Oh, What A Night… Morton’s Greatest Ever Upset.
Oh, What A Night… Morton’s Greatest Ever Upset.
By Russell Gordon
With the tenth anniversary of Morton’s incredible League Cup victory over Celtic approaching in September, I had planned waiting until then to take a trip down memory lane, until fate threw us together again in this season’s Scottish Cup, just to mix things up and spare us a trip to Fir Park (for the time being, anyway).
The autumn of 2013 wasn’t a good time to be a Morton fan. After challenging for promotion the previous season, and falling away as we hit the final straight, Allan Moore’s squad was decimated as out of contract players moved en masse to pastures new, and a seemingly more cost-effective squad was brought in to replace them, with ambitions for the season being far more modest this time around. With part timers Dumbarton, Alloa and Cowdenbeath in the division, the thinking appeared to be that there was enough of a buffer to allow a season of consolidation before Morton enjoyed the benefits of the almost inevitable arrival of Hearts and Rangers to the Championship for season 2014-15.
However, after a lame exit from the Challenge Cup at Annan, and a league campaign that didn’t start too dreadfully, Morton were hitting the skids, and a relegation battle seemed inevitable. We had however reached the Third Round relatively convincingly. Although taken to extra time at New Bayview, Morton triumphed 6-2 after the extra thirty minutes, to earn a home tie with Montrose, which was comfortably negotiated with a convincing 4-0 scoreline. The previous Saturday’s league match though, an insipid 0-2 home defeat at the hands of Queen of the South which left us ninth in the table, offered little to whet the appetite for what lay ahead as Morton took the trip to Glasgow’s east end.
Celtic on the other hand, were going through a period of uncertainty. Having made the Champions League by dispensing Kazakhstani champions Shakhter Karagandy by the skin of their teeth, they were drawn with AC Milan, Ajax, and Barcelona- the first and so far only time to date that four previous champions have been drawn together in the same group of Europe’s most prestigious competition. What may have gone under the radar for the Parkhead faithful that day was the Scottish League Cup draw which paired their favourites with lowly Greenock Morton. A tie that would hardly get the juices flowing at a time they were planning jaunts to three of Europe’s more attractive destinations.
Having lost 0-2 in Milan the midweek prior to Morton’s visit, Celtic were to record a routine 2-1 home victory over St. Johnstone whilst we toiled at Cappielow against the Doonhamers. Predictably, Celtic boss Neil Lennon shuffled his pack for the visit of the ‘Ton to Celtic Park.
For the hosts, goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska replaced the formidable Fraser Forster, with Nir Biton, Tom Rogic, Mikael Lustig and Dylan McGeough all coming into the team that had taken care of Saints the previous weekend. Whilst Celtic mixed it up though, it’s important to point out that this team were no mugs. Of the starting eleven, few would contest that Lustig and Rogic, along with Scott Brown, would go onto become Celtic legends, whilst Zaluska, Ambrose, Mulgrew, Biton, McGoeugh and Pukki all went onto have very credible careers. Only Derk Boerrigter would be happily forgotten down Parkhead way, whilst Virgil van Dijk would become arguably one of the best players of the modern era, winning every honour the club game has had to offer since joining Celtic.
Morton, on the other hand, lined up with a squad which on paper didn’t stand a chance against their more illustrious opponents. Only Scott Taggart, Faoud Bachirou, and David O’Brien from the previous season started the match, supplemented by a collection of below-average journeymen and some guy who would go onto manage Morton a few years later. After promising starts to their Morton careers, which included a delightful 4-2 win at St. Mirren Park to win the Renfrewshire Cup for the first time since 2005, the stars of Habai, Peciar, Cham and Hands were beginning to dim, and dim quite rapidly. The latter’s quite dreadful penalty in the home defeat to Queens the previous Saturday summed up how Morton’s season was going, and confirmed that he certainly wouldn’t be taking the next penalty Morton were awarded, whenever that would be.
Celtic striker Anthony Stokes looks to the heavens as another chance goes a-begging.
With Celtic Park’s top tier completely closed, a paltry crowd of 16,998, over 2000 of whom were supporting the visitors, arrived to see what most expected to be a routine home victory, and probably with a good few to spare.
What the majority of the crowd got was an insipid performance from their team, against an uncompromising Morton side who restricted them to as few chances as possible in the first 45 minutes. Biton and Rogic both headed wide, whilst Morton keeper Nicolas Caraux tipped a Charlie Mulgrew free kick over the bar. Morton were then to suffer a blow that would have, in this observer’s humble opinion, a catastrophic effect on our season as a whole. David O’Brien came off second best in a challenge with Dylan McGeough and was withdrawn from proceedings with a shoulder injury. Whilst he would briefly return months later, the game was over for him, and regrettably, he was never the same again. On the night, O’Brien was replaced by Tony Wallace, and Morton went onto complete part one of Mission: Impossible. We went in at the break with a stalemate.
When the teams re-emerged, not much changed. Morton forced a couple of corners, but offered little threat, whilst Celtic had a few of their own but were again left frustrated. On the hour, our big chance came, as Gambian striker Kabba-Modou Cham went through on goal. He was stopped in his tracks by a combination of Efe Ambrose and Virgil van Dijk, to the tune of a couple of thousand voices from behind the goal screaming for a penalty, but to no avail.
As time wore on, Celtic boss Lennon hooked Rogic, McGeough and the hapless Boerrigter for the more established stars (of the time at least) of Matthews, Stokes and Commons, whilst Archie Campbell replaced Cham, who had more than ran his race. A succession of Celtic corners came to nothing, and late in the game, it was the visitors who could’ve sneaked it when Dougie Imrie’s free kick a couple of minutes from time flew about a yard over Zaluska’s crossbar.
So after an incredible defensive performance, Morton had managed to stop the best team in the land, and were half an hour away from chancing their luck with a penalty shoot-out for a place in the Quarter Finals.
Nicolas Caraux and his defence draw yet another sigh of relief as Mikael Lustig takes his turn to fluff his lines.
Whilst that was surely the best-case scenario from a Morton perspective out of the many that were going through all our minds, there was one which hadn’t really been considered. Five minutes into the first period of extra time, with Celtic again trying to knock the door down, Teemu Pukki twice tried to pass the colossal Jonathan Page, before team mate Anthony Stokes tried his luck, also with no joy. The ball broke to Reece Hands, who spread it wide to Tony Wallace on the left. Wallace then played a fantastic ball down the wing to Archie Campbell, who made headway towards the penalty box. As he reached the area, and was approached by Ambrose, the future Morton star slipped and made contact with the ball with his outsretched left hand, and this time referee Bobby Madden did point to the spot. Morton had a penalty. At Celtic Park.
With Hands having missed the previous Saturday, Dougie Imrie was handed the responsibility of giving the ‘Ton a shock lead. With a couple of thousand pairs of nervous eyes looking from the other end of Celtic Park willing the net to bulge, Imrie stepped up, and with aplomb rifled the ball low down the middle past the despairing Zaluska and into the net, resulting in absolute bedlam amongst the away support and the grandstand finish of all grandstand finishes, with at least 25 minutes still to hang on. Reece Hands stung Zaluska’s gloves only a minute after Morton took their shock lead, but it was one-way traffic after that.
Celtic had made all their changes by now. Van Dijk was thrown up top to win everything and anything at all costs. Chances came and went for Celtic, and Morton stood firm. It has to be said that a combination of good luck, tremendous (sometimes desperate) defending and horrific finishing helped our cause. Stokes shot wide before Commons and van Dijk were both foiled by Caraux as the corner count increased. Van Dijk was again terribly unfortunate to see his effort drift wide of Caraux’s left hand post, as Madden blew for the end of the first period of extra time. Only fifteen minutes to go.
A series of long diagonals and throw ins to the makeshift target man were snuffed out by the Morton defence before we briefly threatened through Tony Wallace, who was quickly closed down by the onrushing Zaluska before normal service resumed. Caraux palmed a Lustig header wide as the pressure was ramped up, and it was the Swede who was to come so agonisingly close to equalising as another long diagonal to Van Dijk was directed to Kris Commons. The Scotland winger headed across goal to Lustig, who slid in at the back post, only to see his effort ripple the side netting. What a shame.
Yet another long diagonal met the head of Van Dijk a minute later, but with Caraux in No Man’s Land, Page arrived to lash the Dutchman’s tame goal-bound effort away to safety before it reached the line. Moore made his final change as Mark McLaughlin replaced Campbell, and as we entered stoppage time, Charlie Mulgrew rattled Caraux’s left hand post before one final corner was headed wide.
Bobby Madden blew for time, and the mother of all shocks was confirmed. For a game played in such a ghostly environment, the whistle was met by a cacophony of noise from both ends. The booing from the home support, sounding almost as sweet as the visitors’ roar.
Celebration time for Peciar, Page, McLaughlin and Taggart in the aftermath of Morton's incredible backs-to-the-wall triumph.
Personally, I’ll never forget the sheer joy of marching down London Road chanting “We’re Greenock Morton, we’re better than you!” in the direction of the disappointed Celtic fans, and like many of us, have since never failed to bring that great night up in conversation whenever they get a wee bit too uppity about themselves.
What was to follow is not as happy a tale. In spite of the result, it wasn’t a good week for either manager. On the morning of the game, Neil Lennon was banned for driving for six months for speeding on the A9, before facing up to perhaps the most humiliating individual result of his career, but tragically, Allan Moore lost his brother Steven, who suddenly died in Turkey, the day after the match.
For the clubs, things didn’t pan out well either. Celtic of course, won the league, but in the absence of Rangers, pressure was on Lennon to deliver trebles, with the main source of competition out of the running in the league, and a wounded animal in the cups. They meekly exited their Champions League group with only a home win against Ajax to show from their six matches, and a home Scottish Cup defeat to Aberdeen leaving them with a historic “single” for their efforts in 2013-14.
Morton however, were to suffer the worst season perhaps in our history- a 1-3 defeat to Dundee four days after the visit to Celtic Park saw us fall to the bottom of the league, and we never rose above that position all season. We were controversially knocked out the League Cup by St. Johnstone in the Quarter Finals, and Moore was relieved of his duties after a 1-5 home defeat by Livingston a mere two months after that heroic evening. He was of course replaced by the hapless Kenny Shiels, and a bad season got worse, culminating in an embarrassing relegation and the ultimate humiliation of a 2-10 hounding by promotion-chasing Hamilton.
Whilst there was no joy to follow on from that fantastic night though, football’s all about memories, and ironically the fact that such a poor team succeeded where so many better ones have failed made that particular win so much sweeter.
Scottish League Cup Third Round, 24th September 2013, Celtic Park.
Celtic: Zaluska, Ambrose, van Dijk, Mulgrew, Lustig, Biton, Brown, Boerrigter (Commons 83),McGeough (Matthews 74), Rogic (Stokes 65), Pukki.
Unused Substitutes: Fasan, Balde.
Morton: Caraux, Taggart, Fitzpatrick, Peciar, Page, Imrie, O’Brien (Wallace 39), Hands, Habai, Bachirou, Cham (Campbell 78 (McLaughlin 120)).
Unused Substitutes: Gaston, Russell.
Goals: Imrie (97,pen)
Referee: Bobby Madden.
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