The Scottish game from the Borders to the Highlands & Islands and beyond
The word “legend” is banded about an awful lot these days. But ex-Motherwell striker Steve Kirk is a living one, at least in one Lanarkshire town anyway.
It was 20 years ago almost to the day that his winner started the biggest party the area had seen for quite some time as the Steelmen sealed an incredible and emotional 4-3 victory over Dundee United to lift the Scottish Cup.
Move on two decades and while it’s the might of Celtic standing between ‘Well and possibly another party when both teams meet in this Saturday’s Scottish Cup Final at Hampden, Kirk at least has his place in the pantheon of legends within Fir Park.
“Aren’t legends supposed to be dead?” laughs Kirk, now a Community Coach with the club.
“Being a living one is funny and while it’s a term I don’t particularly like, for me, it’s an honour to be remembered in that way, especially having won the Scottish Cup. The last 20 years have been great and I have to admit, it’s been a while since I bought a drink in Motherwell.”
It’s a YouTube favourite and a game widely regarded as one of the finest Scottish Cup finals of all time as Tommy McLean’s Motherwell side met big brother Jim’s Dundee United outfit, with the game slightly overshadowed by the sad death of their father earlier that week.
The game, which Motherwell won in extra-time thanks to supersub Kirk’s winner, is now tinged with sadness. Four of the squad involved with the club have since sadly passed away, including Davie Cooper and Phil O’Donnell, who both played that day.
It is for that reason, along with the fact that the club ended a 39-year trophy drought, that the day is remembered so vividly and fondly by the club and its fans.
Iain Ferguson scored Motherwell’s opener with a header before keeper Ally Maxwell collided with John Clark and suffered two broken ribs. With no goalie on the bench, the Fir Park keeper had to play on. And what a performance he gave.
Dave Bowman pulled United level before O’Donnell headed Motherwell ahead again, with Ian Angus adding a third. At 3-1 up, the cup looked as though it was destined for Fir Park. No one told Jim McLean though as the Tayside club produced a comeback with John O’Neil then Darren Jackson netting in the last minute to send the game into extra time.
Out on their feet and with their keeper wincing in pain every time he kicked the ball, it seemed as though it could prove to be half an hour too far for Motherwell. But that proved not to be the case, as Kirk converted a free header from a Cooper cross to send the Claret and Amber army into wild celebration.
It was a truly amazing game and a superb performance, the likes of which current Well manager Stuart McCall – no stranger to cup finals, himself – must emulate if those sort of celebrations are to be seen in the town again. There’s no doubt it’s a huge test for Motherwell, but Kirk sees similarities between the team he played in and the club’s current crop.
He said: “First of all, Darren Randolph is an outstanding goalkeeper, then you have a back four - including Stephen Craigan - that can always put the fear of God into strikers, much like our defence did back then.
“The midfield is also similar. The two guys out wide get into space and ping balls into the middle and the two guys in the centre just work their socks off - I think Steve Jennings and Keith Lasley are like Phil O’Donnell and Ian Angus in that respect.
“We had good hard-working strikers in Iain Ferguson and Dougie Arnott and it’s the same up front now, whether it’s John Sutton, Franny Jeffers or Steve Jones that play. Like us, this team doesn’t have any superstars and will just go about their business.”
For Motherwell, it’s only about winning a major trophy, but it’s qualifying for Europe - and having done so in the last three seasons, there is certainly a taste for the continental. As for Celtic, missing out on the SPL title to Rangers last week will still hurt. This is the ideal way to ease that pain.
In many way it’s been a torturous season for Neil Lennon, and to win his first piece of silverware since taking over from Tony Mowbray would be considerable consolation.
Nerves are another aspect of such a big day and how the affect the players as they enter the cauldron of noise and sound that a stadium like Hampden can bring and Kirk himself admits the occasion got to some of his team-mates in 1991.
He said: “I think there are nerves before every big game and people can show it in different ways. I don’t know about the current squad and their pre-match routines, but in our day we had Colin O’Neill throwing up in the toilets while everyone just got their boots and got on with it.
“There’s no doubt the nerves will be involved. It’s a cup final and you’ll find players worried about making a mistake and what the cost of an error would be. But I think the team on Saturday will be confident, having already beaten Celtic earlier this season. On the day, Motherwell will go in as underdogs with Celtic as firm favourites, but it will be close.”
Kirk believes it is time for a new generation of legends to emerge from the club and the cup winner would be happy to see the current team be mentioned in the same breath as the team of two decades ago.
“This may be the time now for the club to win another honour and it’s been 20 years. These guys have got it on their shoulders now and it’s up to them to change history. I certainly wish them the best of luck and if they do it, it would be fantastic.”
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