FOR a moment it seemed as though Stuart McCall had run out of reasonable answers.
The Motherwell manager was asked another question on Saturday concerning the future of Jamie Murphy and his answer was delivered with mock-resignation; it is now between Barcelona and Real Madrid. He would have been entitled to be churlish given the weight of speculation surrounding some members of his squad has become a drag, yet it was a quip based in truth. The Motherwell forward isn't going to Camp Nou. But he is going.
It is now just a question of when; the January transfer window opens tomorrow and Murphy is expected to be one of the first to move, with Sheffield United a possible destination following reports of a recent £100,000 bid. His exit should still take in a stop-off at Celtic Park on Wednesday, where Motherwell play their first game of the new year, but the forward will feel as though he has already given his valedictory performance, a goal against Kilmarnock at the weekend allowing him to put his signature on what was likely his final outing at Fir Park. Its value appreciated as Motherwell went on to retain a share of second place in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League.
The club have long since become inured to the prospect of one of their prominent players leaving – an offer for Murphy was accepted last January, while others such as Henrik Ojamaa have attracted interest – but it will still give McCall a bit of a headache. And so close to Hogmanay, too.
Predicting his starting XI this season has seldom needed much more prompting than a quick glance at the team sheet from the week before but a lack of squad depth has been belied by Motherwell's steady climb up the league table. An open transfer window can soon leave a dressing room feeling a little drafty, though.
Any gap left by a departure next month will require players on the fringes of the side to fill in, although few are equipped with the sort of experience that will allow them to fit in seamlessly; five of those on the bench against Kilmarnock were under the age of 22. They will be susceptible to the sort of dips in form that often pockmark young players' performances and so will require those around them to bear the expectation placed on a side that has risen into second. Chris Humphrey played his part in rescuing a point against Kilmarnock – the Motherwell winger was involved in the move that brought Murphy's goal before teeing up Keith Lasley for a shot late on – and it is a standard he will have to maintain if his side are to avoid dropping off the pace.
"I've been doing a lot of work with Kenny Black [the assistant manager] to make my crosses more accurate. I want it to be better and everything else will come from that. The coaching here is fantastic," said Humphrey.
"I want to improve my game as much as I can and the Kilmarnock game was fantastic for me but you can't do that if your team-mates aren't getting you on the ball. We did well and we were unlucky not to win it at the end."
There are signs of improvement from Kilmarnock, too. Inconsistent results have hampered a promising season at times but the festive period has brought a more settled run uninterrupted by inconvenient defeats. Aberdeen and Hearts were both dispatched either side of Christmas, and Motherwell might have followed had it not been for a second-half salvo.
That run of form has left the Rugby Park side inside the top six going into the new year – and with a game in hand – a position which would allow them to relax during the impending winter break.
"We wanted to try and go unbeaten over the Christmas period," said Paul Heffernan, who scored to add to a strike by Borja Perez. "We have had two wins and two draws and we have one more game to go against St Mirren before the break."