(Photo- Gary Bradley)
Out With The Old And In With The New…
A Review of Morton’s 2021-22 Season, Part One.
By Russell Gordon.
After the rollercoaster ride that was season 2020-21, most Morton fans would’ve quite happily accepted a season of mid-table mediocrity with any realistic fears of relegation being extinguished as early as possible, even if there was no real danger of us threatening the play-offs at the other end of the table. Sounds boring on the surface perhaps, but whilst that was exactly what we got, it could hardly have been described as an uneventful campaign.
With fans’ group MCT getting their feet under the desk before officially announcing the purchase of the club from an increasingly unpopular Crawford Rae in September, all eyes were on which direction the club would take and what lessons had been learned from the calamitous last few years of the Golden Casket era.
It didn’t start well. Having scraped to survival, manager Gus MacPherson was handed a two-year deal as a reward for his “achievement”, which raised many an eyebrow amongst sections of the support who were somewhat underwhelmed by the former Queen’s Park and Queen of the South boss’s performance in failing to avoid the relegation play-offs in the first place.
MacPherson’s first signing was to cause even more concern- former Morton trialist Alan Lithgow came in from Livingston on a two-year deal. Whilst Lithgow’s injury record can’t be ignored, the main bone of contention for many was a criminal conviction he attained in his younger days for an offence that a lot of fans found unpalatable.
Former Raith striker Gozie Ugwu was charged with the unenviable task of trying to provide the goals for MacPherson's struggling side. (Photo-Gary Bradley)
There were of course re-signings and departures again- Robbie Muirhead was handed a new deal, owing in no small part to his play-off heroics, whilst stalwarts such as Gary Oliver, Brian McLean, Cameron Blues, Michael Ledger and club captain Kyle Jacobs came back for more. Former Hibernian and Sheffield United midfielder Stephen McGinn was lured to title favourites Kilmarnock, whilst Ayr United boss David Hopkin decided to raid his former club for some of the stars who brought him so much success in his time at Cappielow. Few tears were shed over the loss of Cameron Salkeld and in particular Sean McGinty, but the losses of Markus Fjortoft and Aidan McAdams to the Honest Men weren’t greeted with the same relief or joy down Inverclyde way. Wingers Aidan Nesbitt and Craig McGuffie departed for League One minnows Falkirk, ultimately contributing to their heroic efforts to avoid the drop to League Two, which was nice for them.
Joining Lithgow at Cappielow were Raith Rovers’ forward Gozie Ugwu, who brought a much-needed physical presence to the front line, and former Dundee and Hearts goalkeeper Jack Hamilton- a signing that was perhaps unfairly mocked by many observers. Only time would tell if those calls were fair or not. Former ‘Ton full back Mark Russell would also return, having enjoyed a successful spell at Finn Harps in Ireland. It would be fair to say that in those early weeks of the season, the squad seriously lacked depth and experience, and just to exacerbate that problem, Morton were hit by a COVID outbreak on the eve of the season’s kick off.
After a couple of dull pre-season friendlies; a 0-0 draw behind closed doors at Dumbarton and a 2-0 win over Cumbernauld Colts at Broadwood (God, I miss Highland tours), the intention was to start the League Cup campaign with a trip to Stranraer, for a game for which travelling fans were officially banned from attending due to the restrictions. Those who chose not to travel didn’t miss anything- the match was called off on the morning as a result of Morton’s failure to raise a team due to the outbreak at Cappielow, and Morton were forced accept a 0-3 defeat. Incredibly though, Morton were able to field a team against East Kilbride only three days later, on a day of confusion as the club and the Telegraph told conflicting stories about whether the game would or would not go ahead, and whether anyone would be able to attend or not. In the end, the game was played behind closed doors in what was a bit of a public relations faux pas on the club’s part.
With Gus MacPherson also in his sickbed, a shadow Morton team toiled to a 0-0 draw with their Lowland League counterparts, prevailing 5-4 on penalties to take the bonus point going into the game with top seeds Kilmarnock. With Morton effectively out of the tournament through very little fault of their own, the trip to Rugby Park, in front of a limited number of home fans brought room for optimism as Morton led for the vast majority of the match- young Lewis McGregor’s fine early strike was only cancelled out in injury time before the hosts went on to take the bonus point in a penalty shoot-out. The curtain came down on Morton’s brief campaign with a 2-1 victory over Clyde at Cappielow, as Robbie Muirhead took up where he left off in May with a double to crush any hopes the Bully Wee may have had of progression to the knock-out phase of the competition.
With Morton’s interest in the League Cup meeting a premature end, focus moved onto the start of the league campaign, with much-fancied Dunfermline Athletic visiting relegation favourites Morton on the opening day. In front of a crowd that was again limited only to home fans, Morton could’ve considered themselves unfortunate not to collect all three points, having led through a first half Gary Oliver penalty against his favourite opponents. But in the end it took a Lewis McGrattan cross looping into the Pars’ net to salvage a draw as the Fifers claimed a rare, but memorable Cappielow point. Three points were to follow for Morton the following week at Hamilton, as Gozie Ugwu’s first half strike proved enough to separate the visitors from the newly relegated Accies, in spite of the ordering off of Cammy Blues late in the game. Four points from six, all was well in the world. But Morton being Morton, quickly dispelled any thoughts that we might have been in for a good season by losing 2-3 at home to early strugglers Queen of the South, and rounded off August with a 0-3 trousering at the hands of Partick Thistle in Glasgow. MacPherson had some major surgery to perform on the squad as the month reached its conclusion and the clock ran down on the summer transfer window.
To be fair, corrective action was taken, with Mansfield striker Jimmy Knowles, Newcastle winger Tom Allen and centre back Oisin McEntee, and Brentford midfielder Jaako Oksanen (the latter two under-21 internationals for the Republic of Ireland and Finland respectively) came in the door, along with Livingston striker Gavin Reilly, all on season-long loans.
Livingston loanee Gavin Reilly endured a difficult first few months of his Morton career. (Photo- Gary Bradley)
The Challenge Cup, now known as the SPFL Trust Trophy, returned after a year in abeyance and Morton were handed a trip to Airdrie to face… Celtic B (?) Morton won 3-1, and that’s really all that needs said about such a farce of a fixture. We move on.
September wasn’t to prove a vintage month- a respectable performance at Rugby Park saw the ‘Ton fall to a late Rory McKenzie winner for Kilmarnock before falling by the same scoreline to Raith Rovers at Cappielow the following week. Despite the beautiful sunshine that early autumn afternoon, the storm clouds were gathering over Cappielow. The month was rounded off at Somerset Park as Morton were reacquainted with a former boss in the week that we were freed from the shackles of Crawford Rae and finally became a community-owned club. That boss however, was to be Jim Duffy; successor to David Hopkin, who had already been emptied by the Ayrshire club as a result not only of their own slow start to the season, but also of fan mutiny against Hopkin. What we got was one of the worst football matches you’re ever likely to see, between two absolutely horrible teams to watch, which ended goalless.
Gus MacPherson and his backroom staff suffer through the turgid 0-0 draw at Somerset Park like the rest of us. (Photo-Gary Bradley)
It was becoming increasingly obvious that Morton were going to endure a difficult season- the football was turgid and the support was becoming increasingly impatient with the manager. But whilst the Raith and Ayr games were truly awful, it’s perhaps more concerning when you play well and don’t get your rewards. When high-flying Arbroath came calling, few would have fancied Morton to take anything from a game against the league’s surprise package. With Jack Hamilton being beaten by his brother Colin on the cusp of half-time, Morton could’ve easily retreated into their shell, but an excellent second half performance, with a goal from Gary Oliver seconds after the restart, and a fantastic Cammy Blues strike to give Morton the lead, looked to have given us the three points. Lady Luck had other ideas though, and Oisin McEntee was harshly punished for the use of an elbow late on and Michael McKenna duly converted the resultant penalty to deny Morton what could’ve been two valuable points. Our saving grace at this point was Dunfermline’s abysmal start under Peter Grant, but surely that couldn’t go on forever?
At least there was a break from league duty though, as the SPFL Trust Trophy campaign continued at Links Park. Whilst the rest of the country were enthralled by Scotland’s incredible late World Cup win over Israel, a hardy band of Morton fans travelled up to Angus to see Morton scrape past Montrose on penalties to book a quarter-final tie against Queen of the South.
We were to clock up a fair few miles in October, with trips to Inverness for an insipid 0-2 defeat in which Lewis Strapp, who had spent most of the campaign playing in an unfamiliar left centre back role, reportedly felt the wrath of a furious MacPherson; and another uninspiring 0-0 draw, this time at Palmerston, the only highlight of which being Robbie Muirhead’s effort which was unfortunate to hit the bar. An improved performance at home to on-form Partick garnered yet another 0-0 draw which could’ve been more but was probably seen as a point gained rather than two dropped, before Hamilton came calling. An appalling Morton performance incredibly only saw the hosts a goal down deep into injury time when a high and hopeful Jaako Oksanen free kick was headed into his own net by Accies defender Reegan Mimnaugh to prevent a Halloween horror show for the ‘Ton faithful.
Gary Oliver nets a last minute penalty against his favourite opponents to give Morton a 3-1 win at East End Park (Photo- Gary Bradley)
But bad news was just around the corner- Dunfermline had finally decided to wield the axe and relieve the hapless Peter Grant of his duties ahead of a relegation six-pointer against Morton at East End Park. It seemed we needn’t have worried at this point however, as Gozie Ugwu’s goal was sandwiched by two from Gary Oliver (who else?) and Morton eased to three vital points against the Pars. They were to appoint John Hughes as Grant’s successor after that Morton defeat though and immediately got a new manager bounce, with a win at Inverness and a home to Ayr, whilst Morton were losing 0-2 at home to promotion-chasing Kilmarnock and 1-2 at Raith Rovers. The defeat in Kirkcaldy was to prove especially chastening, having led early on through Michael Ledger and meekly surrendered their advantage. A bad day was rounded off by the sending off of Alan Lithgow as tensions boiled over in the away stand, with Lithgow being the target of some fans’ frustrations, and squabbles breaking out in the away end.
Alan Lithgow's two yellow cards at Stark's Park were to prove one of the season's lowlights. (Photo- Gary Bradley)
With Morton celebrating the 100th anniversary of their Scottish Cup win this season, a cup run would’ve been nice- so a draw away to promotion-chasing Inverness was a most unwelcome development. The manager was under pressure, the board were meeting criticisms with a wall of silence, the fans were at each others’ throats, the relationship between players and fans appeared irreparable. If the winter of 2020 was a winter of discontent, we were bracing ourselves for what the winter of 2021 was about to bring…