Back From The Brink- Morton’s Third Division Title Win
By Russell Gordon
In what’s fast approaching our 150th anniversary, Morton have won ten titles across various divisions- more than any other club outside Glasgow’s big two, Hibernian and newly crowned League Two Champions Stirling Albion, both of the latter now sitting alongside us on that figure.
Only once have we won the fourth tier title, but having personally witnessed four of those ten successes, it would be fair to say that that title, twenty years ago sits above them all in terms of significance, and for the sheer outpouring of joy it produced on the terraces of Cappielow twenty years ago today.
2002-03 season was seen as the dawn of a new era, Morton having endured a number of false starts in the previous campaign. Having been wrestled from the clutches of the despised Hugh Scott and rescued from administration by Douglas Rae the previous summer, 2001-02 season saw Morton struggle terribly in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Second Division, falling right through to the Third after consecutive relegations as a squad of kids and over-the-hill journeymen toiled throughout before their fate was confirmed after a 3-2 victory at Stenhousemuir in the season’s third last game.
There had been some green shoots that season; goalkeeper Craig Coyle’s player of the year performances were enough to suggest he would be an able custodian going forward, and Manager Dave McPherson’s contacts in Australia saw combative midfielder Marco Maisano come in to shore up the midfield.
But prior to Derek Collins’ post season testimonial in May 2002, Mr. Rae unveiled a ridiculously ambitious signing for such a level- Stirling Albion talisman Alex Williams was signed for what appeared an exorbitant £50,000.
The signing of "Super" Alex Williams was an inspired one, with the hitman bagging 23 league goals and the Bell's Third Division Player of the Year award.
As the summer progressed, further additions came in to supplement the squad- Paul Gaughan came in from Hamilton, alongside Finnish under 21 international Jani Uoitinen and Marco’s brother, the mesmeric John Maisano, as Morton made clear their intentions to make a swift return to Scotland’s third tier.
Pre-season form was mixed, with comfortable victories over Campbeltown Former Pupils and Fort William on the road before First Division Inverness were dispatched 1-0 at the Caledonian Stadium. Morton came down the road to face more local opposition, playing out disappointing 1-1 draw at Largs Thistle before a 0-1 derby defeat at Love Street.
Morton in that era however, weren’t the only club to have suffered financial misery, and it finally caught up on old friends Airdrieonians, for whom the liquidators finally visited in the summer of 2002. The newly formed Airdrie United entered into a vote with 5 others in those days before a functioning pyramid system and were beaten by Gretna, who prior to that season had competed in the lower reaches of the English pyramid system.
Gretna got the dream gala day for their first SFL appearance, as a travelling horde of 800 fans travelled down from Inverclyde to the borders for the opening game of the season. And 19 seconds in, their debut in the league got off to the perfect start as Matt Henney latched onto a defensive mix-up to fire former Morton hero Rowan Alexander’s side into the lead and send Morton temporarily to the bottom of the pile in the live table. It didn’t however take long for Warren Hawke to restore parity, and both clubs had to settle for a draw on the season’s opener.
Morton followed up with consecutive home victories over Stirling Albion in the Challenge Cup and the league, with Alex Williams starting as he meant to go on against his former employers, notching a double in each game. The Challenge Cup campaign wasn’t to last very long, with a controversial visit to Palmerston to play the Second Division Champions as Morton exited the tournament 0-1, but not without seeing Williams, debutant Dean Matthew Keenan and Colin Reilly ordered off in a particularly bad-tempered affair which saw a serious injury to former ‘Ton ace Sean O’Connor, who took the brunt of Reilly’s robust challenge that resulted in his red.
If Morton needed any reminding that the league campaign wouldn’t be plain sailing though, a 2-4 defeat to Peterhead at Balmoor was exactly that reminder. Whilst Queen’s Park were easily dispatched the following week, a trip to East Stirling, with new signing, the returning David Hopkin from Crystal Palace was to prove a massive disappointment. A club who were merely in the division as a result of Scottish football’s closed shop managed to salvage a 1-1 draw from a game that Morton should have been out of sight in. Hardly the preparation required for a League Cup derby against St. Mirren at Cappielow.
I’ll try and be brief in relaying my recollections of that game. A Scott Bannerman pearler and a close-range strike from Hopkin put the good guys in a commanding 2-0 lead at the break, but they were pegged back to 2-2 after 90 minutes before red cards for Marco Maisano and Saints’ Brian McGinty opened the game out somewhat and Mark Yardley decided to morph into Archie Gemmill and waltzed through the Morton defence to send the Buddies’ fans into raptures.
The withdrawal of Hopkin at half time with an injury that ultimately ended his playing career probably contributed to Morton’s collapse on the day, but it was a good indicator that we were a long way from where we wanted to be.
Cliftonhill was to prove an awkward venue for Morton, where they suffered two crushing late defeats.
Morton’s bogey team throughout the season was to be Albion Rovers, who were also to prove one of the four contenders for the title as the season progressed. The Wee Rovers sneaked a 1-0 victory at Cappielow as Morton’s difficult run of form continued.
But they were to burst into life with consecutive wins at Montrose, at home to early pace-setters East Fife and in Elgin, as a late Williams strike sent the Morton fans down the A9 in fine spirits.
But with such an expensively assembled squad, a 0-2 defeat by Stirling Albion and a home draw with Gretna piled the pressure on manager McPherson. The axe would finally fall after a disappointing 1-1 draw with Queen’s Park at Hampden. In truth, Morton were very fortunate to even get a point on the day, as John McCormack’s side dominated. With Morton sitting in fifth place, six points behind East Fife at the top, Rae had little choice but to act.
With Hopkin placed in temporary charge, Morton were to again fall to Albion Rovers. Having led through Phil Cannie, goals in the 87th and 90th minutes saw the Monklands side snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The man tasked with taking Morton through the choppy waters of the Third Division was John McCormack, who was appointed ahead of three consecutive home games which yielded seven points, before a trip to New Bayview to face the league leaders. Morton’s best performance of the season saw East Fife dispatched in style, as goals from Bannerman, Uotinen and a Williams double saw Morton produce perhaps their first statement result of the campaign.
The festive period was to prove quiet, as the weather took its grip on the fixture card, but Williams was to prove the hero with the only goal as Peterhead visited over the holiday period.
Highland League high-flyers Deveronvale were to prove tricky opponents in the Scottish Cup, as Morton sneaked through to a Third Round tie with Ross County 4-3, having led 4-1 late in the game.
David McGregor’s late header was to finally produce three points against Coatbridge’s finest at Cappielow before heading to Dingwall. The First Division side were to suffer the shock of the round as Morton’s 600 travelling fans were singing in the rain thanks in no small part to Alex Williams’ double which took the visitors though 2-1. After the disappointment of losing to St. Mirren earlier in the season, this was a clear indication that Morton were again heading in the right direction.
Of course, Morton being Morton though, don’t make things easy for themselves and hit a rotten run of form that would see them exit the cup at home to Second Division Stranraer and drop points against fellow promotion contenders East Fife at Cappielow, and on the road against also rans Elgin and Montrose.
Re-enforcements were to arrive though- Ayr United striker Eddie Annand arrived on loan, and young Celtic midfielder Chris Millar joined up with his local club.
Form was however, still patchy. Another defeat at Balmoor was a body blow, and the wins were nervy- tight victories over whipping boys East Stirling and a couple of 1-0 wins over Queen’s Park and Montrose got the points but were unconvincing, whilst more points were leaked at home to Stirling Albion in a 2-2 draw
Annand was to net in a single goal win against Gretna at Raydale Park, before we headed into the run-in with a trip to Cliftonhill. The thousand or so Morton fans in the crowd were to endure yet more late heartbreak in North Lanarkshire though, as our old adversary from earlier in the season, and from many a Renfrewshire derby, Mark Yardley, scored Rovers’ winner deep into injury time to put what looked like a fatal blow into Morton’s championship challenge. The loss of goal scorer David McGregor to injury for the rest of the season was to make for a horrible afternoon. Make no mistake, Morton were playing for snookers with five games remaining. The margin for error was next to nothing.
However, as Elgin came calling the following week, the stars aligned. Robbie Henderson’s goal line clearance at 0-0 was to prove one of the pivotal moments of the season, before substitute Warren Hawke’s late header and a Scott Bannerman penalty delivered the three points. Peterhead, East Fife and Albion all drew away from home against less fancied opposition and all of a sudden, Morton were heading into a mammoth tussle at Bayview in the Easter Weekend.
Warren Hawke's second half goal was the difference between the sides as Morton chalked up a crucial win at fellow title-challengers East Fife as the season approached it's conclusion.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the Fifers’ compact ground was filled beyond its modest capacity, with the travelling contingent taking up around three quarters of the official 1997 attendance. Hawke was again the hero as he scrambled home a second half winner from a corner to spark incredible scenes amongst the raucous away support.
With East Fife going head-to-head with Peterhead the following week, something had to give, and Morton showed Gretna no mercy- Emilio Bottiglieri’s incredible strike was the pick of the bunch in a 5-0 victory. Peterhead’s 2-0 win at Bayview suggested the wheels were coming off the Fifers’ promotion wagon. But the other promotion contenders, Albion Rovers, were headed to Peterhead on the penultimate game of the season. If results went their way, the trophy was sitting in Balmoor waiting to be presented to the hosts.
However, a 0-0 draw did neither team any favours, especially with East Fife returning to form with a routine 4-0 victory at Firs Park. Just up the road in Stirling, another huge travelling support followed Morton and were treated to a 3-0 victory that saw the ‘Ton hit the top of the pile for the first time all season- after 35 games! The irrepressible Williams was to notch yet another double before Uotinen stuck the cherry on the cake.
We were now heading into a winner-takes-all decider against the Blue Toon at Cappielow, whilst East Fife hosted Queen’s Park at a sold-out Bayview and Albion hosted East Stirling, hoping for something to give elsewhere.
With a healthy contingent coming from the north east, Cappielow was bursting at the seams. An official crowd of 8497 would have struck most in attendance as a conservative estimate, with the only spaces being in place as provisions for segregation and in the away end.
Morton released a video to commemorate the title victory, helpfully copied onto YouTube by none other than John Maisano.
The only result on the day that was never really in doubt was Albion Rovers’ victory over the bottom side, but nervy affairs played out at both Cappielow and Bayview. With onlyMorton and Peterhead having the title in their own hands it was unsurprisingly cagey, but after a goalless first half, the visitors were first to crack. Bottiglieri cut inside and lifted the ball towards Annand on the edge of the D, who knocked the ball onto Williams. Uncharacteristically, the prolific striker decided, with his back to goal, to square the ball to the oncoming Scott Bannerman, who stroked the ball past Paul Mathers with aplomb. Cue absolute bedlam.
A John Maisano free kick hit the crossbar as Morton searched for a second to put the result beyond doubt, before Morton were forced to start defending deeper as the Blue Toon sought an equaliser. With the clock running down, the visitors’ tempers started to fray, and ex-St. Mirren striker Alex Bone was issued with a second yellow by referee John Rowbotham for dissent. After that, Peterhead huffed and puffed without really threatening, whilst it was John Maisano who had the most clear-cut chance before a last-minute dust-up between the two benches threatened to boil over onto the pitch.
When Rowbotham blew his final whistle, Cappielow erupted as fans of all ages embraced and celebrated wildly. Derek Collins and Chairman Douglas Rae collected the trophy from SFL President Peter Donald and hoisted it aloft to the delight of the huge Cappielow crowd before starting the celebrations on the pitch and carrying them long into the Greenock night.
As a footnote, a last minute Kenny Deuchar goal against Queen’s Park took East Fife up alongside us, but the story was all about Morton, and how a club that was staring down the barrel just two years previous had been resurrected. There have been two title wins since, both at a higher level, and both satisfying. But none will ever compare to the impact that title had on Morton after such dark days.
Things may not always have gone swimmingly in the years that followed, and the Third Division is hardly Morton’s most illustrious achievement, but the memories of how Morton battled back from the brink will last a lifetime.
Oh, what a perfect day.
Bells Scottish Football League Third Division, 10th May 2003, Cappielow Park.
Greenock Morton 1-0 Peterhead
Morton: Coyle, Collins, Bottiglieri, Henderson, Gaughan, M. Maisano, Millar, Bannerman, Williams, J. Maisano, Annand.
Substitutes: McDonald, Uotinen, Cannie, Hawke, McGurn.
Peterhead: Mathers, MacDonald, McSkimming, Raeside, Perry, Bain, Tindal, Stewart, Cameron, Bone, Roddie.
Substitutes: Johnston, Simpson, McLean, Burns, Farqhuar.
Goals: Bannerman (54)
Referee: John Rowbotham
Thanks to Leon Mooney (@mooneyleon) for the images, taken from his Twitter account with permission.