Mitchell Van der Gaag’s ‘Well career was something of a slow burner but when the Steelmen’s need was at its greatest the Dutchman was at the top of his game and with one strike of the boot arguably justified every single penny of Motherwell’s £400,000 outlay.
Van Der Gaag was one of the last of Alex McLeish’s big money signings that came on the back of the £1.75m sale of Phil O’Donnell; but his capture in March 1995 largely flew under the radar being overshadowed at the time by the tragic passing of former ‘Well star Davie Cooper.
Mitchell endured a torrid start to his time at Fir Park, suffering a season ending injury in just his second match for the club at home to Partick Thistle
Things got a little better when the 1995’96 season kicked off and in the space of a fortnight Mitchell found himself involved in Motherwell’s hugely disappointing UEFA Cup loss to MyPa-47 and worse still was again struck down by an injury that would this time see him sit out the next six months.
At last though, things began to go Mitch’s way.
Fully recovered and available for selection once more, Van der Gaag’s return to the side in February 1996 coincided with Motherwell’s best spell of form all season.
Going on a terrific run of six wins and a draw, where not a single goal was conceded, the defender was now fully proving his worth both in defence and in the opposition box.
Mitchell opened the 1996’97 with a goal on the opening day of the season away to Dundee Utd and ‘Well began the season in decent shape. Motherwell’s form however became erratic, not helped by several injuries to key men, Van der Gaag amongst them, and the Steelmen found themselves looking set to face local rivals Airdrie in a nerve-jangling play-off as the season reached it’s climax.
Somehow Motherwell regrouped and went undefeated in the final five fixtures which included a momentous 2-0 win over Champions elect Rangers at Ibrox in the penultimate game of the season.
‘Well went into the final fixture knowing they had to match Hibernian’s result against Raith Rovers to ensure safety. A healthy crowd lead to a delayed kick-off giving Motherwell the merest advantage over the Hibees in knowing what required to be done to stay up.
In a tumultuous contest against Dunfermline that swung back and forth, it was Van der Gaag, in what would turn out to be his final game for Motherwell, who struck the decisive goal that would ensure survival for Alex McLeish’s men on goal difference.
With ‘Well trailing 2-1 with less 15 minutes left Van der Gaag rocketed home from 30 yards after Mickey Weir had nudged his free-kick towards him sparking wild scenes around Fir Park.
In the immediate aftermath there were suggestions of a new extended contract for the defender but the summer would see him return to the Netherlands to join Utrecht with ‘Well recouping all they spent a couple of years previously.
What a way to go out!
Mitchell would in time go into coaching and reportedly came close to returning to Motherwell as manager in 2015.