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(Photo- Gary Bradley)

Substitutes, Sponsors and Sending Offs…

A Review of Morton’s 2022-23 Season, Part One

By Russell Gordon

So, another season has come and gone, with Morton now looking forward to their eighth successive season in the Championship- the longest of all the division’s members and a club record since league reconstruction in the 1970s.

However, this time around was a much more positive experience for most connected to Morton than most of the previous ones in this run of consecutive seasons at least, in spite of the late heartbreak we all endured on that foggy night on the outskirts of Aberdeen.

Morton’s season though, was to begin under a cloud of uncertainty- a summer of rumours as to the future of Hamilton Manager Stuart Taylor had a knock-on effect at Cappielow, with Imrie, a fans’ favourite in Hamilton, touted to replace the seemingly doomed Accies’ boss. Whilst now almost unthinkable, given the stories of budgetary constraints at Cappielow over the summer, there were real concerns in the Morton support about Imrie’s future.

Although the extension of Lewis Strapp’s deal for another season was terrific news; having lost the likes of Gozie Ugwu, Jack Hamilton and Oisin McEntee from the previous campaign, Morton began their warm-up for the new campaign by visiting an old haunt from yesteryear to play Annan at Gretna, with the League Two side claiming a late 2-2 draw, before a far more encouraging 3-0 victory over David Martindale’s Livingston at Almondvale, thanks in no small part to two fine goals from Michael Garrity.

It's fairly obvious that Imrie and Martindale have a good working relationship. Whilst Livingston snapped up the out-of-contract Hamilton and Morton’s Hearts loanee Jamie Brandon, American goalkeeper Brian Schwake and Irish winger Jaze Kabia came in the door from Livi.

Queen’s Park’s promotion was also to prove a blessing in disguise, as the Spiders’ free spending policy saw the surplus to requirements Grant Gillespie and Jai Quitongo arrive at Cappielow. Gillespie was eventually awarded the captaincy, with his vice-captain Jack Baird coming in from Ayr to shore up the backline, alongside another Irishman- Motherwell’s Darragh O’Connor, who had spent six months on loan at Queen of the South, and Dumbarton right back Carlo Pigniatello.

The Premier Sports Cup campaign started in inauspicious circumstances, with Morton only managing to name a lone substitute in their opening match against League One minnows, Falkirk. The end result was perhaps the most embarrassing in Morton’s recent history, as the underdogs managed to hold their more illustrious opponents to a 0-0 draw before claiming a penalty shoot-out win, much to the delight of their travelling mob. The win was to propel Falkirk to a season of success unparalleled in recent years, as they made the play-off semi final before narrowly losing out 2-7 to Airdrieonians. There’s probably an open-top bus parade going through their town as you read this.

If that result was embarrassing, the 0-2 defeat by another League One side, Clyde was almost as humiliating, as Morton put in a turgid performance and were lucky to come away with only a two-goal defeat.

Morton being Morton however, decided to upset the applecart when they visited Premiership Hibernian at Easter Road. Just when we thought we were going to be on the end of a doing in what was proving to be a depressing League Cup campaign, Hibs came along to make us all feel a bit better about life. A terrific rear-guard effort kept Morton in the game before Grant Gillespie converted a second half penalty that looked to have given the visitors all three points before Euan Henderson levelled late on to take us to another penalty shoot-out. This time, Morton were to prove victorious with Hibs missing three of their spot kicks.

The drama didn’t end there though, as it turned out that Hibs Manager Lee Johnson, who had been critical of the authorities for the lack of a Fourth Official on duty at Easter Road, dropped his own clanger by playing the suspended Rocky Bushiri against the ‘Ton. Morton were subsequently awarded a 3-0 win and as a result were back into the competition, but hoping for favours in their final match against league new-boys Bonnyrigg Rose. It turned out that a 3-1 Cappielow victory wasn’t to prove enough to qualify, with Falkirk beating Clyde to take the sole place in the last sixteen from the group, but Morton could look forward to the season with a bit more optimism than earlier in the month.

With Taylor eventually emptied by Accies as the season approached, Imrie was to take his Morton side to New Douglas Park for the season’s opener, and they were to fall behind after only five minutes, as Andy Ryan nodded home from a poorly defended corner. Just before the break, Jaze Kabia was upended by Accies defender Shaun Want, who received a deserved second booking. What wasn’t expected though, was the referee pointing to the spot, as the foul appeared to be a yard or so outside the box. Grant Gillespie though, didn’t stand around and debate the issue, as he levelled matters with aplomb. Unfortunately though, despite playing the full second half against ten men, Morton couldn’t find a breakthrough and had to settle for a point.

A breakthrough would again prove hard to come by against League One champions Cove Rangers on their first ever visit to Cappielow, but when it did arrive, it was spectacular. With the teams playing out a tousy affair, it was Jai Quitongo who latched onto a poor defensive header from Cove’s Shay Logan thirteen minutes from time, before spinning and launching a rocket from the edge of the box to give Morton their first three points of the league season.

Quitongo Cove.JPG

Jai Quitongo's fantastic strike kept the points at Cappielow as Cove Rangers made their first visit to Greenock in August. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

Next up was Raith Rovers in Kirkcaldy, and a disappointing 1-2 reverse, with only a late Cammy Blues consolation to show for Morton’s efforts, but the following week was to prove one of the most pivotal of the season, and in Morton’s short period under community ownership. Firstly, it was announced that striker Alexander Easdale was leaving the club to take up a role in his family’s business. It was difficult not to feel sorry for the young striker, who appeared to be really out of his depth playing at such a level, but it raised questions about the involvement of his family, the club’s major sponsors. Two days later though, the club were to announce a sponsorship deal with Dalrada Technology UK, which would see the renaming of the stadium as Cappielow Park supported by Dalrada Technology UK.

The deal was to prove a real coup for MCT, and particularly director Sam Robinson, who managed to convince Dalrada CEO Brian Bonar, an ex-pat Morton supporter, that the club were an attractive proposition to attach their brand to.

The good news kept coming, as former Ayr United and Partick Thistle midfielder Robbie Crawford joined up for the season to add a bit more quality to the midfield. Things were beginning to take shape ahead of the visit of title favourites, Dundee. Morton were unfortunate not to come away with maximum points, with only the width of a post preventing Jack Baird from winning the match for the home side late on.

A first win on the road was to follow as Inverness were dispatched thanks to a late Gillespie penalty, much to the delight of the travelling support, but September would not prove to be a fruitful month. League leaders Ayr United collected three points from Cappielow thanks to goals from the talismanic Dipo Akinyemi and Mark McKenzie, with only a Robbie Muirhead counter to show for Morton’s efforts.

There was to be an unplanned week off as all fixtures were postponed due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, but in that time, another new arrival came into Cappielow- former Motherwell full back Liam Grimshaw. Grimshaw wasn’t to enjoy the most successful of debuts as Morton were to suffer a second successive home defeat, this time to an Arbroath side who were suffering a bit of a hangover after their heroics in the previous campaign. To add to Morton’s frustrations, Jai Quitongo picked up his second red card of the season (having previously seen red against Falkirk) when wrestling the ball from Red Lichties’ keeper Derek Gaston after Lewis McGrattan had netted a late consolation.

The SPFL Trust Trophy campaign kicked off with Ayr’s second visit to Cappielow of the month, and a happier ending. With both teams playing much changed line-ups, Lewis McGregor gave Morton an early lead before Josh Mullin restored parity just before the break. A farcical second half saw Quitongo again see red, alongside Jack Baird and Ayr’s Paul Smith as referee Craig Napier completely lost control of a match that wasn’t even terribly bad tempered. Morton however, were to prevail on penalties, with Ayr skipper, and Cowshed “favourite” Sean McGinty being the only man who failed to convert and a place in the next round beckoned.

A trip to Firhill was to follow, and with it came the low point of Morton’s season. With Quitongo and Baird suspended, it came as a surprise to see Morton take the lead against the in-form Jags, thanks to an absolute howitzer of a free kick from Robbie Muirhead. That was to be the last of the joy from the weekend though, as goals from Brian Graham and Kevin Holt gave Partick a half time lead against the makeshift defence, and Graham also found time to smash his flying elbow into the face of Lewis Strapp, remarkably escaping unpunished, not for the last time this season. Three further goals in the second half and a missed Holt penalty completed a chastening afternoon for Morton who were hamstrung by Grant Gillespie’s early booking leaving him walking on eggshells for almost the entirety of the match. It left Imrie and Morton licking their wounds with the midweek visit to another in form “Glasgow” club, Queen’s Park approaching in midweek, as we caught up with the postponed fixture from the monarch’s passing.

They didn’t lick their wounds for long though, as Jaze Kabia topped off his best performance in a Morton jersey with first half goal, which Muirhead added to in the second. A late Spiders fightback saw Malachai Boateng pull one back, but Morton were to emerge with the points with a special mention for Darragh O’Connor putting his head in where it hurts to ensure all three points headed west.

Kabia Queen's Park.jpg

Jaze Kabia's opening goal set Morton on their way to a morale boosting three points as they dispatched big-spending Queen's Park at Ochilview.

(Photo- Gary Bradley)

Hamilton’s unbeaten record at Cappielow stretched back to 1999, but was blown to smithereens within 23 minutes. An early headed goal from Baird, an easy finish from Kabia after Gillespie’s raking pass cut through the Accies defence like a hot knife through melting butter and an incredible team goal that was finished off by Gillespie gave the hosts a commanding lead, with Muirhead adding another couple in the second half to put some gloss on a fine win. And it was to be three in three the following week, with Gillespie’s injury time penalty sending Raith back to the kingdom empty handed.

Another goalless draw against Dundee, this time at Dens, was certainly a point gained rather than two dropped, especially with Grimshaw filling in at centre back for the injured O’Connor, taken off against Raith the previous week. Morton would need a more long-term solution, however.

That was to come in the shape of Nigerian international Efe Ambrose, the former Celtic and Hibs centre back, who had endured a difficult time at a Dunfermline side who would ultimately be relegated last term, with Ambrose seeing red in their decisive play-off semi-final second leg.

The affable defender came in for BBC Scotland’s first visit to Cappielow, and enjoyed a man-of-the-match performance against the hapless Highlanders as Morton ran out resounding 4-0 winners. Muirhead’s early goal owed more to Mark Ridgers’ butter fingers in the rain than anything else, but the keeper looked to have made amends by saving Gillespie’s penalty a few minutes later, only for Gills to convert the rebound. A David Carson own goal rounded off a terrific first half, before Cammy Blues put the icing on the cake late on with the goal of the game after a fine one-two with McGrattan. Four clean sheets and thirteen points from fifteen saw Imrie claim his first Glen’s Vodka Manager of the Month award, and onward to Somerset Park it was.

Gillespie Inverness.JPG

A familiar sight at Cappielow throughout the season was that of Grant Gillespie celebrating, this time after knocking in the rebound from his penalty in the rout of Inverness. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

There did however, appear to be one stumbling block to continuing the feel-good factor, though. Ambrose’s red card for Dunfermline in last season’s play-off semi-final would of course have led to a suspension, which hadn’t apparently been served, but it turned out that he had been registered prior to the Dens Park draw before being unveiled as a Morton player. This new era of competence behind the scenes was becoming disconcerting!

The Morton defence wasn’t to prove impregnable much longer though, as Ayr’s Arsenal loanee Alex Kirk gave the hosts a third minute lead, but Jai Quitongo levelled soon after, nodding home from a corner as the sides saw out a 1-1 draw. One real positive to take from the game was how quiet Ambrose kept the normally irrepressible Akinyemi.

Revenge was sweet as a Partick side enduring their worst run of the season were defeated at Cappielow. An Ambrose header gave Morton a first half lead, before being hauled back by Anton Dowds. However, a fine move involving Quitongo and Strapp was finished off brilliantly by Cammy Blues, who kept the points in Greenock, and sent Tarquin and Felix home to sulk into their Belhaven Bests.

With the World Cup kicking off in Qatar, it was business as usual in the Scottish Championship as a late Robbie Crawford goal gave Morton all three points from their first visit to Balmoral Stadium after Cove looked to have salvaged a draw minutes from time, and it was now six wins from eight undefeated ahead of the Scottish Cup visit of Queen of the South.

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The first senior goal of Alex King's career was one to remember, as he finished off a mazy run in style to secure a 4-1 Scottish Cup success over Queen of the South. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

A tricky tie against familiar opponents was made all the more difficult when Queens’ boss Willie Gibson’s son Lewis grabbed a first half equaliser after Robbie Muirhead opened the scoring, but the big striker was to pull another majestic free kick out of his locker to restore Morton’s lead, before a late Gillespie penalty and an Alex King wonder goal finally put the tie to bed. Terrific stuff, hopefully we could get a favourable draw and embark on a decent cup run.

Who did we get? Celtic away. Smashing, cheers…

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