Motherwell left it late to steal second place from Aberdeen. Very, very, very late. Craig Reid bundled in a winner after 93 minutes of insipid football. It turned what was a decent season into a good season. Once again the Steelmen faltered in the cup competitions, leaving their best work for the league where they handed out a number of trouncings, while they were also on the end of a few themselves. Although Dundee United were the team to watch, games involving Motherwell were the ones to watch. They finished by scoring the third most goals (only one behind Dundee United) and conceding 60 – a staggering figure when you consider the team with the most goals conceded were Kilmarnock with only six more.
Stuart McCall had to contend with the departures of Nicky Law, Michael Higdon, Darren Randolph, Chris Humphrey and Henrik Ojamaa. But he constructed a team which could be argued were on par with the 2012-2013 selection. The top six and bottom six quickly took shape in the league and Motherwell made sure they would be in a lofty position by not dropping points against the lesser teams. It took until March 8, a 3-3 draw with Hibernian, for the Steelmen to drop their first points against a team which would finish in the bottom six. With the goals of John Sutton and the creative play of Lionel Ainsworth they were too good for weak defences, allowing them to put themselves in such a strong position going into the top six before three consecutive wins to finish the season handed them second place and a later start in Europe.
So far it has been a disappointing transfer window for Motherwell. They signed Lionel Ainsworth permanently which is an excellent acquisition, the ex-Rotherham United winger one of Well’s key men last season with his pace, directness, goal threat and crossing ability. He has been joined by Dan Twardzik who should fix the problem between the post which blighted the Steelmen for the past 12 months. Neither Lee Hollis nor Gunnar Nielsen made the number one spot their own. In fact they were most secure in that position when Twardzik arrived on a short-term loan deal from Dundee. The other incoming player is Josh Law, brother of former-Well midfielder Nicky. His career could not have got off to a better start than with two goals against Icelandic side Stjarnan in the Europa League qualifiers. But if anything he will be a raw talent having signed from Alfreton Town.
It is the departures which have hurt the most. James McFadden parted ways with the club even though there probably would have been more opportunities for a starting place. Yet it appears that a mutual termination of the relationship is best for both parties… for now. Shaun Hutchison will try his hand down south leaving a gaping hole beside Stephen McManus in an already shakey defence, while Henri Anier opens up the possibility for one of Motherwell’s young strikers to grab their chance but it means even more of the goal scoring burden lands on John Sutton’s strong shoulders . . . and cheekbones. Mmmmmmm…
By no means the most talented or most influential player at the club but a great responsibility will land on the shoulders of Stephen McManus this season. Without the talented Shaun Hutchison beside him the Steelmen’s defence looks less sturdy, and remember this was a unit which showed similarities to a well manufactured sieve.
If the Europa League qualifying matches are a bearing he will likely be partnered in defence by fellow veteran Simon Ramsden. It is not the most imposing of centre back duos but along with Steven Hammell there is plenty of experience. McManus will be required to use all of his to marshal the defence and hope that Motherwell defend well as a team.
If there was to be an award for the best manager in Scotland since 2011 it would have to be bestowed on Stuart McCall for his work with the provincial club. The former Scotland internationalist has delivered four top half finishes, three of which have seen Motherwell best of the rest. The only down side has been the cup competitions where McCall has continued to apologise to the Well support about their poor results, witnessing lesser teams lift silverware in that time.
There is no question that last summer he lost more quality but he was able to shrewdly replace them with players of similar quality. There is an uneasy feeling that this could be McCall’s final pre-season with Motherwell. With money tight at the club he must be getting frustrated that he continually needs to replace important players. But he has shown that he is able to get the most out of many of his charges and if he can do so again to lead the club to another second place finish it will be his best yet. However, it will be a cup he will win, giving him and club something tangible for the last few years’ hard work.
Can Motherwell finish best of the rest for the fourth consecutive season?
Under Stuart McCall Motherwell have possessed a handy knack of confounding expectations. Prior to Motherwell’s excellent recent record the last time a team finished best of the rest in successive seasons was Heart of Midlothian under Craig Levein in 2003 and then again in 2004. It highlights how impressive the achievement has been, especially when you consider some of the players he has lost in each summer. McCall’s powers of rejuvenation have been particularly impressive.
Having lost McFadden, Anier and Hutchison without any incoming signings of note, McCall’s managerial ability will be tested to the max. They still retain an impressive spine but lack the numbers of Aberdeen and to an extent Dundee United. However, with the the league lacking in quality as a whole they are all but certainties for the top six. To finish second for the third season in a row McCall will have to see an improvement in a number of the younger members of squad as well as Paul Lawson and for the likes of Keith Lasley and John Sutton to be as influential. A big ask.
As previously mentioned it is going to be tough for Motherwell to continue to reach their recent heady heights which has seen them become regular European competitors, even if they have not progressed as far as they, or anyone in Scotland, would have liked.
The problem Motherwell suffer from, like nearly every club in Scotland’s top flight does, is one of a lack of depth. Each season teams appear to lose more players than they sign. Motherwell’s drop in quality hasn’t been replaced which has seen them fall behind Aberdeen and Dundee United. A top four finish is likely but it is difficult to see them topping their rivals from the north.
Finish: Fourth Place