When Tommy McLean switched from Greenock Morton to Motherwell in 1984, he had one major job as manager.
Help keep the club alive.
Relegation from the top division before his arrival had put a hole in the finances at Fir Park. McLean was tasked with the job of not only balancing the books, but trying to get the Steelmen back up as quickly as possible.
“When I got the job, the board set me targets,” he recalled. “The main ones were keeping Motherwell alive and getting them back to the top division.
“The club had just been relegated and they needed to bring in £100,000 from being out of the top division in the first year.
“The first thing I had to do was sell Kenny Black and Stuart Rafferty to Dundee and Hearts. They were players I could have done with, but it was needs must. I sold them without having them even play one game for me.”
The sales of Black and Rafferty went most of the way towards plugging the hole in the balance sheet. It also accelerated a production line of young talent which would set up a run to immortality in 1991.
“The next target was bringing through young players,” McLean side. “When you couldn’t work in the transfer market, that’s what you had to do.
“Youth development was the way forward. We had to build our own and bring through youngsters. That was the focal point of Motherwell.
“That’s also what brought the money in during my tenure. Once we got back into the top division, at the end of the season we sold Gary McAllister and Ally Mauchlen to Leicester City for around £250,000.
“You’re losing your best players. That’s how it was. It was needs must.”
Fees generated by the sales of McAllister and Mauchlen, followed by the further sales of Andy Walker, Tom Boyd and then Phil O’Donnell after McLean departed, have left a lasting legacy at Fir Park.
The construction of the Cooper and South Stands were part-financed by the glut of cash the youth production line brought in, helping to build infrastructure which is still crucial to today’s incumbents.
“Every time I go by Fir Park or see it from the motorway, I see the stands,” said McLean.
“I think ‘that was part of parcel of the players that did that’. It came from the transfer fees they brought in.”
Despite losing talents through his early tenure at Fir Park, McLean was building the foundations of a team which would eventually achieve the prize of the Scottish Cup in 1991.
“The first six years were mainly working on ins and outs, selling players, saving on wages and all of that,” he said.
“The first thing we had to do was make sure the club survived. So you’d lose your better players every year and you’d start from scratch.
“There was a challenge every year at Motherwell. There were a lot of hard times we had to come through.
“It wasn’t until near the cup final that we started building the club up, and building the reputation that we weren’t a bad team.”
The player who would tie it all together would arrive in August 1989. Davie Cooper had fallen out of favour at Rangers. An opportunity landed in the manager’s lap.
“How it came about was we used to go out with the wives for a meal on Saturday night. One night there was me and my wife, Tam Forsyth and his wife, and then Davie, his wife, and his pal Ricky Jordan and his wife.
“We were sitting at dinner and Coop left the table. Ricky said to me ‘Coop is not happy at Rangers’. Mark Walters was playing ahead of him, so he was unsettled at not playing.
“Ricky said to me I should think about him. Think about him? I didn’t need to think about him.
“On Monday morning, I phoned Walter Smith and said ‘I hear Davie Cooper is a bit unsettled.’. He said it was the first he’d heard of it but he would go and look at it. He phoned me back and said they would let him go. He gave me a figure and I went to John Chapman.
“Now, John Chapman was a brilliant chairman. But whenever I mentioned a player, I would give a figure and he would say ‘we will work on it’. What he meant was to try and get it lower or get staged payments.
“The one and only time he said it was no problem was when it was Davie Cooper. He was in the latter stages of his career, but it rejuvenated him.
“He also made players better. He made Tam Boyd better. Phil O’Donnell better. The whole of team, really. It took them to a different level.”
Not only that, but he helped lift the Well to the prize that had eluded them since 1952.
While McLean’s inaugural years at Fir Park were spent trying to secure Motherwell’s very survival, the events which would follow would take even greater significance.
Winning promotion back to the top flight at the first time of asking, but still having to balance the books, the momentum started going in the Steelmen’s direction with the arrival of Davie Cooper in 1989.
By the time the 1990/91 Scottish Cup campaign started, Motherwell were on a 39-year hiatus from lifting the famous trophy.
With optimism that run could be ended always present in fans’ minds, there was a dark cloud lingering over the town.
The impending closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks threatened to decimate employment and prosperity in the town.
McLean set his men about giving the people an escape.
“We used Ravenscraig as a central focus during the run,” he recalled.
“I leant on the fact people were losing their jobs, but they are still coming to Motherwell. It was imperative and important that the players gave no less than 100% for them. You can take losing if you give 100%. But there are certain things you can’t accept if the effort isn’t there.
“For the guys from Ravenscraig, money was hard-earned and they were losing their jobs. But they were still coming to support their club. We had to give everything we possibly could back, and give them a lift on a Saturday night.
“The players did that. They cottoned onto the idea and we used as a basis for the final.”
To get to Hampden however, an imposing path had to be navigated.
Aberdeen away in the first match yielded a 1-0 win, before a 4-2 home win over Falkirk. Morton lay in wait in the last eight, with a replay and penalties needed to separate the sides.
Celtic stood between the men in claret and amber from a place in the showpiece. A 0-0 draw in the first attempt at Hampden meant for another encounter in Mount Florida, with a famous 4-2 win sending ‘Well heading back in May.
The rest is history, of course, as Motherwell returned home with the trophy.
“In the semi-final and the final, we scored four goals in each game,” said McLean. “We won the replay 4-2 against Celtic, and then of course won the final against Dundee United 4-3.
“I look back on it with such pride. And of course, it also brought Motherwell European football for the first time. It put us on the map.
“The game was a masterclass. I watch it back regularly. I take great pride from the players we brought through who did a turn for the club.
“Jim Griffin was outstanding in the final. He was one of the better players. He was one of the unsung heroes. Him and Chris McCart.
“People don’t realise that in that starting team, there were only two players that cost money for Motherwell. Davie Cooper and Iain Ferguson.
“We had players who came through the system. Maxwell, Boyd, O’Donnell, Griffin. We had Dougie Arnott who cost buttons from the Juniors. It was a great achievement.”
Remarkably, an even greater achievement could have followed in the 1993/94 season.
The last Premier Division campaign played with a two-points-for-a-win system, ‘Well were in title contention right to the wire.
McLean picks up the story. “We were very unfortunate,” he said. “There were three games to go and we were neck-and-neck with Aberdeen and Rangers.
“We played Dundee United at Fir Park and lost 2-0. Then we drew 3-3 with Raith Rovers in Kirkcaldy, then lost the last game of the season to St Johnstone.
“We took one point out of a possible six. We had such a chance. It was an unbelievable achievement for Motherwell to be in contention so late on.”
Four points, and a vastly superior Rangers goal difference, was what separated Motherwell from breaking Rangers’ eventual nine-in-a-row Championship charge and cementing a win which would have yielded a whole other set of club legends.
McLean would leave that summer. Recognition would follow in later years, where he was voted the club’s greatest-ever manager. A place in the Scottish Football Hall of Fame also was bestowed upon him.
“It was great to be in their thoughts and be named the club’s greatest manager. There were also a lot of hard times we had to come through. It came eventually. The progress was steady throughout the 10 years I was there. The first six years was mainly working on selling players and saving wages. Getting rid of a full-time player and bringing a part-time player, for example. It was survival.
“You think of the team that could have been if we could have kept everyone together.. Dysktra, Boyd, McKinnon, Martin, Kripovavic. Lambert, McAllister, O’Donnell, Cooper. Arnott or Walker and Coyne.
“In between that you’ve got Chris McCart, Jim Griffin, Bobby Russell, Ally Mauchlen. There are a lot of players that jump out. If you could have got all of them playing together, you’d have loved to have seen it.
“I sometimes think what my best XI would have been if I kept them all. A lot of players went through the hatch, through the system. There were a lot of good players. There were Andy Walker and Fraser Wishart after that too. Then after that it was Tam Boyd and Phil O’Donnell, although Phil left after I did.
“There were a lot of good players. The fees we got for them helped build the stands at Motherwell.”