In the December chill of 2018, Stephen Robinson knew a change was needed to be blown through at Motherwell, and quickly.
A home defeat by Kilmarnock on Boxing Day left a hapless Motherwell, hit with a double whammy of not winning and not entertaining, set for a relegation fight. A few weeks later, an overhauled ensemble featuring kids called Jake Hastie and David Turnbull ignited a fire that roared Robinson’s team to safety.
Two years on, and once again the Motherwell manager found himself in the midst of a winter of extreme discontent. A crippling run of eight Premiership games without a victory and another loss to a misfiring Kilmarnock left the Lanarkshire club just two points off bottom.
While many would have expected another Robinson reboot, the man who guided Motherwell to two cup finals in his tenure, decided it was time to leave.
Motherwell finished third during last season’s curtailed campaign, earning them a Europa League spot.
However, that fact disguises the stuttering form that has been a common theme during 2020.
Over the calendar year, Motherwell have won just six league matches. On top of that, they were knocked out of last season’s Scottish Cup and this term’s League Cup at the first hurdle – both at home – with their other two victories coming in Europe against Northern Irish opposition.
The gloom of their situation has only intensified in recent weeks. On the morning of last Saturday’s away trip to Dundee United, Motherwell’s players awoke to the news that, two walkover wins granted to them, were being appealed by St Mirren and Kilmarnock.
As a result, the club have gone from fifth place in the Premiership to just two points off bottom of the table within the space of two games.
Recruits ‘have not turned up’
Recruitment is a key part to any summer plan, and Robinson admitted amid the frustration after the defeat by Kilmarnock on Wednesday that some of his recruits had failed to make the desired impact.
The Motherwell manager did not name names, but it is clear to see where the main problems are as they struggle to score goals.
In the summer, Jordan White was brought in from Inverness, Callum Lang drafted in on loan from Wigan, while Christopher Long, Devante Cole and Hastie all returned.
However, the five players have returned just eight goals between them in all competitions, with White and Hastie yet to score.
“Players we’ve signed or brought back to the club haven’t turned up yet,” said the Motherwell manager following the loss to Kilmarnock.
“I have about seven or eight players scrapping for the football club and some people haven’t performed; but ultimately it’s my fault.”
While those recruits have failed to set the heather alight, Robinson has also lost key players.
In the summer, first-choice goalkeeper Mark Gillespie left for Newcastle United, fellow shot-stopper Trevor Carson missed a host of games through injury, including going off again against Kilmarnock.
Liam Donnelly is a long-term absentee, as is Jake Carroll – who has just returned – and Charles Dunne. Not to mention back-up keeper Scott Fox who is yet to make an appearance.
The Fir Park side have also had to adjust to life without Turnbull, their brightest young talent since the emergence of James McFadden, who departed in a £3.25m move to Celtic in August. Given how the 21-year-old has been transformational for the Scottish champions, it tells a story of how big a loss he has been at his boyhood club.
Robinson had been open about his need for new players.
Many of his squad are out of contract in the summer – including key players such as Carson, Allan Campbell, Liam Polworth and captain Declan Gallagher – while Scotland right-back Stephen O’Donnell’s deal is up, but an option exists to extend.
And while new deals have been offered to those already here, bringing in new faces, and soon, is of great importance. With assistant Keith Lasley in charge in the interim, the club will be hoping for a level of continuity in terms of targets being brought in and negotiations deals with the aim of keeping those soon to be out of contract.
“We need players in. We need players who are going to fight, scrap and do the dirty bits,” said Robinson.
“We need to bring fresh blood in. People who really want to die for this football club. I care for it, it means a lot to me.”
Hope for a brighter 2021?
While Motherwell’s 2020 vision was not what they would have hoped for going into the new year, 12 months ago third in the table – they had 20 points on this day last year having played one game more – there is still cause for optimism.
During his tenure, Robinson displayed his adaptability with Lasley at his side, while the Motherwell board have previously demonstrated the patience to allow a change of style and personnel within the squad. Expect this to happen once more.
Encouragement can be sought by looking elsewhere in the table. Only 10 points separate fifth from 12th, while Motherwell would jump back into seventh if both walkover wins were to be reinstated in the new year.
There is also still a solid core of quality players at the club – including two Scotland heroes in O’Donnell and Gallagher, with the likes of Carroll, Donnelly and Dunne all coming back. Most of the nucleus that claimed third last term remain.
Firstly, though, is a visit to Lanarkshire rivals Hamilton on Saturday, for what is a colossal encounter for all concerned.
‘It’s the same old story every week’ – analysis
Former Motherwell forward James McFadden on Sportscene
The worry is if you don’t take those chances and you go a goal down, there’s no positive reaction.
It’s worrying because of their league position; because of their form; because the chances aren’t being taken.
It’s worrying times but the majority of that squad finished third last season and they have done well. They have to try to get back to that.
At the moment, it seems to be the same old story every week.