WHEN Motherwell last appeared in the Final of the League Cup in 2005, the occasion marked the tenth anniversary of former player Davie Cooper’s death. The Final became the CIS Coop Final in memory of the winger who graced the shirts of both ‘Well and their opponents Rangers.
Call it fate or freakish coincidence, this Sunday’s Final against Celtic comes a month before the tenth anniversary of another ‘Well legend, who also plied his trade with their fellow Finalists – Phil O’Donnell.
To show their appreciation of the man dubbed “Uncle Phil”, who got the tag when his nephew, David Clarkson, played in the same Motherwell team in the last years of O’Donnell’s career, both clubs have invited the O’Donnell family as their special guests for the event, with one of O’Donnell’s sons, Luc, being asked by the SPFL to place the trophy on the plinth before the teams walk onto the Hampden pitch.
It’s a fitting tribute to the box-to-box midfielder, who was well respected by fans of both clubs and also from many football fans who admired O’Donnell’s style and attitude towards the game. He was also quite a humble person, not many had a bad word to say about a player who went quietly about his business and made a positive impact at in both the Claret and Amber and Green and White Hoops. His sudden death in 2007 whilst playing for Motherwell in a League match against Dundee United shook the football community, prompting tributes from across the footballing globe.
O’Donnell’s ability didn’t always get the recognition it deserved. Many feel he should’ve had more than the solitary Scotland cap he earned in 1993. A big part of that reason was down to injuries, that plagued O’Donnell from when he moved from Fir Park to Celtic in 1994. Although a large chunk of his five year Parkhead career was spent in the treatment room, he still played his part in helping Celtic win the 1998 League title, thus stopping Rangers achieving the dreaded ten in a row, before moving to Sheffield Wednesday in 1999.
Either side of that period, Phil O’Donnell began and ended his career at Motherwell. He emerged from their youth academy in 1990/91, ending the season with his most iconic moment by heading in the second goal in Motherwell’s famous 4-3 Scottish Cup Final win over Dundee United. Ally McCoist described O’Donnell as being “brave as a lion” as he dived amongst flying boots to nod the ball past Alan Main, a phrase that summed him up as a player. He returned to the club in 2003, eventually captaining the club and, despite his injury concerns, he was playing a big part in the Steelmen lineup, helping them to that League Cup Final 12 years ago and to two top six positions. Ironically, he was having his longest injury-free run for a number of years before suffering that fatal cardiac arrest.
Celtic and Motherwell did participate in a tribute game back in 2008 – Celtic 1998 v Motherwell 1991, the two sides Phil O’Donnell played in during his tenures at these respective clubs. Sunday’s tribute, however, is also a fitting occasion for both sides to pay their respects to him and inviting the family as special guests is a fitting tribute.
The game itself has the potential to be a classic.
Celtic are on an incredible 64 domestic games unbeaten run and have their sights on consecutive trebles, a feat never achieved in Scottish Football. Brendan Rodgers side have shown very few signs of slipping in the near-18 months since he arrived at Celtic Park, and they will be motivated by the added incentive of picking up their fourth piece of silverware of his tenure.
Motherwell, on the other hand, have shown that they’re no pushovers this season, as best demonstrated in this competition with impressive victories over Aberdeen in the Quarter Finals and Rangers in the Semi Finals en route to Hampden. Stephen Robinson has proven critics, who dismissed him as a cheap option, wrong as ‘Well have improved dramatically on last seasons form to consolidate themselves in the top six so far and getting to Sunday’s Final.
There will also be two contrasting styles of football on display, which should make the game more intriguing. The slick-passing Celtic side are up against an aggressive Motherwell team who don’t like to give their opponents a minutes piece, something that ruffled Aberdeen and Rangers so effectively in the previous rounds. Some have criticised The Steelmens robust style, most notably Rangers defender Bruno Alves who struggled to cope with the presence of front two Ryan Bowman and match-winner Louis Moult. However, they are playing to their strengths and aren’t really going over the top, plus it’s up to others to find a way to beat them.
There’s little question that Motherwell will have to play the game of their lives to end Celtic’s run and take the League Cup to Fir Park for only the second time in the clubs history. There have been very few games in the 64 matches where anyone has looked like toppling the Invincibles, who are capable of going through the gears at any point. The way they dismissed Aberdeen at Pittodrie emphasised that gulf and how they can turn it on when they feel like, and that’s something Robinson will be keen to stop if his side are to have any chance of putting Claret and Amber ribbons on the trophy.
Of course, Celtic and Motherwell fans will not be caring a jot on whether or not we get a Cup Final to remember, so long as their name is on the Betfred Cup at the end of the match. For the neutral, we’re hoping for a classic game to be talked about for years, and one that Uncle Phil will look down on fondly as his family enjoy the occasion in his memory.