As the club looked to get back out of the First Division as the first attempt, the board turned to the management duo of Tommy McLean and Tom Forsyth
Their first game in charge was a 2-0 win over Kilmarnock at Fir Park and this had the fans dreaming of a swift return to the Premier Division, only for them to suffer a 2-0 defeat at local rivals Hamilton Accies the following week.
But apart from a couple of blips, which included a 4-2 defeat to Meadowbank Thistle, the new management duo steered a steady course back to the Premier League. The title was clinched with a 1-0 win at Firhill with four games still to play.
The season was also spiced up with a run to the Scottish Cup semi-finals, where they faced Celtic at Hampden. Gary McAllister put Motherwell ahead early in the first half before Tommy Burns equalised in the second. A late header from Graeme Forbes almost secured a winner for the Well but the ball rebounded of the post and bounced clear.
In the replay the following Tuesday, the old cliché of not giving an Old Firm side a second chance proved to be true, as Celtic ran out comfortable 3-0 winners.
Back in the Premier Division for the 1985/86 season, Motherwell opened with a 0-0 draw against Clydebank. Fans were to be stunned shortly after the game when they heard that Gary McAllister and Ally Mauchlen were to be sold to Leicester City for a combined fee of £350,000.
This helped restore the club to a sound financial footing but made life difficult for Tommy McLean as he took the club back to the top flight. Indeed, the season was a frustrating one as the team stayed in the bottom two for the whole campaign and set the unenviable record of failing to win away from home.
The manager was forced to rely on a number of home grown youngsters breaking through into the squad, with the likes of Tom Boyd, Chris McCart, Jim Griffin and Fraser Wishart all appearing on a regular basis.
As the year dragged to an end it was pretty clear that the Steelmen were destined to finish in the bottom two places and face the prospect of returning to the First Division after only one season in the top-flight.
However, there was a mood for change in the Scottish game and League reconstruction was on the cards with a proposal in place by the top flight clubs to move to a one up-one down promotion and relegation system to ease the tension provided by 20% of the League being relegated each season.
Not surprisingly the Motherwell board at the time jumped on this suggestion as they sensed an escape route and ensure Premier League survival for another year. Although there was a lot of ill feeling from other SFL clubs at the time as they felt that the proposed changes were mainly being put together to ensure that Motherwell were not relegated; particularly because they had been saved from a similar fate by a similar re-organisation back in 1955.
It was finally agreed by the member clubs that the no one would be relegated at the end of the season and that two clubs would be promoted from the First Division to give a top league of 12. With Motherwell ending the season in ninth and relegation looming, this latest restructuring of the Scottish Leagues secured Premier League football for another year.
Again it was a topsy turvy season as the club strived for consistency of performance, but at least this time there was no need for league reconstruction to help keep the club in the top league as they finished a comfortable eighth in the table. The fans didn’t have too much to shout about, although there was a terrific 1-0 victory over Rangers at Ibrox.
Tommy McLean’s side had been regularly criticised for defending deeply and in numbers when travelling to play the Old Firm in Glasgow. The game at Ibrox in November 1986 proved to be one of those days when the visitors couldn’t break out of their own half against Graeme Souness’ all conquering Rangers side. That was until the 87th minute when a well placed diving header from Ray Farningham flew past Chris Woods to give the Well a famous victory.
The Steelmen also reached the League Cup semi-finals where they came up against Celtic at Hampden. The Hoops went 2-0 up through goals from former Fir Park favourite Brian McClair but Motherwell fought back and goals from Andy Walker and Paul Smith brought the sides level. Penalties were required and it was Celtic who edged it 5-4 when John Philliben’s effort struck the crossbar.
Another highlight of the 1986/87 campaign was the visit of Liverpool to Fir Park in a match held to celebrate the club’s centenary. Over 10,000 turned up to watch household names such as Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Ian Rush and Jan Mjolby in action during a 2-2 draw.
Despite the capture of Rangers forward Bobby Russell in the summer, the team still found goals difficult to come by throughout the following season, scoring only 37 in 44 league games. They did finish eighth though, mainly due to a solid defence that only lost 56 goals.
For the second season in a row there was a visit to Hampden for a League Cup semi final against one half of the Old Firm – this time Rangers. An early goal from Paul Smith gave Motherwell an unlikely lead but a mad two minutes, in which Stevie Kirk headed a Davie Copper free kick into his own net and a poor passback allowed Robert Fleck in to score, turned things round for Rangers, and they went on to clinch victory with another goal in the dying minutes from Mark Falco.
Season 1988/89 kicked off with a degree of optimism but the Steelmen had to settle for a ninth place finish. Scoring proved to be a problem once again, with only 35 goals scored in 36 games, and again it was the goals against, only 44, that kept the team up.
As a result, a major rebuilding process took effect the following year. In came striker Nick Cusack from Peterborough and experienced full back George Burley from Ipswich. Out went Fraser Wishart, who moved on to St Mirren, and veteran defender Tom McAdam, who joined rivals Airdrie as a player / coach.
However, the most notable transfer of all was Davie Cooper, who moved to Fir Park from Rangers for just £50,000. The winger made a big impression in his first season and helped the team to sixth in the table – the highest finish for ten years.
The cup competitions were disappointments though, with the only highlight being a record 7-0 victory over Clyde in the Third Round of the Scottish Cup. There were seven different scorers on the night; McCart, Cooper, Arnott, Russell, Bryce, Kirk and Gahagan.
But the following season, McLean took the team and the fans on cup run that will never be forgotten. It all started at Pittodrie when the Well were drawn to play holders Aberdeen in the Third Round. A spectacular late strike from sub Stevie Kirk secured a terrific win away from home.
This was followed by wins over two First Division sides - Falkirk and Morton. The former were beaten 4-2 at Fir Park, thanks to goals from Cusack (2), McLeod and Kirk. The quarter-final with Morton took two games; the first a 0-0 draw at Fir Park and the second a 1-1 draw at Cappielow. This led to a penalty shoot out which Motherwell won 5-4.
This set up a semi final with Celtic and once again this took two games as the first ended goalless. Despite going behind twice in the tie, the Steelmen fought back to secure a memorable 4-2 win thanks to goals from Arnott (2), O’Neill and Kirk.
The final was a family affair, with Tommy McLean coming up against his big brother Jim’s Dundee United on May 18th 1991. Motherwell stormed into a 3-1 lead in the second half thanks to goals from Ferguson, Angus and O’Donnell, only for United to hit-back and force extra-time. But the Steelmen weren’t to be denied and super sub Stevie Kirk stooped to head home a Davie Cooper corner to seal a dramatic 4-3 victory in one of the most exciting cup finals of the modern era.
There were changes both on and off the pitch in the months that followed, as building work began on turning Fir Park into an all-seater stadium to comply with the Taylor Report that was published in the wake of the Hillsborough Disaster a few years earlier.
But the main focus of the new season was the European Cup Winners Cup draw, which paired Motherwell with GKS Katowice of Poland. Katowice were experienced campaigners who had lost narrowly to Bayer Leverkeusen the previous season, and had qualified for the Cup Winners Cup by beating Legia Warsaw 1-0 in the Polish Cup.
Just over 500 Well fans travelled to Eastern Europe to see the Steelmen make their debut in European competition. The game itself was a disappointing one, with the home side running out 2-0 winners. The scoreline may have been worse had it not been for man-of-the-match Billy Thomson in the visitors goal.
The home tie was played two weeks later at Fir Park with over 10,000 expectant Well fans getting behind the team in their efforts to overturn the two-goal deficit. And McLean’s men were deservedly ahead in the first half when Kirk scored following a pass from Cooper. Katowice looked to have put the tie out of reach early in the second half when Rzezniczek equalised but two late goals from Cusack and Kirk gave the home side hope. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, and the Poles advanced on the away goals rule.
Domestically, Motherwell’s defence of the Scottish Cup only lasted two rounds, as after beating Ayr Utd in the third, Rangers proved too strong and ended any hopes of a return to Hampden, while their league form remained solid rather than spectacular – until a disastrous run of seven straight defeats in the last seven games saw the team drop to 10th in the table.
Season 1992/93 saw the completion of the next phase of development at Fir Park when the terracing at the South end of the ground was flattened to make way for the construction of a new two-tiered stand, the opening of which was marked with a challenge match against Coventry City.
This was also the year that McLean almost guided the team to the league title – finishing third, just four points behind Rangers and Aberdeen. But after a defeat against Dundee United in May, which effectively handed the title to the Gers, stories started to appear that McLean was unsettled at Fir Park. However, the manager was quick to play down the reports and told the local press that he hwas happy to remain at the club.
It was therefore a surprise in Junewhen the news broke that McLean had resigned following a disagreement with the board. Within a matter of weeks he was announced as the new manager of Hearts, replacing the sacked Sandy Clark.
Away from Fir Park, Tommy Coyne became the first ever Motherwell player to appear in a World Cup finals tournament when he played for the Republic of Ireland against Italy at USA ’94. He also featured in games against Mexico and Holland, helping him surpass George Stevenson as the club’s most capped player.