This article first appeared in Issue 14 of The Football Pink fanzine
In the 1950s, Manchester United had the Busby Babes who achieved glory and mythical status before tragedy robbed them of their destinies. In Scotland, another group of Babes were catching the eye, although without the silverware to back up their reputation.
Scotland in the mid-fifties was a grey, dull, dour place. Conservative in thought and deed, Tory voting (there were more Tory voters in Scotland than England) and overwhelmingly Protestant. With heavy industry flourishing in virtually all the cities, most Scots were employed and eager to maintain the status quo. Motherwell had steel running through its veins. The iron and steel works of the north Lanarkshire town fed a vast network of subsidiaries, from munitions to tram and coach builders, automotive works and the giant iron parts for bridges. The football club were founded in 1886 and were consequently known as the Steelmen. There is one accusation that you cannot level at a Motherwell fan - glory hunter. Indeed, one can best describe the Lanarkshire club as “pottering along”, theirs is a history of mediocrity enlivened with brief interludes of fleeting success. And that’s the thing with any football story, the next spell of joyous euphoria is, potentially, just around the corner. The football fan patiently waits for the clouds to part, this revelation is what sustains us, makes us what we are. This is a story of a club on the edge of despair, a club that in the mid-fifties faced up to the reality of a football life on the outside; perennial, mediocre also rans. When circumstance conspired to offer up a tantalising glimpse of a way out, a bureaucratic adjustment, a new manager and a perfect storm of tricky, young inside forwards would combine to launch themselves at Scottish football posterity.
The seeds were sown with the 1932 side that won the league, losing just two games in the process, with a team that featured stalwarts like Rob Ferrier, Willie McFayden and George Stevenson. The manager was John “Sailor” Hunter and their philosophy of continuity – their motto at the time being “We build, not pull down” – ensured their league victory was sandwiched between two cup final appearances, albeit two unlucky defeats both at the hands of Celtic. The press heaped praise on the club who broke the Old Firm’s steely grip on Scottish football silverware. The Daily Record lauded “their clever and polished play, and their repeated refusal of English gold for their home-trained players.” It was a golden dawn for the Fir Park club but alas a false one. They reached the Scottish cup final again in 1951, with a side fearing relegation, facing their bête noir Celtic; once again they were beaten, putting in a performance that W.G. Gallacher described as - “devoid of skill, lacking in confidence in themselves and all through the piece were hesitant. Method was not one of their qualities.” 1952 saw them back in the Cup final again, this time against a quality Dundee side packed with internationals and brimming with confidence. The Steelmen were in another relegation battle but nevertheless lifted the Cup after a second half smash and grab, scoring four goals; the following season they were relegated.
The gap between the top two divisions in Scotland was so wide that Motherwell finished top the following season and were promoted. However, they struggled again in the top flight and finished second last, seemingly doomed to perpetually yo-yo between the divisions when serendipity intervened. In a dispute over reserve teams playing in the third tier, the league decided to disband this division altogether extending the first and second division to 18 and 19 teams respectively; relegation was abandoned for the season and Motherwell were saved. The manager, George Stephenson, stepped down and left the way clear for the boards choice, Bobby Ancell, to take the reins. Ancell had impressed at Dunfermline where he had built a young team with virtually no money, securing them their first promotion in eighteen years.
Motherwell would give Ancell carte blanche to develop his football philosophy, providing of course that he would do it cheaply. Ancell had been impressed with Wolverhampton Wanderers’ floodlit friendlies down south against sides like Honved and Spartak Moscow, and sought to replicate those kinds of tests at Fir Park primarily to show the young side he eventually assembled the quality of good, efficient ball work; but also to boost the clubs ever dwindling coffers.
Between 1955 and 1957 Ancell added young players like Sammy Reid, Pat Quinn, Andy Weir and Ian St John to backs like Charlie Aitken, John Martis and Bert McCann, reducing the teams average age from 31 to 25. The new philosophy reaped immediate dividends with Motherwell securing a mid-table finish for the 55/56 season. Summer saw the installation of floodlights and a friendly with Preston North End (a 2-3 loss). This was followed by friendlies against Atletico Madrid and Brazilian side Flamengo, who impressed with their speedy wingers and took a two goal lead before being crushed 7-2, with St. John getting six goals. Another crucial friendly at this period allowed the Steelmen to be measured against another great football team which was just beginning to develop, Don Revie’s Leeds United. The Saint scored a brace, despite the attentions of Jack Charlton, in a seven goal rout; more than anything these games were formative in developing the confidence of Ancell’s Babes, as they were coming to be known. After an early period of dominance in the 56/57 season, which would see them installed as favourites for the league, they fell away in the latter stages ending up in seventh overall. Despite all this the board continued their policy of non-interference and Ancell revelled in the freedom he was afforded.
The following season would see the Steelmen consolidate their progress in the league, while they were narrowly beaten 3-2 in the Cup by Clyde, unfortunately hitting the post in the final seconds to deny them a much deserved replay. The close season also saw the release of Shaw, Paton and Cox, the last remaining players of the 1952 cup winning team, the 58/59 side would truly be Ancell’s own. One infamous league game took place on October 11th, as revealed by Ian St. John in his autobiography, The Saint. A Glasgow betting syndicate, containing several high profile players, planned a coup involving Third Lanark (Motherwell’s opponents) and another unnamed, long odds, away team for a combined double of 10/1. Motherwell’s players would be paid £100 a man for the fix, a considerable sum when one considers they would have been on a win bonus for the game of just £2. The temptation was irresistible and they agreed to throw the game. There was just one problem, their goalkeeper, Hastie Weir, would have to be informed that “the fix was in.” The problem was that Weir already had an excellent well paid job as a works manager and didn’t need the money; predictably he went apoplectic and stormed out to fetch Ancell. The manager coldly informed them that if they went ahead with the plan, their careers would be over. To leave no doubt, the Steelmen duly hammered the unfortunate Third Lanark – who knew nothing – 8-1, with the Saint bagging a hat trick. He would recall the incident later at Liverpool when another match fixing scandal broke:
“Shankly went mad, marching around the dressing room declaring, “Anyone who bets against his own team should go to fucking jail, they should throw away the key.” and while he ranted my blood ran cold.”
Ancell demanded of his young charges that they “play fast attacking football” and along with the demolition of the unfortunate Third Lanark, they put five goals past Airdrie and four past Dunfermline, both games played away from home. On March 25th Motherwell legend John ‘Sailor’ Hunter retired from his position as club secretary. He had played with distinction for Liverpool, Arsenal and Hearts among others, before taking up the role of manager for the Steelmen in 1911; 48 years of selfless dedication came to an end. Yet another incident took place that season, in an away game against Third Lanark, that impressed on Ancell’s young players just how transitory a football career was. Andy Weir was the archetypal nippy two-footed winger. Ian St. John said of him “he could cross the ball on the run as well as any player I’ve ever seen” – he was involved in a clash of heads in the first half and was stretchered off and subsequently taken to hospital. His teammates were shocked when the doctor advised them to “pray for him”. Weir had a fractured skull, had contracted meningitis and was given twenty-four hours to live. Thankfully, he pulled through and after a few months in hospital he even resumed playing. But he was never the same player; he would end up in a wheelchair and die young. The whole episode stank in the eyes of the Babes and a few of them began to look elsewhere, disillusioned by what they perceived as the calculated callousness of the club.
1959/60 would see the football continue to improve, even though results continued to elude the Steelmen. However, they did achieve the distinction of beating Rangers in all four of their league games, an unprecedented feat. These results were not going unnoticed, and for the first time eyes outside Scotland were turning their gaze covetously towards Ancell’s diminutive dynamos. The new manager of Liverpool, one Bill Shankly, came calling in early 1960 and signed Sammy Reid for £8,000. Reid would say of the transfer, “I was Shankly’s first signing, but I was also his first flop.” Plagued by injury he would never play for Liverpool, instead finding himself back in Scotland and playing for Falkirk before the year was out. Sammy would go on to score one of the most famous goals in Scottish cup history, when he obliged for Berwick Rangers in their 1967 giant killing of Rangers. Undaunted, Shankly would return to the ‘Well; the Babes were finally realising their worth. Alas the club were not. The season ended with the Steelmen in 5th, 14 points behind the champions, Hearts. The following season would see the same pattern repeated as indifferent performances saw them finish in exactly the same position with two points less. There was one brief interlude courtesy of the Scottish cup, that would ultimately turn out to be Ancell’s finest hour. It came in a replay at Ibrox, with 90,000 in attendance and thousands more locked outside. The Steelmen were a goal up after 10 minutes, but Rangers were soon into their stride and by half-time were 2-1 ahead, the result looking all too predictable. However, the ‘Well relaxed into their familiar quick, passing game not giving the Rangers defenders any respite. By the final whistle, a silent Ibrox could not believe what they had just witnessed, Ancell’s Babes had thrashed them 5-2. Hopes of the cup were dashed in the quarter-final when they lost out to local rivals Airdrie. In early May, the club accepted a bid of £37,500 for Ian St. John, Shankly had returned and got his man.
In the following four seasons until Ancell’s departure in 1965, the club would finish 9th, 10th, 11th and 14th. Of course the stats point out that Motherwell won nothing under Ancell’s tenure, and that is indisputable, but our game doesn’t exist in just data. The great beauty and intricacies are only visible to the witness, or sometimes commuted to a following generation, embellished and glorified. One just need to hark back to the Champions League final of 2011 at Wembley that saw Barcelona - with an attacking line up of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Alves and Pedro - absolutely annihilate Manchester United, to see Ancell’s idea of football in all its free flowing glory. Ancell finally called time on his Motherwell career in 1965, it would start a period of dominance for Celtic who would win nine league titles in a row and the European Cup, largely by playing “fast attacking” football. But Scotland has always had its tough, skilful players and charismatic, visionary managers. It is the administration, at both club and national level, that is still stuck in the grey days of the fifties.
“And their shouts bobbed up
Coming fine and thin, washed and happy
While the humped world sank foundering
And the valleys blued unthinkable
Under depth of Atlantic depression –
But the wingers leapt, they bicycled in air
And the goalie flew horizontal
And once again a golden holocaust
Lifted the clouds edge, to watch them.”
Ted Hughes. Football at Slack.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN - @clockend5