The 1953/54 season was a new low for the club. Not only were they in the lower division for the first time in 50 years, but they faced a struggle to be promoted back to the top flight. Fortunately, their pedigree of having played at the higher level for half a century was enough to see them win Division B.
However, it was turn of luck that was to see Motherwell stay there. In the 1954/55 season, the Steelmen didn’t adapt well to their rightful division after a year in Division B, and they found second bottom, a point behind Raith Rovers, at the end of the season. With the club looking set to slip back into the lower league, the Scottish Football League announced a restructuring of the League format. The top flight was to be increased to 18 teams, with Division C disbanding and the top five teams joining Division B to form a League of 19 teams. This ultimately saw relegation scuppered for a season, saving Motherwell from the drop. This change in luck allowed for a new sense of hope going into 1955/56 season.
Before the season began there were to be three notable departures from Fir Park. Manager George Stevenson stepped down, as did groundsman Ben Ellis, while goalkeeper John Johnstone retired. It was announced that the new manager would be Bobby Ancell, who was managing Dunfermline Athletic at the time of his appointment. This was the start of an exciting new era at Motherwell, as Ancell went on to produce an exciting young side.
The club ensured a mid table finish with only five defeats, two of them being in the last two games of the campaign. They gained 33 points with 11 wins, 12 draws and 11 defeats.
The poorcCup run, installation of floodlights and other ground improvements meant that the club made a loss for the first time in six years, amounting to £3,657. The new floodlights were inaugurated on Wednesday 29th February against Preston North End. The game finished with a 3-2 win for the visitors.
Prior to the start of 1956/57, Motherwell started the implementation of their policy of no longer signing seasoned pros and reverting to the previous policy of identifying promising youngsters who would be brought up in the Motherwell tradition. This policy produced League winners in Stevenson, Ferrier and McFadyen.
This saw four signings made in the close season to support this, with the following players brought in, inside right Bert McCann from Queen’s Park, William Cowie a centre half from Kilsyth Rangers, left back Pat Holton from Hamilton and lastly a new keeper Alan Wylie from Penicuik.
Ancell’s new side continued to play impressive football and were early challengers for the title, being described as “the most attractive footballing side in Scotland”. During November and December, two more players were added to the squad with Billy Reid’s brother Sammy being snapped up from Douglas Water to play on the right wing along with Gerry Baker from Chelsea.
The Scottish Cup kicked off in the Fifth Round at the start of February with the Well beating Stirling Albion 2-1. The next round brought a visit from Second Division Dumbarton to Fir Park, and a lack lustre display saw Motherwell crash out of the competition.
A disastrous run of eight games without a point cost the Well any chance of winning the title and saw them slip from challengers to finish seventh in the table 18 points off the leaders Rangers.
In 1957/58 Ancell continued the change in his squad as three more great servants from the 1952 cup winning side left the club, with Willie Kilmarnock moving to Airdrie after serving since 1939, Johnny Aitkenhead – a stalwart since joining in 1949, and Tommy Sloan released. These moves were instrumental in bringing the average age of the side down from 31 to 25.
November marked the debut of Ian St. John who had been signed earlier in 1957 from Douglas Water Thistle. This coincided with two wins on the trot as Motherwell won against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park and at home to Queen of the South.
The season was marred by a number of injuries and a bout of flu that swept through the club and meant that consistent selection was made difficult. This meant that players were being asked to play in a number of positions, for example, Ian St. John was asked to play in almost any of the five forward positions.
In January it led to another of Ancell’s young signings making his debut, with John Martis lining up at centre-half to replace Andy Paton against Hibs on 2nd January.
Motherwell reached the semi final of he Scottish Cup and were drawn to play Clyde at Celtic Park at the start of April. Clyde were 3-0 up after 54 minutes, thanks to a hat trick from Coyle. But the Well fought back through goals from Quinn and St. John and were only denied a draw when in the dying seconds a McSeveney header crashed off the under side of the bar and bounced clear.
Back in the league, Motherwell finished strongly in the last eight games when they lost only two of them and pushed themselves into a comfortable mid table position. The major achievement had been the introduction of a batch of new young players, including St. John, Weir, the two Reids and Martis.
It also saw the end of three illustrious careers at Fir Park when Archie Shaw, Andy Paton and Charlie Cox were awarded free transfers by Manager Ancell. Andy Paton move the short distance across the Clyde to become captain of neighbours Hamilton Accies, and Shaw was kept on at Fir Park in the role of assistant trainer. With the release of these three players all ties with the team that won the Scottish Cup back in 1952 had been broken, with none of the 11 left at the club.
The following season saw the emergence of the ‘Ancell Babes’ in all their glory with the young players filling most of the positions in the side. The players were asked to put into practice the footballing beliefs of their manager, which was to produce a good footballing side, “which concentrated on all-out-attack and a team would inevitably win providing they had the skill to sustain the constant pressure”.
In the league, they went on to lose only one game out of the first 16 and many were starting to believe that this team could repeat the feat of the great side of the 30s and bring the title back to Fir Park. To prove that the team was built in the image of attacking football that Ancell had prescribed they won 5-1 at Airdrie, 4-0 at Dunfermline and an 8-1 win at home to Third Lanark.
A run of four consecutive defeats were to prove decisive in the push for the title as Motherwell dropped out of contention behind Rangers and Hearts. In the run in third place was secured with only one defeat, to Champions Rangers, in the last six games
One major change during the season was behind the scenes, with long serving doyen of Motherwell John ‘Sailor’ Hunter deciding to retire due to illness and advancing years. He stepped down from the post of Secretary on 25th March after 48 years service at the club. He had joined the club as Manager in April 1911 after a playing career that saw him play for Liverpool, Arsenal and Portsmouth in England, and Hearts and Dundee in Scotland.
Once again the next season saw Ancell’s team delight people the length and breadth of the country with their excellent style of football. But they still didn’t manage to win any of the major trophies. The club’s standing was probably still higher than for many years with the team recognised by the press as the ‘team of the year’ and a large number playing at International level.
The league campaign actually saw the team finish two places lower than the previous season, as they came in fifth. There was one major change at the start of the 1960/61 season with the upgrading of the floodlighting system which saw pylons sprout from the four corners of the ground replacing the lamps that were on top of the stand and enclosure roofs.
One significant change in the playing squad was the arrival of left back Matt Thomson who signed up from Ardeer Thistle. He was to prove a valuable asset to Ancell’s side but as a centre half rather than a full back in the coming years.
League results were inconsistent with no real run of form established with the side struggling to string more than a couple of results together at a time. It was left to the Scottish Cup to provide the season’s major highlight.
One of the most lauded results in the club’s history was a cup replay at Ibrox in which the Steelmen won 5-2. Well took the lead after 10 minutes when a Quinn pass released McPhee to score. Rangers responded and goals from McMillan and Wilson had the home side in front by two goals to one.
Motherwell then took charge of the game and turned on the style to over power the Ibrox men. Pat Delaney scored the equaliser with a great free kick from just outside the Rangers penalty area. In the 59th minute Motherwell took the lead when Roberts prodded a Hunter pass past keeper Niven.
The massive Rangers crowd were stunned as Motherwell went on to score two more goals through St. John and Roberts to complete a five two thrashing of the League Champions. It was therefore a massive disappointment when the club crashed out at the quarter-final stage to local rivals Airdrie.
At the beginning of May, the club accepted a bid of £37,500 for Ian St John from Bill Shankly’s Liverpool. St. John had been keen to move to England for some time and had submitted a transfer request in the middle of the season but withdrew this when Andy Weir suffered a serious injury.
The money received would be used to help complete the building of the new Main Stand although the club stressed that these plans had been well in hand before the transfer of their prized asset.
The league season was to prove immensely disappointing with points being dropped on a regular basis. As in the previous season the side found it difficult to string a run of victories together apart from a four match spell in December, including a first round cup win over Dundee United.
Indeed, the cup run was to prove the highlight of the season once again. The semi-final was against old rivals Rangers at Hampden Park, and Motherwell’s chances disappeared when Bert McCann was injured in the first half and, with no substitutes, he was a virtual passenger on the right wing. Rangers capitalised on Motherwell’s misfortune scoring two quick goals through Murray as half-time approached.
Motherwell did pull one back through Roberts in the 70th minute of the second half through Bobby Roberts but despite a brave performance, Rangers added a third late on to book their place in the final.
The major talking point at the start of 1962/63 season was the magnificent newly extended Main Stand running along the Western side of the ground, with its capacity of 3,500 providing greater comfort and capacity for supporters. The original plans were for 5,000 seasts but the residents of Fir Park Street complained about the lack of light they would have if the stand ran its full course to the Southern end of the ground. This meant that a proportion of the stand was never built and the steel frame left exposed, still to this day.
The first competitive game in front of the new stand seemed to inspire the players as they took on Falkirk in the League Cup qualifying section in the season opener. Well made a whirlwind start and were unbelievably 9-0 up by half time. The scoring started in the fifth minute when Russell scored and by half-time he had added another four to his tally and Pat Quinn had also helped himself to personal haul of four, all in the first 32 minutes. Being 9-0 down at half-time, Falkirk fought a brave rear guard action in the second 45 minutes and conceded no further goals, in fact grabbing a consolation themselves to make the final score 9-1 to Motherwell.
Early Llague results failed to live up to this opening result with only one win in the first 13 games seeing the side in the relegation zone. To help bolster the forward line Bobby Ancell was forced into the transfer market for the first time in six years, when he paid Partick Thistle £5,000 for their centre forward Joe McBride. McBride was originally brought to Fir Park to solve a centre forward problem, but with the departure of Quinn he was moved to inside forward, where his enthusiasm brought a bit of life back into the team.
The 1963/64 campaign was nothing to write home about with no threat of relegation and no chance of pushing for the title. This was mainly down to a poor start after the defeat in the League Cup. Early in the season the side suffered the loss of another player to the lure of English football when centre forward Bobby Roberts left to join Leicester City.
With the League challenge going nowhere it was once again left to the Scottish Cup to lift the gloom. Motherwell made it to the quarter-finals, and their biggest crowd of the season took in the replay against Dundee, with 26,280 in attendance to see the visitors run out 4-2 winners. Motherwell had taken the lead through Murray, and despite McBride scoring his 32nd goal of the season to break Ian St John’s record, Dundee held on.
1964/65 was a season of change, with many players moving on, it was hardly surprising that the league form dipped and the final position of 14th reflected this. This also led to transfer requests coming in from Joe McBride and Willie Hunter.
The end of the season saw the second Summer Cup competition and this time Motherwell made it through to the semi-finals where they were drawn to play Hibs. The Edinburgh side won the first leg 2-0 and it looked as though the Well would crash out, but they stormed back at Fir Park to win the tie 6-4 on aggregate after extra time.
The final was also a two legged affair against Dundee United and Motherwell’s 13 year run without a trophy was brought to an end with a 3-2 aggregate win. All the goals had been scored in the first leg at Fir Park and a 0-0 draw at Tannadice clinched the trophy. Almost immediately after this victory, Joe McBride was transferred to Celtic.
That trophy brought an end to an era, as Ancell also decided to move on. He will always be fondly remembered for the style of football that he brought to Motherwell as he tried to attack at all times while at the same time encouraging local talent rather than plundering the transfer market.
It was also that the end of a real spell of stability at the club as after only having had three manager’s in 54 years, the next 20 years were to see eight men fill the hot seat as the club struggled to hold on to its top flight status on a consistent basis.