Following the defection of Ian St John to Portsmouth early in 1974/75, Willie McLean was given the job of ensuring that we qualified to be founder members of the ten team Premier League which was to be formed at the start of the next season.
Willie, brother of Jim (long time manager of Dundee United) and Tommy (Motherwell’s greatest manager), had gained his SFA coaching certificates after a playing career that had a lower profile than his brothers. He then became the first secretary of the Scottish PFA and managed Queen of the South.
He gave Craig Brown his first step on what has become an outstanding managerial career and appointed him as his assistant. McLean inherited a team which combined senior players like Goldthorp, Graham and Rennie with the emerging Pettigrew.
We left it late to secure our Premier Division status and it came down to the last game of the campaign. A point against Dumbarton was needed to ensure that we finished in the top ten and the 3-1 win delivered a successful end to McLean’s first season.
Another feature of Willie’s time in charge was the Scottish Cup semi-finals of 1975 and 1976. His first cup run saw us beat Partick Thistle (at the second attempt), Queen’s Park then Aberdeen to earn a visit to Hampden. Only Airdrie stood in the way an appearance in the final. A sad tale followed. Pettigrew’s early strike was nullified by McLaren’s own goal late in the game and a replay followed. No team had scored and another draw looked likely but then we fell foul of a technical error. Rennie was penalised for a breach of the ‘four step’ rule that was then in force. Airdrie produced the winner from the resulting indirect free kick.
The manner of our loss in the ’75 semi was hard to take but worse was to follow in 1976. McLean had strengthened the squad with the addition of Marinello, Davidson, McVie and McAdam. Wins against Celtic and Cowdenbeath followed by an epic three game quarter final victory over Hibs sent us to Hampden again.
Captain Joe Wark suggested that the winners of this tie would go on to lift the cup. We were easily the better side in the first half and looked comfortable with a two goal lead at half time. Indeed, with twenty minutes remaining the margin had not been dented. What followed is ingrained in the memory of every Motherwell fan who watched from the Hampden terraces. A long punt from McCLoy reached our 18 yard line where Johnstone threw himself to the ground. To the astonishment of everyone present the infamous JRP Gordon awarded a penalty. Rangers scored and the game turned. We lost 3-2.
The team had a good season in 75/76 and finished fourth.
McLean’s last full season was filled with inconsistency and we ended up in seventh position. A hard fought cup game against St Mirren sticks in the memory (Alex Ferguson had a fine rant!) and a couple of goals courtesy of Celtic’s Andy Lynch gave us a late win to prevent a title celebration at Fir Park.
Willie McLean parted company with us after a series of poor results placed us at the wrong end of the table. Craig Brown had taken charge of Clyde and a new man was to take charge at Fir Park. Step forward.....Roger Hynd.