The town of Motherwell is situated just 15 miles south-east
of Glasgow and, as a consequence, its football club has spent the
bulk of its 122-year existence in the shadow of the neighbouring
As a result, the rare triumphs that have raised the profile of this intimate family club are cherished dearly, with the most notable recent example having come in 1991, when the most thrilling Scottish Cup final in recent memory yielded The Steelmen's first major trophy since 1952. A crowd of over 57,000 at Hampden witnessed Dundee United lose 4-3 after 120 minutes of drama and passion, and arguably the pick of Motherwell's goals came from a 19-year-old by the name of Phil O'Donnell.
On 29 December 2007, 16-and-a-half years later, these same sides served up a similarly scintillating encounter and, once again, Motherwell - with O'Donnell now back at the club as captain - came out on top, this time by five goals to three. It was, however, a day on which football was put firmly into perspective as a shocking tragedy shattered Motherwell's position of near-anonymity and thrust the club into the world spotlight for the worst possible reasons.
The dreadful events were quickly relayed. With 12 minutes
remaining, and just as he was preparing to be withdrawn for a
well-deserved rest, Motherwell's 35-year-old skipper had
collapsed. Heart failure was later revealed to have been the cause;
O'Donnell was pronounced dead before he even reached the
'A man amongst boys'
The football community, already reeling from the recent death of Sevilla's Antonio Puerta, was stunned. For a time, Motherwell's world simply stopped turning. A terrible twist to the tragedy was that not only had O'Donnell's wife and four children been looking on from the stands, but David Clarkson, his nephew and team-mate, had been standing just yards away when the unthinkable had happened.
As scarves and jerseys began to form a makeshift shrine outside Fir Park, this close-knit club's entire staff were given compassionate leave to mourn a player lauded by chairman John Boyle as "in every way the heart of Motherwell". Meanwhile, his tearful manager, Mark McGhee, faced the cameras to pay an eloquent tribute, saying: " ."
Phil was a man
amongst boys in every sense of the word: in his attitude, his
professionalism, his integrity and his sincerity
Yet while it was O'Donnell the man, husband and father who was mourned most deeply, Motherwell were also left without the captain and midfield linchpin who had led them to the lofty heights of third place in the Premier League table. "Phil was not just any player," admitted McGhee. "He was the focal point and the senior member of the squad." Such a crushing psychological blow would, it was widely predicted, floor a team that had after all only just avoided relegation the season before.
Four months later, however, and with the race for the Scottish Premier League entering the final strait, Motherwell are stubbornly hanging on to that same podium position, and stand within touching distance of returning to European competition for the first time in 12 years.
"We're in a strong position, and it really would be a
fantastic achievement when you take everything into
consideration," McGhee told
FIFA.com yesterday. "Given how badly the lads
fared last year, and the affect that Phil's death had, to get
third place would be every bit as big an achievement for us as
winning the league would be for Celtic or Rangers."
Clarkson's character shines through
O'Donnell has not been forgotten, of course. Already, Motherwell have acted to rename Fir Park's main stand in honour of their late captain, while his signature has been embroidered on to the club's distinctive claret and amber jerseys as a reminder of the cause for which they are playing. What is clear is that a tragedy which could so easily have undermined an entire season has instead become the team's major source of inspiration.
Goalkeeper Graeme Smith, speaking after a recent 1-0 win at Celtic Park, certainly made no secret of his motivation. "More than anything, we want to get into Europe next season for Phil," he said. "Every week before we play, we think about Phil, he is never far from our thoughts. And the strength that Davie Clarkson shows every day in just coming into training is unbelievable."
Not only has Clarkson played on for Motherwell - he has played a
vital role in keeping the club ahead of better-resourced rivals
such as Dundee United, Aberdeen and the two Edinburgh clubs.
Fittingly, when Motherwell claimed a crucial 1-0 win over Hibernian
recently, it was O'Donnell's nephew who scored the
"Davie's been brilliant, as have all the lads," said McGhee. "Some of them have been affected more than people probably realise, but their grieving has been very private; there's been no public show. The fact is, We want to honour him - and his contribution to our season - with some sort of success."
Phil will never be
forgotten at this club - but we don't want this season just to
be remembered for his death.
As for the memories, they will live on regardless, with
midfielder Steven McGarry's enduring recollection especially
poignant. "The thing I'll remember is the look on his face
when Davie Clarkson scored his second goal [against United],"
he recalled. "I turned around and looked at Phil when it hit
the net. He just had a huge smile on his face at that moment -
that's what will live with me forever."
And that, one imagines, is just how this much-loved Motherwell legend would like to be remembered.