A manager’s nightmare trying to relegate the team he started the season with. A club completing a journey as the other faces the end of the road. Job threats, great expectations and shrunken away supports. Keeper cock-ups and punch-ups, karaoke and a stadium twisting, shouting and shaking.
When you put it like that, it’s easy to see why the 2015 Scottish Premiership play-off final was the most explosive to date.
Motherwell, who began the season in Europe under Stuart McCall, had two games to save their 30-year top-flight status. Standing in their way? A Rangers team, now under the tutelage of McCall, thrust into the play-off on the back of a spluttering campaign but powered by a support yearning to be back in the big time.
All the ingredients for a classic were there. Few could have predicted how it would unfold…
A collision course written in the stars
The 2014-15 season started ominously for McCall at Fir Park. His Motherwell team, second the previous season, were out of Europe to Icelandic minnows Stjarnan at the first hurdle. It would prove to be a turning point for both club and coach.
“We were so successful for those three or four years and were there great moments,” McCall told the Four Lads Had a Dream podcast. “To then start the next season we won two out of 11 league games. I just felt for the good of Motherwell as much as me it was time to leave.”
Step forward Ian Baraclough, the former Scunthorpe and Sligo Rovers manager, with Motherwell 10th in the table. “I spoke to Stuart before taking the job and he gave me an honest appraisal,” he told BBC Scotland, with Motherwell going on to finish in 11th place.
As the Lanarkshire side swapped second top for second bottom, Rangers were struggling in the Scottish Championship. With manager Ally McCoist out of the picture and a run of draws coming under caretaker Kenny McDowall, former Ibrox midfielder McCall took charge in March of third-place Rangers until the the end of the season.
“I remember sitting in the manager’s office sorting out training and someone said ‘Walter’s on the phone’,” said McCall of former nine-in-a-row manager Walter Smith. “I think the first words the gaffer said were ‘Do you effing know what you are letting yourself in for?’ then started laughing.
“It was probably the lowest morale in a dressing room I’d ever been in. The atmosphere was so poor.”
A secret training base & going to the circus
Rangers in the end finished third, going on to edge Queen of the South and then Hibernian, to book McCall a date with destiny, his old club and the man he’d helped replace him, in the Premiership play-off final.
First up, a clingy, sticky night at Ibrox, and the omens pointed to Motherwell melting away. The visitors had not beaten Rangers in a league game since 2002, and not at Ibrox since 1997.
“You spoke to fans daily and the media circus was giving everything to Rangers,” said Baraclough. “It was a foregone conclusion and we weren’t given a chance. It’s gold dust to us.
“We took the players away from our usual training ground to a local team [Colville Park]. That gave us a freshness and I was confident we had the players to exploit them. It was never in our mind to nick a draw.”
Former Motherwell captain Keith Lasley added: “I went through administration and knowing the difficult decisions that were made back then, you couldn’t help but think difficult times could have come back if the play-off didn’t go our way.
“We had a lot of experience. Yeah we felt confident, but we were certainly well aware of the consequences if we didn’t.”
Rangers roared out the traps in front of a tense full house with Kenny Miller whistling an arcing shot just wide, but from nowhere two poorly-conceded goals from Lee Erwin and former Celtic captain Stephen McManus had Motherwell 2-0 up at the break.
Two minutes, and a piercing counter-attack and low scud from Lionel Ainsworth later, it was three.
“That season personally was defined in a 20-minute spell,” said McCall, whose Rangers side clawed the result back to 3-1 through Darren McGregor late on. “It wasn’t the first leg that killed us, it was a 20-minute spell where we lost three goals.”
Tiles, tickets and tipping points
Three days later and Rangers had 90 minutes to save their season, while Motherwell pondered over whether to stick or twist.
What they were sure of was that it would be done in front of a partisan crowd. With the Fir Park side receiving 950 briefs for the first leg, Rangers were given 1,500 away tickets, around 4,500 less than usual.
“I thought the club played a masterstroke,” said Baraclough. “They could have quite easily gone for a full Rangers crowd, but why should we give them the advantage?”
Lasley concedes little mental rest was offered by the comfort of a two-goal lead.
“It was the most draining experience of my career,” he explains.
“My son and daughter both have a tile in the tunnel as you go out and I like to touch them as I go by. It just reminds me of why you are out there, who you are doing it for. My son’s optimistically says ‘score a goal Daddy’ although I’m not sure if it was worth the price of the tile. That wee ritual was needed that day.
“When the game started I remember looking round at the clock as you’re checking to see how much was left. The first time it was at 11 minutes…”
What followed was a tense first half with Marvin Johnson going close for the home side, Marius Zaliukas spurning arguably the best chance for the visitors by hoofing over from close range and Rangers’ Lee McCulloch being struck by a flag pole from the home end.
However, the crucial point would arrive on 52 minutes. Johnson rampaged down the left, marauding his way past his manager.
“I shouted ‘Drive at the full-back! Drive at the full-back!’ then he chopped one way then the other and decided to have a pop.”
Around 25 yards out, Johnson strikes the ball. Well, but not well enough to avoid centre-half Zaliukas, triggering the ball to loop high into the Lanarkshire sky. It eventually tumbles back down to earth towards Rangers goalkeeper Cammy Bell who, while scampering backwards, stumbles and claws himself and the ball into the net.
“The roof erupted then,” said Baraclough. “Obviously it was a mistake from the keeper but that was probably down to the pressure and expectation on the Rangers players, and they didn’t handle that situation well.”
Speaking about that moment to the Daily Record in 2016, Bell said: “It was the worst possible time and place for it to happen.
“That night wasn’t great. I was getting married five days later. I was quite emotional on my wedding day because I still had thoughts about the game.”
Kung-fu fighting & karaoke
Things would soon get worse for the visitors. Ainsworth made it 5-1 on aggregate, before a John Sutton penalty rounded things off in injury time. Then it all kicked off.
Just moments after the final whistle, a push in the back from Erwin on Rangers’ Bilel Mohsni sparked a flying kick and then a hook to the jaw from the Tunisian, with a full-scale rammy kicking off at the mouth of the tunnel. While that rumbled on, home fans flooded on to the park to goad what Rangers supporters remained.
“The Big Mohsni thing wasn’t great,” added McCall, who did not manage Rangers again after that match. “It was just a really desperate way to finish the season for Rangers as a whole and the supporters who hadn’t had many high times.”
With the help of a troop of police horses the pitch was cleared and Baraclough and his players could drink in the moment. Not one of celebration, but of survival and raw, spent relief. There was, however, time for a small celebration, with Lasley picking up the stadium’s PA microphone to serenade supporters.
“I’ve been sine died from ever picking up a microphone again,” said the now Motherwell assistant manager. “It’s not something I’d normally do, but that was the only part I probably enjoyed.
“The song, Twist and Shout, became an anthem. Even in the first leg the supporters were kept in and the players went over to see them, then in the second leg we decided to join in. That part will stay with me forever.”