Fan's eye view: Salad days here for Steelmen

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The Independent Online
'M-O-T, H-E-R, W-E-L, Motherwell' (sung).

Fortunately, you didn't need many spelling qualifications to operate a British Steel Coke oven in the days when that chant was born.

One of Motherwell's tragic ironies is that our most successful era has been forged only after the closure of the town's giant Ravenscraig steelworks. Perhaps the reduction of sulphur pollution in the air has helped the players breathe more easily.

Nowadays, drug dealers are rapidly replacing British Steel as the main importer of harmful chemical substances. Yet it is mere adrenalin which pulses through the veins of fans who witness footballing skills not seen here for many a day.

Like every other club in the land, Motherwell can conjure up anecdotes to delight those in search of trivia. For example, Cardiff City, the only team to take the FA Cup out of England, did so in 1922 thanks to a goal from Hughie Ferguson, a striker just signed from Motherwell. More recently, in the 1987-88 season, the club's two previous centre-forwards topped the Scottish and English First Division goalscoring charts (Brian McClair at Manchester United and Andy Walker at Celtic).

The disappointment of a succession of cup semi-final defeats in the Seventies and Eighties is now behind us as we glory in the 'Wee Alphas' artistry. So, how is the recent success to be explained after 40 barren years?

I subscribe to the theory that it has its roots in the bitter sectarian hatred which passes for Old Firm rivalry in west Scotland.

I grew up in Motherwell and witnessed the regular Saturday migration of football fans into Glasgow. Twice as many travelled to see Rangers or Celtic as stayed and patronised Motherwell. You have to be a non-conformist to support Motherwell.

But every Murdo McLeod has a silver lining, they say, and so it has proved for Motherwell. In past years, the present crop of internationals in the Fir Park squad would have been snared by either of the Old Firm poachers, at prices that would have made even Poundstretchers blush. The Phil O'Donnells, Chris McCarts and Tommy Coynes (what would Celtic now give to have him back?) in today's team would have been tickled away as surely as Brian McClair, Gary McAllister and Tommy Boyd were before them.

Fortunately for Motherwell, Rangers now have their eyes on a bigger prize - a new European league - and so they cast their nets globally. On the other foot, as it were, Celtic recently emptied their collection plates and found they were left with only a cross to bear.

We won the Scottish Cup in 1992 and came third in the league last season. We scoffed throughout last season at commentators who predicted a League and Cup double for Motherwell. This talk never fooled us. 'Steelmen' are tempered by disappointment. We are cautious and not distracted by iron pyrites. At any time last season we would have gleefully settled for our richly deserved Uefa Cup spot.

So we are off to Europe. Was it to be St James' Park or Blackburn, or the San Siro? It turned out to be a trip to the Faroe Islands, but at least last night's result means we get another chance to dream.

In the next round we'll be bringing back 11 more European visitors (and their money), with the prospect of some metalwork to follow. For a town that needs work more than most, we have a song for Europe. We may well live on a cheap diet of saturated fat but no one, no one, will deny us our salad days.