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Dropped Points and Dodgy Penalties


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Oakley Queen's Park.jpg

(Photo- Gary Bradley)

Dropped Points and Dodgy Penalties

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

By Russell Gordon

With the carrot of a Scottish Cup tie at Celtic Park on the horizon, which would hopefully provide a welcome boost to the coffers, as well as providing the players with an opportunity to perform to a nationwide TV audience, it was back to league business for Morton and a trip up the east coast to face an Arbroath side that were struggling at the wrong end of the table. With Morton enduring a barren spell of nine games without a win in this particular fixture, the visit to Gayfield was surely the perfect opportunity to put that disappointing statistic to bed.

As the break approached, Lewis McGrattan took the bull by the horns and drove forward from the halfway line before despatching past Derek Gaston from 18 yards to give the ‘Ton a deserved half time lead. That lead was not however, to last very long, as two minutes after the restart, Arbroath’s David Gold restored parity. Morton would feel aggrieved though, not for the last time in this campaign about a horrific refereeing decision, as official David Dickenson failed to spot a blatant handball from Arbroath’s Ricky Little that should have seen the centre back ordered off and a penalty awarded to the visitors. Alas, it wasn’t to be, but these things even themselves out over the course of a season, don’t they?

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Lewis McGrattan's fine goal at Arbroath wasn't enough to bag three points was a highlight of the young midfielder's fine season. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

There was another break from league action as the SPFL Trust Trophy campaign reached a frustrating conclusion for another season against holders Raith Rovers, as Morton made their first of two December visits to Kirkcaldy. A much-changed side opened the scoring as Alex King pulled another screamer from his repertoire, only for Lewis Vaughan to equalise for the hosts. Morton would exit the competition on penalties, with King and Liam Grimshaw failing to convert in the shoot-out as the hosts advanced 4-2 on spot kicks.

That was to be the only bad news of the day though, particularly regarding penalty kicks, as later that evening England captain Harry Kane managed to balloon his own effort into orbit as the Three Lions made it *checks notes* 58 years of hurt in bowing out of the World Cup to eventual runners-up France. Every cloud, I suppose.

As events in Qatar grasped the world’s attention, mother nature was the winner as the visit of Queen’s Park a week before Christmas was frozen off, leaving Morton fans having to settle for the mesmeric Messi and Mbappe putting on a show in the greatest World Cup Final of all time for their football fix, before making the return trip to deepest, darkest Fife.

With the match moved forward to Friday the 23rd from the original Christmas Eve date, Morton really should have taken an early lead in sodden conditions, as Cammy Blues missed a gilt-edged chance in the third minute to give the visitors the lead. As it turned out, they were lucky not to be three down in no time, with a Raith goal disallowed for a foul on Brian Schwake. The ‘Ton didn’t learn their lesson from that though, as the hosts raced into a two-goal lead, through a 19th minute Schwake own goal and an Aidan Connolly strike two minutes later. Three minutes after that, Jack Baird capitalised on a mix-up in the hosts’ defence before Robbie Muirhead equalised just before the turnaround. An uneventful second half saw neither team take the initiative and it was two more points dropped for Morton.

With the January transfer window fast approaching, Imrie started moving players on, with Reece Lyon, who had spent the first half of the season at League Two promotion chasers Annan, extending his stay with the Galabankies. Darren Hynes joined up with Jim Duffy at Clyde, whilst Lewis McGregor went on to play his part in Operation Keep Falkirk Down by signing for fellow League One play-off contenders Airdrie. Alan Lithgow would eventually drop down to the Lowland League, joining up at East Kilbride.

There were positive steps involving those currently in the building, with captain Grant Gillespie and his midfield compatriot Robbie Crawford extending their deals until the summer of 2024, whilst Liam Grimshaw, who had been quite magnificent in Morton’s improved run, extending until the end of the season, along with Efe Ambrose. Darragh O’Connor would later extend his stay by another year. Incoming was Glentoran forward Ally Roy on loan, a man of many clubs on these shores who had most recently been at Airdrie and Queen of the South before enduring a disappointing spell in Belfast.

With the hotly anticipated new year visit of Ayr United postponed, Morton did give us some good news with the announcement of Calvin Miller’s arrival. The former Celtic kid had previously enjoyed loan spells at Dundee and Ayr, as well as playing in the National League with Chesterfield.

The long unbeaten run came to an end at Firhill under controversial circumstances, as referee Alan Muir would have been as well handing his whistle and cards to Partick’s Brian Graham and told him to get on with it, such was the ineptitude of the official’s performance. With Ambrose taken out the equation just before the break by an unpunished flying elbow, Morton fell behind to a Steven Lawless penalty after Grant Gillespie was penalised for handball. Admittedly, the award was reasonably sound, but having seen Rangers defender Conor Goldson not being penalised the previous week, questions about consistency were sure to arise. Six minutes later, Jack Baird levelled for the good guys, but as a series of baffling decisions were awarded to the hosts, frustrations boiled over and Dougie Imrie was eventually sent to the stand for his protests about the referee’s pathetic performance.

Whilst we in the decrepit old Firhill stand can’t say for sure what words were spoken by the Morton boss, his punishment certainly wasn’t consistent with the complete lack of action taken against ex-Morton striker Graham, who went unpunished after launching a tirade of abuse at the linesman on a rare occasion that a decision was awarded in the visitors’ favour. Andy Millen did an admirable job in standing for none of the hosts or the officials’ nonsense in Imrie’s enforced absence, but there was an inevitability about their last-minute winner, which was awarded to Ross Docherty, but appeared to come off Baird on the way in. It wasn’t the end of the controversy though, as Ambrose’s replacement, Darragh O’Connor had his jersey blatantly pulled by Partick’s Aaron Muirhead (not one famed for playing football according to the rules) inside the box, and the hapless whistler waved away Morton’s appeals for a penalty.

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Referee Alan Muir's failure to award Morton a last minute penalty summed up a frustrating day at Firhill as Morton's unbeaten run came to a frustrating end.

(Photo- Gary Bradley)

Unsavoury scenes were to follow as Graham goaded the visiting support, and ended up being confronted by an unimpressed Grimshaw as the teams left the field. It was quite telling that, despite encroaching onto the field after the final whistle, Imrie suffered no further punishment than the statutory one match ban. Perhaps the official was well aware that the standard of his own performance raised far more questions than the conduct of the Morton boss and chose not to highlight Imrie’s indiscretion.

With the manager in the stand for the visit to bottom-of-the table Hamilton Accies, at this point on a run of one point from nine league games, Morton were again on the wrong end of a penalty decision, and this time a farcical one. Novice referee Duncan Williams, one of a new breed that appeared to have been promoted to a level above their capabilities by the drip-down effect of the more experienced officials sitting in VAR studios, penalised Gillespie for clearing the ball and making no contact with his opponent, bizarrely justifying his decision to Imrie by telling him he forgot which team was shooting in which direction. Hamilton’s Andy Winter converted to give the hosts their first win in ten, and leaving Morton licking their wounds ahead of the Scottish Cup trip to Glasgow. Whilst the inexperienced Williams’ failings are more palatable than those of FIFA official Muir at Firhill, one wondered what the media reaction would be to a more high-profile club suffering so badly at the hands of officials.

We didn’t have to wait too long to find out, as Morton encountered VAR for the first time, and boy did we come out on the wrong end of that one? There’s no point in kidding ourselves, we were always going to be up against it against Ange Postecoglou’s all-conquering (on these shores at least) side, but after a promising start, VAR official Craig Napier (who had previously had a howler in the SPFL Trust Trophy victory over Ayr) alerted referee Kevin Clancy to a potential handball from Efe Ambrose. What actually happened was that Jack Baird had blocked a shot that rebounded up the back of Ambrose’s arm, unbeknown to the former Celtic defender. In a decision that baffled even the majority of the Celtic support, a crowd well known for crying injustice in their opponents’ favour, Clancy pointed to the spot. Inevitably, Aaron Mooy converted from the spot and any hopes of keeping the champions at bay were extinguished.

I needn’t go on with any further details about Celtic’s 5-0 victory, but the major negative to come out of the match was the loss of Lewis Strapp to injury, in what turned out to be his last game in a Morton jersey.

We did get some good news, however. After the signing of Turkish striker Nadir Ciftci was aborted by red tape, Inverness striker George Oakley joined up at Cappielow from Inverness, having suffered a frustrating time in the Highlands, and being rumoured not to have had the best of relationships with the notoriously difficult Billy Dodds.

Oakley was quick off the mark on his debut, netting after only four minutes against struggling Arbroath. But the Red Lichties belied their position in the table and produced perhaps the best performance Cappielow saw from a visiting team all season, as Colin Hamilton levelled in the second half, with makeshift left back Alex King proving that he is in fact a central midfielder, and Michael McKenna sending the three points back up to Angus with a fantastic 25-yard strike. On this occasion, Morton could have no complaints about the outcome.

With cover required for Strapp, Imrie brought in Calum Waters on loan from Kilmarnock as a direct replacement and the full back made a promising debut against Inverness in the Highlands. It was though, to be another hard luck story, but a far more promising performance from Imrie’s men.

Calvin Miller opened his Morton account early on, latching onto a misplaced pass to fire the visitors into an early lead, before Billy McKay levelled for the hosts after Schwake had spilled a relatively tame shot from the edge of the box. Morton looked to have won it late on when Robbie Muirhead latched onto a terrific ball up the line from substitute Alex King, and when faced up with Inverness’s Wallace Duffy, breezed past him with ease before dispatching through the legs of Mark Ridgers to give us a 2-1 lead. Five minutes later though, Inverness substitute Ethan Cairns levelled after another defensive mix up and again, Morton had to settle for one point instead of three. With home games against the top two coming up, any promotion ambitions were looking to be very much on the line, as Morton endured their most difficult spell of the season.

Morton had been looking forward to a free Saturday due to the cup exploits of Ayr and Queen’s Park meaning that none of the postponed fixtures could be fitted in, but those in office at the Spiders weren’t quite as well versed as our own office bearers on eligibility criteria, resulting in their expulsion from the competition and the reinstatement of Inverness, who they had beaten 2-0, but with the help of Hearts loanee Euan Henderson, who had been signed between the original planned date of the tie and the re-arranged fixture.

There was little doubt though that Morton were heading into the game as underdogs, and that theory was reinforced by Grant Savoury, who gave Queen’s a fourteenth minute lead. Enter Callum Ferrie though; the visiting goalkeeper decided to have a couple of minutes of madness, firstly coming out to challenge Jai Quitongo for a ball and laughably failing, allowing George Oakley to level things, before his coup de grace, racing out of his box a couple of minutes later, again falling flat on his face in the challenge with Oakley. The Morton striker was the grateful recipient of such good fortune and finished in style. Jai Quitongo could have twice extended Morton’s lead and Robbie Crawford had a penalty appeal knocked back before the interval, but Jack Baird doubled Morton’s advantage just after the turnaround. Conor Shields reduced the arrears half-way through the second period to make for a nervy ending, but Morton were well worth their win, in spite of the post-match mewling of Spiders’ boss Owen Coyle.

A good day was rounded off with the naming of the Main Stand as the Allan McGraw Main Stand, on what was to prove the final appearance at Cappielow of the great man.

Having taken care of one of the title favourites, Dundee were next to fall, in front of the BBC Scotland cameras on a memorable evening under the Cappielow lights. An early Jack Baird goal was enough to give Morton another deserved victory against more fancied opponents. Much as Dundee huffed and puffed to get an equaliser, Morton were never severely threatened by the powderpuff Taysiders.

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Jack Baird's early goal was enough to put Dundee to the sword of a terrific night under the lights at Cappielow. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

Of course though, after beating the top two at Cappielow, the visit of a Cove Rangers side who were in freefall was never going to be easy, and it looked for a long time as though Morton would come unstuck against the Aberdonians. Morton had added Ali Crawford to the squad on loan from St. Johnstone, and with Cove leading until the last ten minutes through Leighton McIntosh’s first half goal, Morton finally got the breakthrough as Shay Logan upended Miller in the box. Muirhead’s penalty smashed off the bar but rebounded off the back of the unfortunate Scott Fox and Morton were level. Five minutes from time, a winner arrived as Robbie Crawford stabbed in at the far post amidst chaos in the visitors’ six-yard box to make it three out of three ahead of the trip to Ochilview to visit Queen’s Park.

Sad news was to come before the match though, with Allan McGraw’s passing. The former Morton player, coach and manager’s death was met with tributes from across Scottish football and was felt more at Cappielow than anywhere else, such was his magnificent contribution to our fine club.

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The re-naming of the Main Stand after Morton legend Allan McGraw was a lovely touch, but Mr. McGraw's passing a fortnight later brough a sadness to all connected with Morton. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

A large travelling support descended on Ochilview, and should have seen Morton take an early lead, but Ali Crawford fluffed his lines when one-on-one with Callum Ferrie. Queen’s Park didn’t hang around after that and raced into a two-goal lead through captain Tommy Robson and Marcel Oakley. It looked as if they’d muster their first league win over the ‘Ton since 1962, but George Oakley had other ideas, getting on the end of a sublime Robbie Muirhead cross to reduce the arrears just before the hour. Queens’ Stephen Eze then headed home from a corner, but his goal was controversially ruled out and Morton had a lifeline. Given the number of decisions that had gone against us so far this season it was nice to finally get the rub of the green.

Oakley again was to prove the scourge of the Glasgow nomads, leaping like a salmon nine minutes from time to connect with a Robbie Crawford cross and rescue a point, to the delight of the travelling faithful.

Midweek was to see a terribly disappointing evening though as Ayr visited for the re-arranged new year fixture. Having paid a moving tribute to the late Mr. McGraw, Morton were slow out the traps as Sam Ashford gave the Honest Men an early lead. Robbie Crawford equalised after half an hour, and a minute later Oakley was put though on goal only to narrowly miss before a sickening Schadenfreude moment. Morton had struggled from corners all evening, and Sean McGinty made no mistake in restoring the visitors’ lead, taking great pleasure in reminding the Cowshed how little he appreciated their views on his qualities as a player and as a person. Eventual SPFA Championship Player of the Year Dipo Akinyemi added a third before the interval, and in truth, Morton couldn’t complain about the defeat from a game in which they were second best from the off.

Partick Thistle visited Cappielow, with Alan Muir again in the middle in case there was any danger of them losing the game, and the two sides saw out an insipid 0-0 draw that would have got football stopped. After clawing themselves back into the promotion race, this was a week that was a severe setback to those ambitions.

But there were more setbacks to come. A Friday night visit to Arbroath saw an absolutely dominant Morton display, but failure to add to George Oakley’s first half opener came back to haunt us, as the Arbroath curse continued. Schwake’s inability to deal with Colin Hamilton’s header across goal resulted in a tap in for Arbroath’s Sean Adarkwa to level. Whilst Schwake’s spell at Morton could overall be deemed a success, the failure to sign suitable back up to take a young keeper out of the firing line when the going got tough was again coming to the fore. There was however, one last chance. Robbie Muirhead’s free kick was handled by Michael McKenna and Morton were awarded a penalty four minutes from time. With regular taker Grant Gillespie already substituted, and Muirhead technically having missed his last spot kick against Cove, the responsibility fell on the shoulders of Ali Crawford to net his first Morton goal. It wasn’t to be. Crawford’s tame penalty was well saved by former ‘Ton hero Derek Gaston, who then scarpered across his goal to save Crawford’s headed effort from the rebound which shouldn’t have given him a chance before Tam O’Brien poked away from the onrushing Robbie Muirhead at the far post. On a pivotal night in Morton’s season, it became apparent that if we didn’t have bad luck, we wouldn’t have had any luck at all.

An Inverness side purring from their Scottish Cup reprieve and the softening of their injury woes rocked up at Cappielow smelling blood and came away with the points. Grant Gillespie had levelled from the spot after Scott Allardice’s opener, and when Muirhead’s terrific free kick crashed off Ridgers’ bar, it was apparent that it was again not going to be Morton’s day. What we didn’t bank on though was David Carson’s last minute winner rubbing salt into a now gaping Morton wound.

A trip to Somerset Park had the feeling of do-or-die, and again Morton were to come up just short. Calum Waters’ speculative effort had given us a lead before Frankie Musonda equalised for Ayr, but with Morton chasing a winner, they were to contribute to their own downfall. Two bookings in five minutes for George Oakley saw the striker receive his marching orders, and in truth, the over officious Colin Steven broke from his policy to do Oakley a favour by only issuing a second yellow for high tackle on McGinty that really should have seen a straight red. Despite the loss of Oakley, Morton still looked dangerous and could have won it late on with the returning from injury Jai Quitongo looking short of match fitness, but coming close, and it looked as if any play-off chances had now gone, barring a miracle.

With Hamilton playing in, and winning the SPFL Trust Trophy final, their visit to Cappielow was postponed, and a Morton side minus Oakley got back on track. After an unconvincing first half, the introductions of Lewis McGrattan and Alex King swung things in Morton’s favour. Gillespie gave Morton the lead after 54 minutes before King’s goal twelve minutes later, after a beautiful pass from McGrattan secured the points. It wouldn’t be harsh on Hamilton to suggest that they could be thankful to goalkeeper Ryan Fulton for preventing a repeat of the October rout on their last visit to Greenock.

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Alex King's fine finish from a Lewis McGrattan through ball finished off the challenge of Hamilton as Morton seeked to drag their way back into the chase for a play-off place. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

With four games remaining, the trip to Dens Park looked a daunting one. With Dundee going for the title, few would have given Morton a chance, but Darragh O’Connor’s spectacular first goal for Morton gave us a surprise lead. Defending cross balls was again to prove a problem all afternoon though, as Dundee’s Luke Hannant levelled fifteen minutes later.

On the hour, Robbie Muirhead silenced the majority of the Dens Park crowd and sent the visiting support into raptures with an outstanding free kick to give Morton the lead, and things got even better four minutes later, as Jack Baird nodded Morton into a 3-1 lead from a sublime Miller cross. We couldn’t, could we?

Again, it wasn’t to be. Dundee substitute Kwame Thomas reduced the deficit with twenty minutes remaining, and as Morton retreated deeper and deeper, a 94th minute Thomas equaliser, after a scramble in the Morton box, was to sum up Morton’s luck, or failure to see out games from winning positions in the second half of the season.

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Dundee's gut-wrenching late equaliser sickened everyone involved with Morton, but few would have felt the pain more than manager Dougie Imrie. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

After yet another sickening blow, no less than nine points from nine would do, and even then, we were playing for snookers. A season that had offered so much was looking to fizzle out with a whimper.

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