The last eight of the 1970/71 Texaco Cup saw Bill Nicholson’s Tottenham Hotspur head to Fir Park with a 3-2 advantage from the first leg of the quarter-final tie.
The Spurs side featured a host of England internationalists, including Martin Peters who had sampled World Cup glory four years prior.
Despite their excellent pedigree, they would be swept aside by a stunning display of attacking flair by Bobby Howitt’s sublime Steelmen.
Spurs had already recorded convincing victories over Scottish opposition in the Texaco Cup having defeated Hearts 4-0 and Dunfermline 3-0.
In domestic competition, Spurs were also demonstrating their class and visited North Lanarkshire on the back of an eight-game undefeated run in the English First Division. It meant the North Londoners came marching into North Lanarkshire as firm favourites to build on their advantage and reach the semi-final.
Despite the daunting task ahead of them, there was an air of confidence from those inside Fir Park that the ‘Well could spring a surprise.
In the previous round they overcame Stoke City, with World Cup-winning keeper Gordon Banks in goal, on penalties but suffered a 5-0 home thrashing at the hands of Celtic just four days before taking on Tottenham.
That evening’s match programme – the first-ever ‘Fir Park News’ to carry colour – featured positive messages from Howitt, who stated his belief that there would be ‘no inferiority complex’. Skipper Jackie McInally added his captain’s notes titled ‘Yes we can win this tie’ and Sunday Mail columnist Don Morrison predicted a proud night for Scottish football.
Howitt went on to explain that the game had not just captured the attention of everyone in Lanarkshire, but everyone in Scotland. With the 22,688 crowd creating a raucous atmosphere – under the lights at Fir Park – the scene was set for a classic.
Included in Howitt’s starting side was right-sided defender Davie Whiteford, who alongside the legendary Joe Wark occupying the left-back position, combined their excellent defensive capabilities with an attacking flair.
It is an evening that Whiteford still recalls with great fondness, as well as the excitement of both players and supporters alike ahead of a meeting with one of the most accomplished sides in club football.
“People were coming from everywhere,” Whiteford said. “I can’t recall the exact figure, but there must have been around 25,000 people inside Fir Park that night.
“I think there were quite a few people inside the stadium who shouldn’t have been there. They got in by hook or by crook. It was one of the best atmospheres I can remember inside Fir Park. It was terrific.
“Don’t forget we went down there and lost 3-2, with Spurs scoring the winner late on. We felt like we could turn the tie around and that we were just as good as Tottenham.
“Pat Jennings was their keeper in the first leg, though Jimmy Hancock played in the game up here.
“They had so many brilliant players such as Martin Peters, Martin Chivers, Alan Gilzean, Alan Mullery and Phil Beal. The list seemed endless.”
Lifelong ‘Well fan Graham Barnstaple was one of the lucky punters to cram inside the stadium to see his beloved team achieve a legendary triumph.
Having missed the penalty shootout success over Stoke City in the last 16, Graham was desperate to avoid the disappointment of being denied the opportunity to see his team take on English opposition on home soil. However, he would need to call in a few favours to do so – including from his school headmaster.
“My family had moved to Prestwick in Ayrshire, and with my dad now working in Glasgow it seemed impossible I could get to Motherwell to see the game,” he recalls. “After weeks of persistent nagging of my parents about finding a way to get me there, a plan was finally hatched.
“My gran suggested to my mum that she would come down, take me to Motherwell on the bus and meet my dad ahead of the game.
“The only thing was at that time the bus took about two hours to get from Prestwick to Motherwell. That meant I would need to get away from school early.
“Thankfully, our headmaster was a football man. He knew my passion for the ‘Well mainly down to me wearing my ‘Well strip at every football practice and therefore agreed I could leave school early for the bus journey to Fir Park for the big game.”
Hopes of a memorable evening for the Steelmen were dampened in the early exchanges of the clash at Fir Park when Jimmy Pearce headed home Martin Chivers’ long throw to break the deadlock and extend Spurs’ aggregate advantage to 4-2.
Despite looking on the brink of exiting the competition to their star-studded opponents, Motherwell had other ideas. And the home crowd erupted six minutes before the break when Dixie Deans found Brian Heron, who raced through on goal before driving the ball beyond Jimmy Hancock in the away goal.
Hancock replaced the acclaimed Northern Irish keeper Jennings between the sticks for the second leg to make one of only three appearances for Spurs.
Jennings had conceded twice in the first fixture between the sides, and his understudy would be unable to thwart the ruthless ‘Well attack in the second half.
With 15 minutes remaining, Tom Donnelly fired Motherwell ahead with a long-range drive that nestled in the net via the post to level the scores on aggregate.
Fir Park was rocking, and the near 23,000 crowd would be celebrating again when the Steelmen captain Bobby Watson steered home to clinch victory and book a place in the last four.
“The people that were there will remember it forever,” beamed Whiteford. “We really had great footballers. We took on the same attitude as the Ancell Babes. We had the ability and the belief that we could play good football and get results.
“It’s incredible to think that 50 years have passed since that night and unfortunately we’ve not got everyone here with us to mark the anniversary.
“The likes of Joe Wark and Tam Forsyth have sadly passed away, and it’s sad to consider that some of the guys who played in that terrific football match are no longer with us.”
Graham recalls a similarly exhilarating occasion. A day that began with leaving school early and a long bus journey accompanied by his gran, who would have to endure detailed analysis of what might happen at Fir Park later that night, had ended in the euphoria of witnessing one of the most famous victories in the club’s history.
“I still remember how quickly the journey in my dad’s car back to Prestwick flew by,” he added. “I was on such a high having seen my team overcome an English giant with six full internationals in their side.
“It’s an evening that I’ll never forget, and I’m so thankful that I was one of the supporters inside the ground for what was a historic victory.”
The first Texaco Cup was set up for teams that had not qualified for European competition from England, Ireland and Scotland. It featured the likes of Nottingham Forrest, Wolves, West Brom and Shamrock Rovers, as well as Airdrie, Dundee, Dunfermline, Hearts and Morton from north of the border.
It was one of the first club competitions to receive sponsorship, with American petroleum company Texaco ploughing in £100,000 – ensuring it was lucrative not only for the teams taking part, but also the players.
“I think the Texaco Cup captured the imagination of everybody, fans and players alike,” Whiteford added. “It was one of the first sponsored tournaments, and the bonuses were absolutely amazing.
“Just to put you in the picture, the wages at that time were about £35 to £40 a week, and we got a £10 bonus for each point in a league game.
“For beating Stoke, we got a bonus of £250 and then £300 for beating Tottenham. At least the board were magnanimous enough to pass some of the money on to the players for going out and winning the game.
“That was a big thing for the likes of Tam Forsyth, Joe Wark and myself who weren’t long married and in the process of buying things for the houses we were putting together. That’s how real it was, and it was a fantastic feeling.”
Next up for Motherwell after defeating Spurs was a semi-final meeting with a much more familiar foe in Hearts.
The first fixture took place at Tynecastle and finished 1-1, and due to a dispute over the date for the second leg, it was almost three months later when the deciding fixture took place in North Lanarkshire.
The majority of the 25,300 crowd were dreaming of the final when Heron opened the scoring with 56 minutes on the clock, though they suffered late heartbreak when George Fleming levelled in the last few seconds of normal time.
The ‘Well players were shattered after seeing victory slip through their fingers, and the momentum swung the way of the visitors during extra time.
Their Texaco Cup dream would come to an end when Donald Ford shot under Billy Ritchie with five minutes left, and despite their best efforts, there would be no repeat of their heroic comeback against Tottenham.
“We always felt like we got robbed against Hearts in the next round,” reflected Whiteford. “We were leading in that game, and they got an equaliser with the last kick of the ball,”
“The equaliser came from a corner that shouldn’t have been awarded, and they went on to score again in extra time.
“It was so disappointing, though despite the disappointment against Hearts, the memories of the Stoke City and Spurs games are incredible. The big games under the lights at Fir Park are so special.
“It was a shame that as a team we couldn’t win any trophies, though many of our big players kept getting pinched away from us.
“We lost Tam Forsyth to Rangers and Dixie Deans to Celtic. Taking those players out of the squad was a massive loss, and it still happens to this day to Motherwell.”
Hearts would go on to face Wolves in the first-ever Texaco Cup final, with the English side narrowly clinching glory after a 3-2 aggregate triumph.
The European credentials and qualities of both Tottenham and Wolves were backed up in the following season were backed up when the two sides contested the 1972 UEFA Cup final, with Nicholson’s men lifting the trophy following a fiercely contested two fixtures.
The Texaco Cup would continue for a further four seasons, with Motherwell taking part in three of the four tournaments.
The Troubles in Ireland led to the withdrawal of all Irish sides following the 1971/72 Texaco Cup, which began the steady decline of the competition.
Organisers reacted to dwindling crowds by changing the format in 1975, with the tournament becoming the Anglo-Scottish Cup which was contested until 1981.
Unfortunately, the status of the English sides during that time gradually declined, and many opted to play drastically weakened sides. That included one instance where Newcastle were disqualified from the competition after they were adjudged to have fielded an under-strength team in their 3-0 defeat against Ayr at Somerset Park.
Another factor in the decline in the popularity of the tournament was increased success for British sides in European competition and a result the focus of both clubs and supporters shifted.
Despite the Texaco Cup grinding to a reasonably unspectacular end – and five decades having passed since those memorable evenings under the Fir Park lights – Whiteford feels the tournament would be a welcome addition to the calendar if it were ever to make a return.
“I think the very fact we were playing the top teams in the English game captured the imagination of the fans and the players,” he added.
“It petered out, but I think it would certainly be a popular tournament if it were to return. It could be a shot in the arm if it were to be resurrected.”
By Andy Ross.