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Fine Margins in the Fog


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(Photo- Gary Bradley)

Fine Margins in the Fog

A review of Morton’s 2022-23 Season, Part Three

By Russell Gordon

With no margin for error, Morton at least had a bit of clarity as to what was required going into the final three games of the season- nine points from nine was the be all and end all. However, they were dealt a midweek blow as Inverness turned round a late deficit at Hamilton, in a game brought forward to accommodate the Highland side’s Scottish Cup semi-final, which was scheduled for the weekend penultimate game of the season. Having taken the lead with only 18 minutes remaining through Hearts loanee Connor Smith, the Accies quickly succumbed to a Nathan Shaw equaliser three minutes later before Billy McKay’s winner two minutes from time did Morton no favours at all.

But Morton could only look after themselves, and with the visit of Raith Rovers, the only club in the division by this stage who had nothing to play for, the ‘Ton came out all guns blazing. There was a surprise inclusion in Alex King, who had suffered Imrie’s wrath in the aftermath of the Dens Park draw in which the young midfielder had conceded a free kick late on, which led to the Dark Blues’ late, late equaliser.

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Alex King's early goal gave Morton the points against Raith Rovers in a tight affair at Cappielow. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

But the selection was to prove a wise one, as only a couple of minutes in, King was on the end of Calvin Miller’s pinpoint cross to nod Morton into an early lead. Whilst those outside of Morton and their fanbase may well have looked upon the match as an end-of-season dead rubber, those of us with blue-and-white tinted glasses were holding onto every hope they could, and with little happening in front of their eyes, attention began to focus on events elsewhere.

We’d already had the benefit of fellow promotion contenders Ayr and Queen’s Park cancelling each other out in a turgid 0-0 draw on BBC Scotland the night before, but with Dundee taking a point at Inverness there was another bonus for Morton’s play-off ambitions. At the bottom end of the table, Cove’s win at Arbroath kept the Red Lichties looking for points ahead of their penultimate-day trip to Firhill to face Partick. However, Partick were at Hamilton, and again the Accies failure to hold onto a lead was to have ramifications for the good guys. Having gone 2-1 up a minute from time, it looked as though the Maryhill side had dropped three vital points, but Steven Lawless’s 92nd minute goal got them out of jail and salvaged one.

With Morton’s game drifting towards a routine home win, Raith’s frustrations came to the boil as two of their main men, Tom Lang and Lewis Vaughan saw red late on. Normally an opponent seeing red is a welcome sign of course, but with the Rovers not laying a glove on Morton anyway, and tasked with a visit to Somerset Park the following week, there were certainly mixed feelings amongst the home support about Raith’s late lack of composure in what wasn’t a dirty game at all.

Whilst Morton weren’t going to win the title, they still had a say in who would, and it was expected that if they could again defeat Queen’s Park, the trophy would be heading to Tayside. Relegation threatened Cove Rangers visited Dens for the Friday night game and put in a dogged performance to gain a point from the title favourites, dragging Cove out of the automatic relegation places and leaving Dundee looking on anxiously to events at Cappielow the following day.

Confidence amongst the Spiders’ support was high, with comments about “taking care of business” not uncommon in the lead up to a game against a team they had mustered a meagre point from across the previous three meetings.

They did however, open the scoring for the third consecutive meeting. Having dominated the first half hour, been denied a penalty when Grant Gillespie was felled in the box and seen Callum Ferrie claw away Robbie Muirhead’s exquisite goal-bound chip, Darragh O’Connor was turned on the half way line, and whilst the attack looked to have fizzled out, Scott Williamson collected the ball out on the left and played it inside to Malachai Boateng, who picked out the bottom corner to give the visitors an undeserved lead. Queen’s Park couldn’t hold on until the break though as Morton went back on the front foot. Calvin Miller came close before Jai Quitongo made mincemeat of right back Marcel Oakley, forcing the hapless defender into hacking him down on the bye line. This time, referee John Beaton had no hesitation and pointed to the spot. After having had problems with penalties recently, it was a relief that Grant Gillespie was, on this occasion on the pitch. The captain made no mistake from the spot, sending the teams in level at the break.

Morton started the second half where they left off, with Quitongo tormenting his former club’s defence before Queen’s came into the game forcing a couple of smart saves from Brian Schwake. However, with 25 minutes remaining, Morton took the lead, with George Oakley the architect-in-chief. Centre back Charlie Fox was caught underneath Calum Waters’ clearance; and was turned brilliantly by Oakley on the halfway line. The big striker fed Robbie Crawford, who clipped the ball beautifully over a flailing Ferrie into the net, sending the Cowshed into raptures. Oakley had to be replaced, pulling up in the act of playing the ball through to Crawford, but the action didn’t let up, with both teams exchanging chances and Jai Quitongo perhaps relieved that he wasn’t left to rue a late miss after an otherwise imperious personal performance.

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Robbie Crawford's terrific winning goal sent Cappielow wild, denting Queen's Park's title ambitions and taking Morton into the final day with high hopes of sneaking into the play-offs. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

Elsewhere, Partick and Ayr both recorded routine and expected home wins against relegation-threatened Arbroath and depleted Raith. Morton would go into the final match knowing that, coupled with a win against a Cove side fighting for their lives, there were two possible scenarios which could’ve taken them into the play-offs. Given the lack of motivation, and how their season had petered out, a Raith win against Partick at Stark’s Park was perhaps unlikely, but with both Inverness and Ayr needing a win to secure a play-off place themselves, there were high hopes that they could cancel each other out, allowing Morton to capitalise.

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Jai Quitongo ran his former club ragged in Morton's 2-1 win over Queen's Park. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

With a straight shoot-out for the title between Queen’s Park and Dundee at Ochilview, with the Taysiders holding the upper hand going into the game, at the bottom of the table, Cove knew a result of sorts would be imperative with Hamilton travelling to face fellow strugglers Arbroath at Gayfield.

What we didn’t bank on on a night of high drama was Mother Nature’s intervention. With the Morton fans making up the majority of Cove’s biggest crowd of the season, thick fog prevented most in attendance of actually seeing much action. The ‘Ton got off to the perfect start, with Jack Baird heading home from what I believe was a Calvin Miller corner, although I can’t confirm. All was going well, but with conditions worsening, Cove boss Paul Harltey and his bench weren’t slow in getting in the ear of referee Craig Napier to call for an abandonment which would have seen them not only restore parity, but head into a re-arranged fixture knowing exactly what they would have to do to overtake Hamilton and/or Arbroath. Elsewhere, Ayr and Partick both took early first half leads, although Raith levelled, leaving things nicely poised heading into the break. However, Cove threw a spanner into the works by levelling spectacularly through Declan Glass on the cusp of half time.

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Jack Baird got Morton off to the perfect start with a headed goal in the final day showdown with Cove Rangers. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

Things deteriorated further at the break, and Napier delayed a return to action for a further five minutes before finally relenting, perhaps under pressure from the SPFL to complete the game on the night. One man who didn’t complete the game though was Cammy Blues, who collected a second booking for a rash challenge four minutes into the half, much to the chagrin of Dougie Imrie and his bench. With Cove happily holding on to the draw that would have secured them a play-off place at the bottom end of the table, Raith Rovers took the lead, giving a glimmer of hope that Partick could be caught. Partick would quickly equalise before Robbie Muirhead again proved the hero of the hour. Well known as a scorer of spectacular goals, we’ll just have to assume his winner was one out of that repertoire, as all I can recall was seeing the net bugle in the mist.

With the rest of the country enthralled by Dundee’s 5-3 win at Ochilview which secured the title, the Morton fans’ attention again turned to their phones for updates from elsewhere, and nine minutes from time, they finally got it. Nathan Shaw equalised for Inverness and we were in the play-offs! For seven minutes at least. Whilst Raith couldn’t get a goal to help Morton out, Ayr could find the net to spoil our fun- Mark McKenzie dispatching a winner that Mark Ridgers really should have thrown his cap on. To rub salt in the wound, Inverness would get a late goal ruled out for offside, and Morton had to play out the final few minutes knowing they were rooted in the Championship regardless of the result, whilst also trying to contain an increasingly desperate Cove, who were ultimately relegated when the final whistle blew.

But the sickening sense of emptiness that greeted the Morton fans at the end didn’t stop them appreciating their heroes’ efforts, nor did it stop the squad and staff reciprocating the good wishes from the crowd before the long drive home.

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Robbie Muirhead's winner in Aberdeen proved to be in vain as results went against Morton on the season's final day. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

With Cove going down off the back of their defeat to Morton, Hamilton would follow them in the play-offs. Having fallen 0-3 behind on aggregate in their semi-final tie against Alloa, they recovered to go through to a final against Airdrie amidst fan revolt at their board. Airdrie had comfortably reached the final, hammering League One regulars Falkirk 6-2 at Broomfield (stop laughing at the back, there) before recording a comfortable 1-0 win in Grangemouth. A 1-0 win over Accies in the first leg of the final saw both teams going into the second leg at New Douglas Park with all to play for. It looked as though Accies had salvaged their Championship place, leading 2-0 before Gabby McGill forced extra time, and ultimately penalties. After eleven perfect penalties, Airdrie keeper Josh Rae stopped Daniel O’Reilly’s tame kick to take Airdrie back to the Championship for the first time in a decade, sending Hamilton down to League One for the first time since our annus horribilis of 2003-04.

One team who aren’t unfamiliar with the Championship are Dundee United, who dropped like a stone, losing all of their post-split games to return to the second tier after three years.

In the play-offs, Partick went through Queen’s Park and Ayr United with ease, racking up sixteen goals across four games to set up a final against Ross County. Things couldn’t have gone any better for the gurning Glaswegians in the first leg, with Aidan Fitzpatrick giving them an early lead, before an early red card for County teenager Dylan Smith. Everyone’s favourite striker, Brain Graham gave the hosts a commanding lead going into the second leg.

Partick would add to that before half time in Dingwall, again thanks to Fitzpatrick, and were as good as up. But in a not-at-all-funny turn of events, Graham was adjudged to have handled in the box, allowing Yan Dhanda to reduce the arrears. With Partick still re-organising, ex-Morton striker Alex Samuel squared for Simon Murray to bring them within a goal. That goal would arrive in the 91st minute through George Harmon, taking the match to extra time. You really had to feel sorry for Partick legend Stuart Bannigan, brought on immediately before Murray’s goal, who missed a gilt-edged chance in extra time before missing from the spot along with teammates Kevin Holt and Ross Docherty, as Partick completed a monumental collapse, losing on penalties to the Highlanders.

As bottles crashed in Dingwall, glasses were raised in Greenock!

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There won't be any Morton fans who aren't hoping Liam Grimshaw accepts Morton's contract offer for next season. (Photo- Gary Bradley)

Closer to home, there were no great surprises in the retained and released lists, with the loanees returning to their parent clubs, although Calum Waters, released by Kilmarnock has signed a more permanent a deal at Cappielow, along with former Scotland defender Kirk Broadfoot, whilst Liam Grimshaw and Calvin Miller have both been offered terms. Jai Quitongo’s also accepted a one-year deal, while Efe Ambrose, Josh Gemmell, Lawton Green, Reece Lyon, Carlo Pignatiello and Lewis Strapp all move on with our best wishes.

We can expect to see some more movement in the transfer market soon one would expect, but with a strong core of the squad already signed, season ticket sales massively up on last season and a growing sense of optimism in the support, the new season can’t come quick enough. It seems strange to be looking forward to a season with such optimism, but that’s what the Dougie effect has given Morton, with praise also due to an administration that is running the club in a way we had been desperate for it to be ran for years.

Maybe, just maybe the good times are coming back to Cappielow.

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