Monday, 12 March 2012

Motherwell 1 Aberdeen 2

Day twelve of my new life in Scotland and I was surprised at myself for not having yet sought out some live football. Of course, working on a Saturday isn’t going to help but such is the football city of Glasgow that you shouldn’t ever be far away from the next fixture, whatever day it happens to be. It was time to put that right.
Everyone has heard of the big two - more so than ever with the sorry shambles at Ibrox, which is making international headlines - but there’s at least a dozen other Premier League and Football League clubs within a 30 minute radius of Glasgow, not to mention all manner of local amateur leagues. 
So, half searching for a Scottish side to pledge allegiance to and half wanting to do something productive on my day off, I headed to Fir Park for the Scottish Cup quarter-final between resurgent Motherwell and Aberdeen. My Scottish football odyssey started on the 14.24 service from Glasgow Central to Airbles...
And I was handsomely rewarded. A blood and thunder cup tie in the age-old style, complete with three goals, a missed penalty, a player and a manager sent off, plenty of chances and a superb atmosphere. 
Motherwell - a steel town which clings to Glasgow’s coattails down to the south-east but would probably protest a very different identity - has reason to be proud of its football team this season. The team were pushing Rangers for the second Champions League spot long before the Gers’ ten-point deduction for entering administration and it’s now looking more likely than ever Zadok the Priest will be blaring over the Fir Park tannoy in the qualifiers this August. 
Mid-table Aberdeen have their work cut out to overtake Hearts and scramble into the SPL top six before the split next month, but they have perhaps spied another opportunity to reach Europe through the Cup. They wouldn’t have been many people’s favourites here but emerged from a chaotic 90 minutes to reach a semi-final with Hibernian at Hampden Park.  
Fir Park has obviously been extensively renovated and has a modern feel. It was also a comfortable 10-minute step from Airbles station, which was lucky on a nippy afternoon. The slightly-lower-than-normal admission price of £15 was very reasonable and, coupled with a £3 programme and £3 train fare on Scotland’s very cheap railway network, made for a cheap afternoon. It also ensured an attendance of 7,640 which was a fair bit above the league average and boosted by over 2,000 from Aberdeen. 
The Phil O’Donnell Stand (or the first cash turnstile I stumbled across) was an odd mix of wooden and plastic bucket seats. It was slightly weird not having a back to my seat but there was enough excitement on the field to keep me leaning forward anyway. 
Both sets of supporters produced a colourful display as the sides emerged for a Sky-dictated 3.45pm (?!) kick-off. The Aberdeen supporters away to my right produced a colourful red and white tickertape display while holding up banners reading ‘Any Given Saturday‘ (like that one) and ‘We Love HMRC’ (there’s a long-standing rivalry with Rangers, if you didn’t already get that). The Motherwell fans on the far side - who were a loud, pogo-ing mass for most of the match - hoisted a great tifo of a silver Scottish Cup silhouette with ribbons attached in the club colours. 
Unfortunately their team started hesitantly and Aberdeen were quickly on the offensive, scoring after just five minutes. It was controversial. Aberdeen’s Scott Vernon clearly knocked the ball out of play for a goal kick - to the point that all his team-mates ran back to their defensive stations and the ball was being returned to home goalkeeper Darren Randolph. But the assistant inexplicably pointed to the corner flag and referee Craig Thompson acquiesced. 
The inevitable happened. Fraser Fyvie crossed, Andy Considine squared across the six-yard box and New Zealander Rory Fallon thumped home a header to general outrage from three sides of the ground. It should have never been allowed to happen. 
Motherwell took ages to recover their composure and could easily have been put out the game. But when ‘stocky’ front man Michael Higdon was wrestled to the ground by Clark Robertson, he had a chance to equalise. His penalty was well struck, but read by keeper Jason Brown, who parried it away. 
And it proved costly. Five minutes before half-time, Aberdeen’s Chris Clarke swung in a good ball from the right and Fallon, undetected at the back post, slammed a textbook volley home for 2-0. Jeers greeted the whistle and Motherwell manager Stuart McCall’s vocal complaints in the tunnel saw him dismissed to the stand for the second-half. 
The next goal was all-important and it took lightning reflexes from Randolph to repel Mitchel Megginson’s shot shortly after the restart. The home side got too desperate, too early. I lost count of the times they launched a diagonal ball from deep - unfailingly from left to right - in the vain hope Higdon might get on it. But the striker faded from the game, as did flanker Jamie Murphy, who was soon substituted. 
Their cause wasn’t aided when captain Keith Lasley scythed down Fyvie with 20 minutes left and trooped straight off - a straight red. The travelling fans were by this time dominating the vocal battle, with everything going their way. 
But the dismissal somehow invigorated Motherwell and there was hope when Nicky Law slid in to halve the deficit after Brown dived over a low cross. But only half-openings followed in the final 15 minutes and, when Randolph committed himself for a corner, Peter Pawlett saw his shot from halfway dribble wide of the unguarded net. 
An unlucky afternoon for Motherwell - how different would the game have been had a goal kick been correctly awarded in those first five minutes? - but greater spoils await them. 
Next Match: There’s a couple on the radar for next week, work permitting!       

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