The Betfred Cup semi-final against Rangers was a snapshot of the new Motherwell, showing the transformation which has taken place under the management of Stephen Robinson. There was spirit, battle, physicality, some of which overstepped the mark, but ultimately effective direct football littered with quality.
On the side of the pitch Robinson kicked every ball, embodying his team. Or maybe the team embodied their manager.
There have been so many stories, so many narratives this season. From Celtic’s quest for a second season unbeaten and double treble to Steve Clarke masterminding a Kilmarnock revival. There was the will-he-won’t-he Derek McInnes/Rangers saga and the fall of Partick Thistle. There was also the return of Hibs, and the tumult at Tynecastle.
But arguably the best story has been at Fir Park. Not only what they have achieved but how they have achieved it. Similarities of their revolution can be drawn to their opponents in Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final, Aberdeen.
Derek McInnes took over at Pittodrie towards the end of the 2012/2013 season with Aberdeen in the bottom six. The team finished eighth in a bottom half which included both Hearts and Hibs. By the next season they were up to third, missing out on second to Motherwell in bizarre circumstances; the Steelmen’s Craig Reid scoring one of the all-time scrappy goals in the closing seconds of the final game following an unorthodox suplex by John Sutton on Jamie Langfield which was missed by the officials.
What McInnes did was inject a bit of pride in Aberdeen Football Club. He had issued a rallying call when he took over, wanting the city to fall in love with their team once more, and it is a target he has achieved. The 12/13 campaign saw an average attendance of 9,615. It jumped to 12,918 the following season and currently sits at 15,633.
McInnes and assistant Tony Docherty did so by putting out a winning team, one the fans could respect which had pace and goals. They let go of nine players, bringing in seven. After so many years of lifeless, and at times boring, football the club were enlivened. Aberdeen have continued to build on those initial foundations laid by McInnes and his team, the club’s board putting their trust in their manager.
Therefore it is unsurprising McInnes has been linked to and wanted by a number of clubs. Clubs who are traditionally bigger, better with a stronger financial base.
It won’t be long before searching chairman will be casting a glance towards ML1 also. One of which could easily be Aberdeen if McInnes is tempted away in the summer. Looking around Scotland, Robinson would be a natural successor to McInnes.
Their personalities are similar: bullish, passionate but studious. McInnes is more of a tinkerer than Robinson, always looking to get a tactical advantage even when it is unnecessary, while the Well boss is more tuned to seeing his team win their individual battles and ultimately the collective one. However the ethos of each team is not too dissimilar; pace in wide areas, creativity centrally, aggressive and direct.
The turnaround carried out by Robinson to shape Motherwell into such an outfit should see him in the reckoning for manager of the year.
The Northern Irishman took over as interim boss in February last year with Motherwell sitting 11th, two points above bottom-placed Inverness CT. In 12 games he did enough to steer Well to safety and ninth in the standings but still only four points ahead of relegated Inverness.
By that point he had been confirmed as the permanent manager, a move which was in the main underwhelming for fans of the club, Robinson having been assistant to former manager Mark McGhee before the Scotsman’s sacking.
Recognised as a fine coach, Robinson could finally put his own stamp on the team in terms of management and identity. He wanted to create a new Motherwell, something which engaged with the club’s support. Experienced names, club legends were removed from the footballing squad. Keith Lasley, Stephen McManus and James McFadden were no longer going to be seen in the claret and amber. Steven Hammell would follow suit during the current campaign.
Yet, importantly, three of the four still remain in some capacity in the coaching staff, offering continuity and as well as a chord between the club’s past and future.
But for Robinson it was about the here and now. Eighteen players have been signed - if you include the resigning of goalkeeper Russell Griffiths - throughout the season with an average age of 24.9 for a cost of £10,000. From being the third-oldest team last season, the Steelmen are now the youngest. He wanted to create a more vibrant, youthful team with pace and mobility.
“We’ve created a reputation for ourselves,” Robinson said. “We’re physical and we play with a high tempo and lots of energy but we do it well within the rules.
“For anyone watching us, that makes for quite an exciting game because we don’t sit back – we go head-to-head with opponents and try to outrun them, outfight them and then outplay them. In that order.”
Motherwell have had their detractors. They’re bullies some say, hammer-throwers, they should play at BT Murrayfield. Such has been the fervour around their apparent over-the-top style of play you could be led to believe they are set to appear at The Hague for war crimes.
The Steelmen play on the edge. No team has committed more fouls in the Scottish Premiership this season. And sometimes they go over the edge. But, in a way, it makes them so enjoyable to watch. Their games are rarely sterile. They are a team who inject feeling. There is the sense that when the players leave the pitch Fir Park is just scattered with their soul, the team having given everything. It’s that identity Robinson has forged which has created a bond between team-mates, and the players and the fan base. Attendance has risen from 4,486 to 5,687.
They make life difficult for teams, in and out of possession. They snarl, hunt and chase without the ball. With it they get it forward and into the box. Only Rangers have crossed the ball more. Only Aberdeen have played more long passes. Only Aberdeen and Celtic have put the ball in the final third more than the Steelmen.
Robinson said: “I’m aware that it needs to be refined and we’ll need to add to that if we’re to keep progressing but we also have to be careful we don’t change what’s made us relatively successful.”
In Curtis Main they have found the man to replace the goals of Louis Moult. But he more than the departed striker epitomises what Motherwell are all about. At the back Cedric Kipre is a cult hero who could become a genuine club hero.
The team has both talent and personality. The latter quality helped by a forward-thinking and innovative but sensible social media output from the club.
If the Scottish national team are looking for an identity they should have a look at what is happening under Stephen Robinson at Fir Park. If Aberdeen fans are thinking about the future beyond Derek McInnes they should look in the opposition dug-out on Saturday at Hampden Park.