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Saturday 26th December 2009 ko 15.00

Scottish Premier League

MOTHERWELL 1 (Jennings 39)

ST JOHNSTONE 3 (McDonald 55 58 71)

Att 4,140

Entry £22 

Programme £2.50

It wasn’t the most straightforward of Boxing Days. I was still with the ex-wife back in 2009 and we’d finally managed to cope with parental Christmas blackmail (“If you don’t spend Christmas Day with us we won’t bother celebrating it” – How could we be in two places at once??) by booking ourselves into a log cabin in the Lake District for Christmas week. Perhaps the familial gods saw what we did – we promptly got snowed in, and I needed a tow just to get the shopping home! In the end, I ended up parking up half-a-mile from the cabin just to allow myself transport while we were there. It also had the (un) intended benefit of allowing me to go to football!

The issue was the weather of course, I’d had all kinds of Northern League doubles and trebles lined up that day, but with most of northern England and southern Scotland covered in snow I went for a tactic I’d used a year earlier for Dundee FC namely that top flight Scottish sides have to have some kind of pitch protection system.

It meant I headed north rather gingerly and ended up stopping for fuel at an oddity of the British road network- Todhills Rest Area. Its on the section of the M6 between Carlisle and the Scottish border where the road becomes the M74. This section was only upgraded to motorway standard a few months before my visit, in part due to a parallel road needing to be built to allow a farmer to take his cattle to market in Gretna! Todhills started as a roadside cafe, and grew with the increased traffic. But even now, in 2021 its still only called a rest area as presumably the facilities aren’t good enough to call it a Services! 

Motherwell is a town built on the steel industry and suffered when the Ravenscraig Steelworks closed in 1992. Motherwell have played at Fir Park (not to be confused with East Stirlingshire’s old ground Firs Park) since the club moved from Dalziel Park in 1895 onto a plot of land owned by Lord Hamilton of Dalzell. The club colours of claret and amber were Lord Hamilton’s horse racing colours, and have been so since 1913.

Unquestionably your eye will be drawn to the main West Stand, named after former captain Phil O’Donnell who died on the pitch in 2007. It’s quirk is that the stand doesn’t quite reach the corner but the steel framework does. The stand was built in 1962 and was financed by the sale of Pat Quinn to Blackpool and Ian St John to Liverpool. The odd configuration is due to a home owner behind the unfinished section complaining about the new stand blocking light to his property. The club lost the dispute and the stand has always been shorter then was planned. 

The two tier South Stand does dominate the ground, its the stand you can just about see from the M74. Like other grounds with a realistic chance of hosting top flight football its built the size that it is, 4,856 seats, to accommodate the huge travelling supports of Celtic and Rangers. To give you an idea of just how much influence the Auld Firm has on the design of Scottish stadia, Motherwell offered £20 debentures to help finance the stand, with the holder guaranteed a seat for the fixture of their choice. 600 were bought, in the most part by Rangers fans guaranteeing their place twice a season!

Behind the other goal is the Davie Cooper Stand, a modern all seater affair named after the Motherwell, Rangers and Clydebank legend who died tragically early- aged just 39. That leaves just the rather smaller East Stand, now named the John “Sailor” Hunter stand after the club’s first manager and who led the club to their first and so far only Scottish League title in 1931-2. It’s a stadium that fulfills Motherwell’s needs going forward but does allow something for the traditionalist too!! But back in 2009 my eye was drawn to one particular player.

The game featured an interesting little side-story and it involved St Johnstone’s Dave Mackay. No, not the Tottenham and Derby County legend, this Dave Mackay signed for Oxford United for the 2004-5 season and played 44 thoroughly competent games at right back in League 2. A change of management at Grenoble Road saw a rival Lee Mansell arrive, Mackay didn’t stay; he transferred after that one season to Livingston then 4 years later to St Johnstone. Lee Mansell, the next season just like his predecessor played 44 games at right back but Oxford United were relegated to the National League. 

At this point you’d see Mackay as the better player, who’d made a lucky escape, and after a switch to centre back revitalised his career completely, and ended up playing for the Perth-based side in the Europa League! He was man-of- the-match here and is now Assistant Manager at Dundee FC . The catch is that even taking that into account, you’d have a hard task convincing League 2 followers! Mansell left Oxford after that one season and signed for Torquay United and promptly saw himself relegated to the National League for the second season in a row! 

This time he stuck around and the Gulls were promoted back to League 2 two years’ later. In 2014 Mansell signed for Bristol Rovers, who had just been relegated, yes to the National League, but was part of the side that won promotion back to the EFL at the first attempt, Mansell scoring the winning penalty in the shoot-out at Wembley! And to follow that up the Gas were promoted the following season, with Mansell finishing his playing career as a midfielder, in League 1! He’s still on the coaching staff at the Memorial Ground, and is seen as a something of a legend at both Bristol Rovers and Torquay.

Even now I wonder which player had the better career, but unquestionably this day belonged to Mackay whose team were good value for their win. It was a bit of a win for me too, I got back to the accommodation early enough to keep the then wife happy. At that point of my life I was glad of small mercies.