This was the end.
After an awful lot of travelling, today was to be the last day spent on public transport heading to one of the 42 grounds.
A few months ago, I saw a tweet explaining when Celtic could win the league. Early, I thought. I wondered whether I would finish my travels or they would win the league first. As it turned out, I would finish first.
On that oh so familiar train, I had time to think. I was happy to be finishing. Relieved to have finished it in the time scale I set, without a single postponement.
This has consumed most of my weekends, and I look forward to having some spare time now. Full days spent travelling are no more, and I can choose which games I want to go to, if any, from this point forward.
I will write a post at some point with my general thoughts on the experience and Scottish football, today, my focus was firmly on Fir Park, and enjoying the home straight on this Scottish football marathon.
A few people asked me during the week if I had saved Fir Park for a reason. While some kind of sentimental finish might have been nice, the answer was no. It was entirely a matter of scheduling, and just how things turned out.
Having spent so much time on trains, perhaps it was appropriate to end with a fairly lengthy trip. A bit of writing, some reading and the occasional nap helped to pass time.
As we approach the ‘business end’ of the season (to borrow a phrase I’m not that keen on) managers and players find themselves under an extra level of scrutiny. It is now becoming clear which teams have exceeded expectations and which teams have performed poorly. For underperforming managers in particular, there will be an ear directed towards the murmurings of the boardroom.
There is little room for error when hundreds of thousands of pounds are at stake.
With that in mind, today happened to be the first game in charge for Stephen Robinson as the full time manager of Motherwell. He would be up against St Johnstone, and the excellent Tommy Wright, who has surely earned the right to at least be considered for bigger jobs, even if Saints fans dread the thought.
The outgoing manager at Fir Park was Mark McGhee. Despite initial scepticism over his appointment, he went some way to winning over fans of the Steelmen early in his second spell in charge. However things became much more challenging in recent weeks and heavy defeats to Aberdeen and Dundee preceded his departure from the club.
It’s a brutal business at times, but when large swathes of fans turn against a manager, and results don’t improve, there is often a sense of the inevitable when the manager departs.
The Steelmen are precariously perched above the relegation zone. Just three points clear of the bottom, it would only take an unfortunate run of results to put their top flight status at risk. With the drop in income that would come with relegation, that is not something that the money men would even want to consider.
In Motherwell’s case, the money men are fans. Having pledged their money, the fans now control of the club. Something as potentially challenging as keeping member numbers for fan ownership high would be unlikely to be made easier by relegation.
One of of the first things that caught my eye was the stickers on the seats of season ticket holders. Several had messages saying that the person sitting in that seat owned part of the club. I think this is a good idea for a variety of reasons. People should be proud of the fact that they own a percentage of their club, and if it encourages others to sign up then that can only be a positive.
Fir Park is a great stadium. The huge away stand behind the goal is very impressive. It almost seems a bit much, and out of place next to the smaller stands, but it adds significantly to the capacity. On a day like today, with St Johnstone the opponents, it really does seem like it’s just a bit too big. However, when sides with big away supports play there, it allows them to maximise their revenue from the away fans.
I sat in the stand at the other end of the pitch. To my right was the traditional main stand and to my left a smaller stand where some of the more vocal fans, as well as the young ‘ultra’ group sit, or stand.
That stand is stuck in my memory from watching old highlights. Now it has advertising splashed all over it, but I remember it used to have a message along the lines of ‘keep cigarettes away from the match.’ I always thought it was a bit different to any other ground, although I’m sure the change comes across better on TV, and helps to raise some money for the club.
The match started badly for the hosts.
Just minutes in to the first half a perfectly placed cross found its way to the head of Liam Craig just six yards from goal. His header was slowed by Craig Samson, but it couldn’t be stopped.
Samson proved to be a frustrating figure for the home fans in what remained of the half. His insistence on punching, when it appeared safer to catch the ball infuriated the home fans.
One can only assume that he was doing what he had been told, but the loud, ironic cheers on the occasions when he did catch the ball spoke volumes of a frustrated support. As far as I can remember, it didn’t happen at all in the second half.
Just before half time, Scott McDonald levelled the scores. The Australian striker hit a low volley after a scramble near the goal, and it just about managed to sneak over the line. The ‘Well fans were happy. It was all to play for in the second half.
Motherwell seized the initiative. They had the bulk of possession, and created most of the chances.
Against the run of play, though, it was St Johnstone that doubled their lead. A neat Liam Craig volley flew past Samson from a narrow angle, and it was 2-1.
Motherwell then put their visitors under even more pressure, and they came within inches of an equaliser. A header looped over the Saints keeper, bounced of from the inside of the post and trickled along the line before being cleared.
It was a brilliant, yet cruel ending. Nobody could have complained if it had gone in, as they had done more than enough to deserve a point.
It’s an exciting time for the Steelmen, with fan the transition to fan ownership completed. However, in the short term, top flight survival has to be a priority. Perhaps the change in management will help to give them the push they need to move away from danger.
For me, this was a nice note to finish on. Perhaps the Hollywood last minute equaliser would have added to the occasion – I was engrossed by that point, and ready to celebrate – but it wasn’t to be.
Check back in the week to come for my final thoughts on the 42 Grounds.
Motherwell 1 St Johnstone 2