With the opening Scottish Premiership matchday now behind us, we can finally get settled in…
Stephen Robinson was vastly underqualified for the Motherwell job when it was handed to him just under one year ago. Tasked with replacing Mark McGhee after his second stint at the club had ended in disarray, Robinson was asked to avoid relegation at all costs and to keep an institution that had seen McGhee, Stuart McCall, Craig Brown and Terry Butcher pass through its doors in recent memory.
Prior to becoming first-team coach at Fir Park, Robinson’s experience had amounted to just six, relatively poor months at Oldham Athletic. He was an assistant manager at heart, working under Michael O’Neill at Northern Ireland as well as Ian Baraclough and then McGhee at Motherwell. Yet what he has done since stepping up to the role has been nothing short of remarkable.
When Robinson took over for his first game away to Kilmarnock on March 4, Motherwell were sitting slumped over in tenth place in the Scottish Premiership. With just three wins in their previous 14 leagues games, the Steelmen sat just three points above automatic relegation and just two above a tricky play-off spot. Things had to change quickly if they were to avoid the dogfight at the bottom of the table.
And they did – in a way – with a surprising 2-1 win away to Lee McCulloch’s side. Over the remaining 10 league games, Robinson’s side would actually lose six, but they crucially picked up results against the teams around them in the table. Defeats to St Johnstone or Aberdeen didn’t really matter when wins over Inverness, Kilmarnock and Hamilton proved far more crucial in keeping the Fir Park side out of the bottom two. Come May, Motherwell had moved up just one spot in the table and had avoided relegation by a mere four points. But it was enough and Robinson had achieved his short-term goal.
With a full off-season and transfer window behind them, Motherwell and Robinson have stepped up a gear and it has been this current campaign that has properly showcased what the Northern Irish coach can do when given the time and personnel to build a squad.
Shrewd, summer signings like Trevor Carson, Peter Hartley, Gael Bigirimana, Cedric Kipre, and Craig Tanner have all been embedded directly into Robinson’s side and made notable differences from day one. And coupled with Robinson’s effective coaching and tactics it quickly saw Motherwell fly up the league table and resign the fears of relegation to the history books.
Despite an opening-day defeat to Rangers and then a 4-1 thumping at McDiarmid Park, Motherwell looked like an entirely new side and it quickly began to show with physical, determined performances. After the two, aforementioned defeats Robinson’s side went on a run that saw them lose just three of their next 13 league games and climb as high as fourth in the league table.
This was no longer a team devoid of inspiration and feeling sorry for itself at the bottom of the table. It was a side willing to run through walls for their manager and seemingly feared no foe in their quest to break the status quo. Scottish football was blown away by Motherwell’s march to the League Cup final via knockout blows to both Aberdeen and Rangers, while simultaneously picking up impressive results against Celtic, Hearts and Hibs in the league. By the time Motherwell reached Hampden to face Brendan Rodgers’ invincible champions, they were sitting fourth in the Premiership, just four points off second-placed Rangers.
Although Motherwell would go on to narrowly lose the final and the subsequent double-header against Celtic directly afterwards would completely derail their form in the league, it was still the club’s first final in six years and undoubtedly a day in which fans could applaud and cherish the hard work and expertise that had got them there in the first place. Robinson had taken Motherwell from relegation fodder to a side capable of going toe-to-toe with Celtic’s history-defining side. And he did it all in the space of nine months.
When we take a look at the numbers such achievements are clearly highlighted in Robinson’s record against his predecessors at Fir Park. The graph above shows the win percentage of each Motherwell manager going all the way back to Terry Butcher in 2002. And as we can see the current first-team coach doesn’t stack up too poorly at all.
Actually, it’s worth noting here that although Craig Brown sits top by just 0.47% it’s likely that Robinson will overtake him when his side enters the Premiership split and play their remaining games against the bottom half of the table. Although other managers may have taken Motherwell to greater heights in the league in the past 16 years, by the end of this current campaign none may have a better record of winning matches than Robinson.
In an era in which the Premiership top six is dominated by the country’s top five clubs, it’s hard to envisage a club breaking through quite like St Johnstone did under Tommy Wright once upon a time. Kilmarnock may achieve it under the stewardship of Steve Clarke yet aside from their own impressive season it is Motherwell that stand out as this season’s example of what can be achieved when the right coach arrives at precisely the right time. With one year under his belt at Fir Park, it’s undoubtedly an exciting time to be a Motherwell fan with Robinson in charge.