Massive changes in society in the 1870’s gave birth to a new generation of leisure pursuits which saw football became the sport of the masses.
The revolutionary introduction of half days on Saturday for many trades gave the working class man the time to indulge in these pursuits. During this time many teams were founded throughout the Lanarkshire area. These teams were most notably work teams.
The early teams in Motherwell were dominated by Glencairn, who started up in 1877. Named after John Glencairn Carter Hamilton of Dalziel, they initially called open ground at Craigneuk their home, using a local school as their facilities. This park was known as the ‘Foot of the Knowe.’ However, they soon moved to ‘The Meadows’ via a short stay at a pitch at Broomside near Kidstones Pit, in the area now known as North Lodge.
The Meadows was an in demand park, hosting the annual gala occasions as well as being the home of Glencairn’s fierce rivals, Alpha FC. Alpha FC would go on to become the most popular side in the area and eventually become the backbone of Motherwell Football Club.
Founded in 1881 by the workers in George Russell’s Alpha Steam Crane and Engineering Works, which was based in Park Street, they developed by playing against a host of other amateur teams that had sprung up in Motherwell, Wishaw and Bellshill. Some of the more prominent names at the time were; Dalziel Rovers, Milton Rovers, Motherwell North End, Motherwell Amateurs and Hamilton Park.
In 1886 a Motherwell Charity Cup was established to engage local teams in a tournament that was to be for the ‘benefit of the poor.’ Another game that was set up at this time was an exhibition between Glasgow Ancients – as the name suggests, a selection of older players from Glasgow – and a select eleven made up of players from both Alpha FC and Glencairn. This was a huge deal; as the months prior to the game had been filled with talk of the two top sides in Motherwell amalgamating to form a stronger team. This argument was done no harm when the select eleven overcame the more experienced Ancients two goals to one in front of a large crowd.
On the 6th May 1886, the Alpha board met and decided to disband the club as it was, and reform it under a new constitution and set of rules. The plane was to keep the same name, but eleven days later representatives of Glencairn and Alpha met in Baillie’s Pub in Parkneuk and decide to form a new club altogether. This new club was to be called Motherwell Football Club. A committee was formed and they were able to field a team, albeit and Alpha dominated one. Their debut fixture proved to be a successful one as they outshone Hamilton Academicals 3-2.
On the dawn of this new era the Motherwell Times commented that the merger of the two sides could make “Motherwell second to none in the West of Scotland as a country club.” In the early years life was somewhat chaotic for the fledgling Motherwell with no regular competition to play in, although the Lanarkshire Cup was still seen as a prestigious tournament at this time.
The new side reached their first final in 1888 where they lost to Airdrie. Not only was competition difficult to find but games would still start with players short, as they struggled to make the game after a shift in the local iron works.
The Scottish Cup did offer one major tournament that was available for Motherwell to compete in. They entered the competition for the first time in 1886, losing 6-1 to Cambuslang in the first round. They did make Round three in 1888, only to lose 6-2 to Dumbarton.
Then in a move to push the club forward, the AGM of 1893 heard the heated debate of whether the club should turn professional or not, and in the end it was decided unanimously in favour of turning professional. This also meant an increase in gate prices with entry now costing 6d (2.5p) and season tickets moving to 7/6 (37.5p).
The decision of the Scottish League to form the Second division in 1893/94 allowed them to expand into geographical areas that they were previously absent from, such as Tayside, Edinburgh and Industrial Lanarkshire. Motherwell were therefore duly elected along with nine other teams to form the Second Division for the start of 1893/94.
The other nine teams who joined Motherwell for this historic season were Hibernian, Cowlairs, Clyde, Partick Thistle, Port Glasgow Athletic, Abercorn, Morton, Northern and Thistle.
Motherwell’s first game was a 4-1 home win against Clyde, with the first professional Motherwell side striding out in maroon shirts and satin knickerbockers. Although the preferred colours throughout the period were to remain the original blue. In their first season in the division, Motherwell managed a respectable fourth, winning 11 of their 18 games.
1895 saw two major developments at the club. They brought home their first professional silverware in the form of the Lanarkshire Cup and the club moved for the final time. The tight muddy Dalziel Park was deemed unsuitable for League football, but Lord Hamilton solved the problem by granting a lease on a piece of land at the Northern end of his Dalziel Estate. The club took Fir Park as the name of their stadium.
The first game played at the new ground was watched by over 6000 spectators as Motherwell hosted Glasgow Celtic. Unfortunately the visitors were to spoil the party by winning 8-1.
Motherwell continued to play their League football in the Second Division with varying degrees of success. Usually finishing anywhere between bottom and fourth, they broke the trend in the 1902/03 season, finishing as runners-up. This ultimately saw them invited into the newly expanded First Division the following season.
The transition up a division wasn’t an easy one for Motherwell, as the struggled to adjust. Season 1904/05 was a particularly difficult one, with the club finishing bottom of the 14 team division, winning only six of their games and losing 17. This League position left the club seeking re-election to the top Division, but were duly grated that re-election, along with Morton.
In the years following this disastrous 14th place finish Motherwell established themselves as a solid middle of the table side. However, a slump in form saw them finishing second bottom of the table in 1910/11.
During this spell Motherwell won their first game against Rangers with a 1-0 home win at Fir Park on March 2 1907, and strangely in such a poor season, also completed the Old Firm double with a 2-1 win over Celtic at Fir Park on 4th February 1911.
With the elevation to the top division Motherwell players started to attract the attention of International Selectors. Goalkeeper Colin Hampton was selected to play for the Scottish League, while outside left Robertson became the first Motherwell player to be selected for Scotland when he lined up against Wales at Kilmarnock on March 5th 1910, a 1-0 win for the Scots.
Season 1910/11 prodyced a decent run in the Scottish Cup and after seeing off St. Johstone 2-0 in the first round, and Airdrie 5-1 in the second, Motherwell were drawn to take on Hamilton at Douglas Park in the Third Round. The game attracted a crowd of 17,000, but it was not to prove a joyous occasion for the men from the Steel Town as their neighbours ran out 3-1 winners on the day.
After this game the directors met in the Commercial Hotel in Hamilton to deal with the important task of finding a suitable candidate to manage the team going forward. From an original list of 70 applicants a short list of 12 was drawn up, and one of the most inspired decisions in the history of the club was taken when John ‘Sailor’ Hunter was appointed to the post of Team Manager.
At the start of the 1913/14 season, the club took the bold decision to change the club colours. Ditching the blue and white that had served the club since its birth and replacing them with the more distinctive claret and amber. It was often thought that these were the racing colours of Lord Hamilton of Dalziel, but records show that these colours have never, in fact, been used as the families’ colours. It is more likely that the club were influenced by the success of Bradford City FA Cup winning side of 1911, and in a quest to find colours that would clash less often with other sides in the League, they adopted the radical colours of the Bantams.
The new colours were first worn in the opening fixture that season when Celtic came to Fir Park on 23rd August. In front of a crowd of 20,000, producing gate receipts of almost £500, the sides battled to a hard fought 1-1 draw.
The summer of 1914 saw the out break of the First World War, and unlike their English counter parts the SFA decided to carry on with League football but agreed to suspend the Scottish Cup competition. At the time of this decision, very few people of the time felt that the war would last as long as it did. The desire to ‘do one’s bit’ for the country meant that there was no need to resort to conscription for the four years of the conflict.
As a result it was left to the individual to respond to the decision as they saw fit, or on the amount of moral pressure they were put under! There was an impact at Motherwell with players drifting in and out throughout the years as they returned home on leave.
During the war period, manager Hunter used the time wisely as he started to build a team that would be ready to challenge for honours in the coming years. These youngsters included outside left Bobby Ferrier from Petershill, Hugh Ferguson and Willie Rankine from Parkhead Juniors and keeper Jock Rundell.