Reflecting on the Play-Offs

by Ken Gibb

I have just been through my first experience of the SPFL play-offs. I hope it will be the last for a while – I don’t think my nerves could stand it. I am a Motherwell supporter, in case you didn’t know. More than 20 years of season tickets: a lot of games and a fair share of triumph and disaster; pain and delight.

It had been a pretty awful season. Partly it was because, if I am honest, that we exceeded all reasonable expectations in 2013-14 and massively over-performed to come second in the league (chiefly I think because of a good winning run in the middle of the season and unaccountable stuttering by other teams later on). This season was a mirror-image: a really bad losing run in the middle of the season and other clubs around us, notably Ross County, performing heroics when it mattered. The fact is on most days any result is possible between almost all premier league sides and it all too easy for things to go wrong and subsequently for problems to compound. It had to happen to Motherwell eventually.

Two further issues compounded our difficulties – a lot of injuries to a small squad (something we have managed to escape in recent seasons) and considerable off-field change. After Stuart McCall’s departure of a club in late Autumn when we struggling on the pitch, we were also groping towards new ownership of the club. Since then and in rapid succession:
• Ian Baraclough took over as manager
• Alongside an entirely new coaching and scouting team, the club was taken over by a philanthropic buyer (Les Hutchison) pledged to run things until the community in the form of the Well Society could take over majority ownership.
• The new manager brought in a virtual team of new players in the January window including the return of Steven Pearson and Scott McDonald. After a good start we went on a long losing streak as the team got to know each other.

There were some green shoots: on three of four occasions in the last third of the season we played really well; I would argue better than we did most of the previous season. We had two fast wide men, a much more purposeful midfield and some threat in attack. But it was never quite enough to achieve escape velocity and we tumbled into the play-offs in eleventh position. The inevitable re-acquaintance with McCall at Rangers loomed large in everyone’s minds.

The last two weeks of the domestic season leading up to the play-off final were surreal. First of all we had a meaningless game against Partick Thistle and the manager took no risks with injuries by playing a vastly different team to what had become the norm. Second, we had to stand back and wait while the teams that finished 3rd and 4th in the Championship played off (the quarter final between Rangers and Queen of the South), and then the semi-final between Rangers and Hibs (who had finished 2nd). This meant that by the time we did meet Rangers, they were playing their fifth of six play-off games in a matter of a couple of weeks or thereabouts.

The received wisdom is that the play-offs favour the team seeking promotion but this year that has not been the case with several of the teams from the higher division winning, despite, obviously, having poor seasons. Alan Burrows, who is Motherwell’s general manager, said after the final that Scotland should move to the English model and have two leg semi finals and a one off final at a neutral venue. That does seem fairer. However, this may all be undercut by rumours of further league reconstruction.

And what about the final with Rangers? I watched the first leg on TV and went to the second leg at Fir Park. In a strange way I was pleased that the game at Ibrox, although strongly to our advantage, was not definitive. Somehow defending a two goal lead would not make us over-complacent (and there was in truth no danger of that when you felt the palpable tension at the second leg). Nonetheless the period between the two matches was incredibly tense and I took to doing all manner of work-related things to take my mind off the game.

The second thing that I will retain was the Fir Park crowd. Decades of going to games against the old firm has made me used to a large away support, often I think exceeding the home support. Sunday was different because, as is well known there was a dispute between the clubs about away supporters and Motherwell had most of the ground to themselves. And, undoubtedly because of the importance of the game and the first leg, we had a noisy committed full house in the rest of the stadium. Our average gates have been on a downward trend for a while (despite the success of recent years) so it was great to have such an atmosphere.

The game was never going to be a high quality affair and it was nervy, competitive and settled by two deflected goals and a last minute penalty. The joy of staying up was well worth all of that tension but you’ll understand, if I hope we are not in such a situation next season. I will not add to the many things said about the after match fighting between players and the partial pitch invasion that ensued (and always does on the last day of the season).

The manager is now rebuilding, has already signed a player and is in talks with others. Several of the existing squad are now gone too. He has been vindicated in his approach – and I do hope we persist with the fast counterattacking down both flanks. If we can sort out our defence we might well be on to something. For once we will avoid the usual early exit from European football and thus have a normal pre-season. The footballing future is not so bleak after all.