.”

In 289 appearances in claret and amber Kirk scored 74 goals. Many involved skulking and I’m wondering if the best of them came against Hearts at Tynecastle when he collected the ball from the goalkeeper’s throw and, after a 70-yard gallop, crashed the ball into the roof of the net with his more dependable right foot. “That one was unusual for me but my favourite was probably the third of four I scored against St Mirren for my first-ever hat-trick.”

Tynie was certainly an eventful venue for him. He was fined £250 at Edinburgh Sheriff Court for using “grossly excessive” force to clear the ball into the Gorgie stands, striking a 12-year-old girl. “I was very sorry about that and apologised to the lassie. I just got frustrated when Hearts wouldn’t stop the game for an injury.” By then he was playing for Falkirk, having been sold by new Motherwell manager Alex McLeish. His second game as a Bairn was back at Fir Park. “I scored but didn’t celebrate. But shortly after Motherwell came to Brockville, I scored again and this time I did celebrate. It bugged me that I’d been let go by a club I loved.”

There’s one more element involved in Kirk’s “ritual”, those people and events and the act of remembering them constantly. He’s saved the emergency heart surgery he underwent in 2010 until last because, unlike his four friends, he survived. Never mind the priest’s intervention in that Florida hospital, though, it was dramatic enough.

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“I suffered a series of ‘episodes’. Four heart attacks, basically. I was helicoptered from one hospital to another. When the doctors strapped me to the bed I felt like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. One of them noticed a little breathing routine I used when I played football. ‘That just might have saved your life,’ he said.

“It calmed me right down when hopefully the opposition were getting over-excited, just as the ball was arriving in the box, so maybe it won the cup for Motherwell, too.”