Scenes, McLeans and Ruptured Spleens: The 1991 Scottish Cup Final

Posted: May 16, 2021 in Scottish Football, Uncategorized
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On 18th May 1991, Terry Venables and Brian Clough strode out hand in hand on the Wembley turf, leading out two clubs who would play out perhaps the last truly iconic FA Cup final. If Italia ’90 had made English football box office again, Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Nottingham Forest was the Empire Strikes Back to that World Cup’s A New Hope – a dark sequel where misfortune befell the heroes. The manic energy that had fuelled Paul Gascoigne’s rise to poster boy status was instead channeled into two wild challenges and the wrecked knee that changed everything; Gary Lineker, who’d become only the second Englishman ever to score in a World Cup semi final, now became only the second to have a penalty saved in an FA Cup final. Stuart Pearce, penalty miss and broken heart behind him, opened the scoring with an emphatic free kick, but nevertheless ended up on the losing side again, while teammate Des Walker, so unflappable in Italy, scored the own goal that gave the cup to Spurs. Few finals in the thirty years since have captured that same operatic quality, and the subsequent bursting of the trophy’s aura probably means none ever will.

North of the border, however, on that very same day, Hampden Park was hosting an even more enthralling final. Dundee United and Motherwell, managed respectively by brothers Jim and Tommy McLean, produced between them seven goals, numerous acts of heroism and perhaps the greatest Scottish Cup final of them all…

McLean vs McLean

The brothers McLean were in the business of building dynasties. Obviously, the one created by Jim was by some way the more glittering – in his 20 years at Tannadice, his Presbyterian fire and brimstone had moulded a talented set of young players into a unit that would fracture the Old Firm’s dominance of Scottish football. Back-to-back League Cups in 1979 and 1980 were followed by a maiden League Championship for The Arabs in 1983, then some memorable excursions to the semi finals of the European Cup and final of the UEFA Cup, famously bouncing Barcelona from the competition en route. The SFA cup, however, had managed to elude him, despite five final appearances on his watch.

Tommy, a decade Jim’s junior, hadn’t been able to deliver much silverware in seven years at Firhill, but he had stabilised a basket case club, returned them to the SPL, funded the redevelopment of the stadium through player sales and slowly but surely built a hardworking, determined side, populated predominantly by youth team graduates and cheap and cheerful rolls of the dice.

By the dawn of the nineties, Motherwell were a club on the rise, but Dundee United were at the end of a cycle. Many of the heroes of the Camp Nou had moved on, while a new crop of talented starlets, who would bring further success to Tannadice, were not quite ready to break through. Still, they were heavy favourites going into the ’91 final. United had beaten Motherwell three times out of four in the league, finishing fourth to ‘Well’s sixth. Tommy McLean had never finished higher in the table than his brother at any point in his managerial career.

There was a strong bond between the McLean brothers, and they were delighted to be facing each other on such a momentous stage. Yet there would be a tragic twist ahead of the ‘family final’, when their beloved father, Tom Sr, died just a week before the game. The two managers would wear black ties as a park of respect while sombrely leading out their teams on the day.

Sadness pervaded the build even beyond the McLean clan. In Motherwell, concern had been growing for some time regarding the future of the Ravenscraig steel works -the backbone of a city dubbed ‘Steelopolis’. The community was devastated when the news was confirmed, in the early months of 1991, that the works would close, taking with it 1220 jobs and affecting thousands more across the city. Tommy McLean reminded his players of their duty to those supporters who continued to pass through the turnstiles and roar them on in the darkest of times: ‘Despite the fact people were worried for their future, for the jobs that put food on the table, they were still putting their hands in their pockets and paying through the gate to watch Motherwell play,’ he recalled in his autobiography. ‘I told the squad they had a responsibility to those supporters to make sure the money they spent to back the team wasn’t wasted.’

Though the focus in the days before the game was on the managers, there were a number of tantalising sub-plots on the pitch, too. Forward Stevie Kirk – a substitute throughout their run – had developed an incredible knack of coming off the bench to score vital goals. He drove home a venomous 25-yarder to vanquish holders Aberdeen with his first touch, notched against Falkirk in the next round, and though he failed to find the net in two games against Morton, he buried his penalty in the decisive shootout. Most impressive of all was the stunner he looped into the stanchion of Pat Bonner’s goal to make the game safe against Celtic in the semis. A £20,000 bargain buy from East Fife, he had his sights on completing the set at Hampden.

The battle on the flank between the players who’d finished first and second in that season’s Scottish Football Writers’ awards was another enticing prospect. United right back Maurice Malpas had pipped Davie Cooper to the SFW Player of the Year gong by a single vote, then declared in his acceptance speech that he’d have voted for Cooper. ‘The tricksy forward of dubious temperament against the solid and sensible defender has been the story of Scottish football through the ages’ declared The List of their forthcoming duel.

Yet such a description was harsh on Cooper, whose ‘Moody Blue’ tag was rejected by those who knew him. His move to Motherwell in 1989, at the age of 33, had worked wonders for both parties. A fee of just £50,000 had taken him to Lanarkshire, and it soon became clear that his bag of tricks was still overflowing. “He could have played a violin with it,” said Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh of Cooper’s left foot, and it was only injury that prevented him from going to Italia ’90.

Cooper added more than just the skill and devilry that made him Scotland’s finest winger of the 80s. He brought a fearlessness and winner’s mentality that spread to the rest of the team: “He would go straight out and start stretching and warming up in front of the Celtic fans in the Jungle, lapping it up as they bayed for him,” Tommy McLean recalled. “I could see the impact it had on the players around him…all of a sudden there was a way to take on the big boys and play them at their own game.”

The other experienced ‘name’ in Motherwell’s line up was particularly motivated to stick one up Dundee United. Iain Ferguson had scored some of the biggest goals in The Arabs’ history during their run to the UEFA Cup final, only to be sold by Jim McLean. Now turning out for his boyhood club, he was keen to remind his former teammates of their Hampden hoodoo: “A lot of those players who had played with United over a number of years, they’d won the league and League Cups but they seemed to go to Hampden and freeze,” Ferguson told The Scotsman in 2019. “I remember being in the tunnel with Davie Cooper, who was a real good pal of mine. We were lining up. I did say: ‘get into this mob, they cannae play at Hampden’. Half of them turned round. I was like: ‘well, it’s true isn’t it?’”

Hampden

Tommy McLean sensed jitters among his charges, though his attempt to soothe them on the coach to the stadium with a selection of meditative tunes – ‘not quite whale music, but probably just one step away from it’ – met with general befuddlement. That it hadn’t had the desired effect became apparent within minutes of the kick off, as Dundee United made much the quicker start, Hamish French having a goal ruled out for a marginal offside call before Freddy van der Hoorn’s free kick struck the inside of the post.

‘Well did settle though, and began to look dangerous themselves. Ferguson would live up to his reputation as a man for the big occasion, meeting Jim Griffin’s cross at its highest point to slam a header into the net and give the underdogs the lead just after the half-hour mark, an advantage they would take into the interval.

Early in the second half came the final’s defining moment. As United sought a way back into the game, gargantuan defender John Clark leapt for a high ball in the Motherwell box and clattered full force into goalkeeper Ally Maxwell, who landed badly.

Very badly.

Maxwell first got the inkling that something was seriously wrong when he heard an ominous gurgling from his stomach. Then he realised he was having trouble breathing, was unsteady on his feet and was having double vision. These were the days before substitute ‘keepers, so he had to persevere, in wobbly fashion. Deciding to test the stricken custodian’s limitations, Dave Bowman surged forward from midfield and tried a daisy cutter from distance. Maxwell went down in instalments as it rolled underneath him and into the net for the equaliser.

With customary resilience, Motherwell responded within three minutes. Cooper, whose influence had been growing, swung a free kick into the mixer, where Craig Paterson headed the ball across the box. Arriving in the style of Krypton’s favourite son was the youngest man on the pitch, 19-year-old Phil O’Donnell, to connect with a courageous cannon of a header to put his team back in front.

It was O’Donnell’s first ever senior goal, and just reward for the local boy, ‘Well’s outstanding player on the day. He’d only made his professional debut the prior November as a fish-out-of-water left back given such a hideous chasing that he immediately disappeared for another three months. He resurfaced in February to show his true self, a box-to-box midfielder of real fizz and industry. He was everywhere at Hampden.

Maxwell was really struggling. For a time it looked as if Kirk, who had started his career as a goalkeeper and even saved a penalty when deputising in the past, would have to replace him between the sticks. Yet Maxwell continued to insist he could continue and was somehow allowed to, so Kirk came on up front for a furious Ferguson instead. Again, his impact was rapid, his cute lay off allowing Ian Angus to rattle a low drive into the bottom corner to make it 3-1.

Two minutes later, United reduced the arrears, courtesy of yet another Hotshot-Hamish-style header, ironically from Lanarkshire-born John O’Neil. They now had just over 20 minutes to save the game and poured forward as ‘Well sat deep to try and protect Maxwell.

They’d made it to injury time when Dougie Arnott eschewed the chance to head for the corner flag, his attempted through ball for O’Donnell collected calmly by Alan Main in the Dundee United goal. Main punted a long one straight down the middle and suddenly the Motherwell defence melted away, leaving United’s top scorer, Darren Jackson, all alone against the wheezing Maxwell. The striker let the ball bounce once and then calmly headed past him and into the empty goal. 3-3. Full time.

Motherwell captain Tom Boyd raged at Maxwell for not dealing with Main’s kick, seeing the dream on life support and not realising the severity of his situation. By now the ‘keeper was shakily trying to stand, pausing only to cough up a bit of blood. It would transpire that not only had he broken several ribs, he’d ruptured his spleen. He played on.

The momentum in extra time should have been with the favourites after that late, late equaliser, but Motherwell roused themselves once again and were immediately on the front foot. With five minutes played they forced a corner, whipped in by Cooper, and Main, under pressure, could only fumble towards the back post. Who should be lurking there but Stevie Kirk, as always perfectly placed, to bury another header and make it 4-3.

By this point, Boyd was having to take goal kicks for Maxwell, and it took some serious muck and bullets defending to keep United at bay. As the game entered the final moments of extra time, it seemed that their resolve might wilt at the last again. A Bowman cross into the box produced a goalmouth scramble that saw the ball drop to Malpas, who arrowed a half volley towards the roof of the net. At the last moment, a glove appeared and pushed it over the bar. With his last ounce of strength, Maxwell had somehow been able to fling himself skywards to make a scarcely believable save, before crumpling in agony again. In injury time, Clark, the villain of the piece, had an even better chance, but his shot was blocked into the side netting, and the final whistle blew. A veteran maverick, a teenager and a half-dead goalkeeper had won the cup for Motherwell.

Fallout

Dundee United did not take defeat well. At the end of the game, several players surrounded referee David Syme, incensed about a perceived foul on Main in the build-up to Kirk’s goal. Somewhere in the melee, Jim McInally’s boot was launched and struck Syme flush in the temple. The ban hammer subsequently descended on several players.

There was chaos, too, in the victors’ dressing room where the Motherwell team, in their haste to participate in the post-match revelries, managed to accidentally leave Maxwell behind, moaning softly on a bench. He was discovered by journalist Graham Clark, who drove him to hospital. There, doctors considered removing his spleen, which would have ended his playing career. Fortunately for the goalkeeper, this wasn’t deemed necessary, and Maxwell even checked himself out the next day to join the open top bus tour…then immediately checked himself back in and was bed-bound for nearly two weeks.

The final was something of an end of an era for both sides. For Dundee United, 1990/91 marked the first time they had failed to qualify for Europe for 15 years. Though talented youngsters like Christian Dailly and Billy McKinlay would eventually bring the cup back to Tannadice in 1994, by that point Jim McLean had stepped down as manager, perhaps getting the message that his rule of fear wasn’t as potent as it once was when, having ordered a young Duncan Ferguson to paint the club’s gym as punishment for a misdemeanour, he returned to find the words ‘Jim McLean is a c**t’ daubed everywhere in red paint.

It was fitting that it should be Kirk who scored Motherwell’s first ever goal in European competition, against Poland’s GKS Kosice. Yet their exodus began almost immediately after Boyd lifted the cup. Boyd himself was first to go, heading to Chelsea that summer. Maxwell also never played for the club again, falling out with Tommy McLean over money and departing for Rangers. Ferguson hung around for a couple of years, but he never forgave his manager for subbing him in the final: “That’s when me and Tommy fell out,” he told The Scotsman. “He really should have sold me straightaway.”

The 1991 final retains its reputation as probably the greatest of them all. It was screened in full last year by BBC Scotland during the first lockdown, while the Motherwell team were the subject of a recent Alba documentary. Yet in Motherwell a melancholy pall has settled over the memories of the club’s greatest day due to the untimely passing of four members of that victorious squad.

Just four years after the final, Cooper, by then back at his first club, Clydebank, was filming skills for a coaching video when he suffered a brain haemorrhage. He was pronounced dead on arrival at University Hospital Monklands. He was 39.

12 years later, O’Donnell, the teenage star turn at Hampden, who’d returned to his hometown club after a fine career with Celtic and Sheffield Wednesday and now proudly wore the captain’s armband, collapsed on the pitch with chest pains in another game against Dundee United, and never regained consciousness. He was 35.

Jamie Dolan, a popular young midfielder on the fringes of the team in 1991, who went on to make 193 appearances for the club, was training for Arnott’s testmonial in 2008 when he too suffered a fatal heart attack, aged just 39. Striker Paul McGrillen, another well-liked youngster, took his own life in 2009 at 37. Cooper, O’Donnell and Dolan are buried within 30 yards of each other in Hamilton.

In Tommy McLean’s autobiography, the profound effect the deaths these four young men, all before the age of 40, had on him is evident: “They were dads, husbands and sons…I had watched them shed blood, sweat and tears for me in a Motherwell jersey…I think I fell out of love with football while I came to terms with everything that had happened.”

They, along with all of Tommy McLean’s men of steel, made an indelible mark – both on Scottish football, and in bringing rare joy in a city’s darkest hour.

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