STEPHEN Robinson’s appointment as Motherwell Manager back in March was viewed as underwhelming, with many blasting the club in opting for the so-called cheap option to replace Mark McGhee.
Having just done enough to preserve the clubs 33 year stint in Scotland’s top flight, most pundits and bloggers, including yours truly, tipped the Fir Park side to be in for another battle for survival this season, much of that pinpointed to the appointment of Robinson, who had an unsuccessful spell in charge of Oldham.
Six months after landing the job on a permanent basis following an initial caretaker spell, Robinson has guided Motherwell to fourth in the Premiership table and led the club to the Betfred League Cup Final.
It’s a remarkable tale for the Northern Irishman, who was written off from day one. His self belief has rubbed off on the players that has resulted in an upturn in form from relegation candidates to top six contenders, and now preparing for an appearance at a National Cup Final following an impressive Semi Final victory over Rangers.
What has also made the turnaround more remarkable is the fact that Motherwell overhauled their squad over the summer, bringing in 13 players as Robinson laid down a marker that he wasn’t prepared to be in a relegation battle after last seasons scare. The fact they’ve found a settled team and style so quickly is testament to the job Robinson and Assistant Keith Lasley, who retired from playing in the summer, have done so far.
Whilst bringing in the many new faces to bolster the squad was required, the other key factor was retaining the services of Louis Moult. Rejecting bids of £400k from Aberdeen was a signal of intent by the club to retain their top scorer of the last two seasons, where he hit 18 in each campaign, and its paying dividends with Moult already on ten for the campaign, including two in Sunday’s historic Hampden victory.
The easy thing for Motherwell to do was accept the bid and took the money, particularly with the ex-Stoke man in the final year of his contract, but they, rightly, refused an offer below their valuation. Although they may lose Moult for nothing at the end of the season, the fact they got to the Final will have made up for not cashing in over the summer, plus the sale of Ben Heneghan and a 30% profit from ex-winger Marvin Johnson’s sale from Oxford to Middlesbrough has brought in significant income to Fir Park, meaning they don’t need to sell Moult even in January.
Moult’s goals is the obvious reason why Motherwell are having a good season so far, but that’s just part of their success story. Defensively, ‘Well have improved significantly from the team who shipped goals for fun last season, including seven at Pittodrie and five at home to Dundee that prompted the sacking of McGhee, with on-loan Peter Hartley in particular proving to be a steady influence at the back. Motherwell are playing a more aggressive style that has ruffled a couple of sides already, most notably Aberdeen in the Quarter Finals when they swept the Dons aside 3-0. Rangers also couldn’t handle the so-called physical side of Robinson’s men, leading to Bruno Alves sour grapes outburst at full time.
Two other players who’ve grabbed some of the limelight with their performances are right wingback Chris Cadden and midfielder Alan Campbell. Brought through the clubs youth system, the duo have put in some good performances this season that have also earned them Scotland Under 21 call-ups. Campbell’s performances have led to the club giving him a four year deal, something almost unheard of at Motherwell these days and is an indication that they are now being run better off the park as well as on it. Given that they are now fan owned, it is welcome news for the club that they are in a position where they don’t need to panic sell their best asset, sign their most promising player on a long term deal and make progress on the park.
The improvement under Stephen Robinson has also led to him being given a two year extension to his contract, keeping him at Fir Park until 2020. Few would’ve backed him to get that kind of deal when he was first appointed and it’s just reward for the way he’s turned things around at the North Lanarkshire club.
The challenge now for Robinson is to maintain momentum ahead of the Betfred Cup Final against Celtic. It goes without saying that the task will be much tougher against Brendan Rodgers side, who are unbeaten in 60 domestic games at the time of writing and targeting back-to-back trebles, a feat never achieved in Scottish Football, with Rangers coming closest in 1994 before their Scottish Cup Final defeat to Dundee United.
A lot can happen in football in a short space of time and Motherwell have a difficult run of fixtures between now and the Final to maintain their good form. Trips to Dundee, Ross County and Aberdeen and a home match with Hibs will be a test for the Steelmen as they hope to preserve their top six position and keep players injury and suspension free ahead of the showpiece occasion.
In Stephen Robinson, they have a manager that is confident in his own ability and gets the best out of the resources available to Motherwell that has got them punching above their weight. Under his stewardship, they can be confident of, at least, giving Celtic a run for their money in the Final and defy the odds by securing a top six spot at the end of the season.