(Photo- GBR Photos)
Raymond’s Revolution, Resignation and Relegation
By Russell Gordon
Transfer deadline day, be it at the end of August or January, is in the modern era of football a date marked in the diary of fans of every football club, and often a day that we all go through the emotional ringer, as we hope to hold onto star players that bigger clubs are sniffing around, shift on guys who haven’t lived up to expectations, or bring in the final pieces of the jigsaw to allow for the season’s ambitions to be fulfilled.
But for Morton, the 31st of August 2018, five years ago today, was a deadline day like no other. Morton had gone through quite a summer of transition- Jim Duffy was relieved of his duties with a year remaining of his contract in spite of a relatively successful four years in the Cappielow hot seat, taking Morton up from League One at the first attempt and enjoying two relatively successful years in the Championship before a somewhat mediocre season which led many on the terraces, and perhaps the inner sanctum of Cappielow to believe that he had gone a bit stale and it was time for a change.
Added to that was the sad passing of Morton’s benefactor, and former Chairman, Douglas Rae in June. With his son Crawford having taken over the role shortly before his father’s death, the decision was made to push the boat out for promotion to the Premiership. Season tickets were significantly reduced from around £300 to £200 and the club enjoyed extremely healthy sales, and the man entrusted with guiding Morton to the land of milk and honey was former Dundee United boss Ray McKinnon, a bit of a nemesis of Duffy’s in his Raith Rovers days, taking twelve points from twelve against a very good Morton side in 2015-16, before moving onto a less successful spell at the poisoned chalice that is the home dugout at Tannadice.
The Rebuild And Start To The Season
With some of the more high-profile stalwarts of the Duffy era, such as Ricki Lamie, Jai Quitongo, Thomas O’Ware, Gary Harkins and the mercurial Ross Forbes heading onto pastures new, McKinnon set about assembling a squad for the challenge ahead. Former ‘Ton heroes Chris Millar and Jim McAlister returned to their old stomping ground, although questions were raised about the decision to allow Andy Murdoch’s contract to expire for him to head onto newly promoted Ayr United.
Keeper Ryan Scully came in to dislodge Derek Gaston, along with defenders Reghan Tumilty, Gregor Buchanan, Rory McKeown and Kerr Waddell, as well as Charlie Telfer from Dundee United and Motherwell loanee Ross McLean, and the marquee signing of Denny Johnstone from Birmingham City.
The League Cup campaign wasn’t great, but could be put down to McKinnon’s new squad taking time to gel. Having led through a Michael Tidser free kick at Somerset Park, a Lawrence Shankland hat-trick sent the ‘Ton faithful home with a bloody nose. They were effectively out the tournament following a 1-2 defeat at Firhill a few days later before resounding victories over the group’s makeweights, Stenhousemuir and Albion Rovers.
The league campaign started with a disappointing 2-2 draw with Queen of the South at Cappielow, with Morton giving up a two-goal lead through Tidser and McLean in the last 20 minutes to settle for a point. However, a Chris Millar double against Alloa gave Morton their first three points on the road. After a shadow side exited the Challenge Cup at Dumbarton, title favourites Ross County were next to visit Cappielow and it was Morton’s turn to come from behind. It took Tidser only a couple of minutes to cancel out Don Cowie’s opener on the hour, and a Bob McHugh goal sent Morton to the top of the league. Brilliant, what could possibly go wrong?
A 2-1 win over title favourites, and eventual champions Ross County was the highlight of McKinnon's tenure, a mere six days before jumping ship. (Photo- GBR Photos)
Deadline Day Departures
The following Friday was a busy day for the club- after a morning training session, the squad descended on Cappielow for their annual photo session, with the supposedly affable gaffer adding in a very nice touch of asking the background staff that often go unnoticed to join in an extended group photo in a show of solidarity that appeared to show that this was a tight-knit group, all pulling in the same direction.
Not a bit of it. After what by their deluded expectations was a poor season in 2017-18, Paul Hartley’s haphazard recruitment saw Falkirk suffering a very slow start to the new season, and the former Morton loanee was handed his P45. The Bairns had been rumoured to be after Ayr boss Ian McCall, but those rumours quickly dissipated and at some point on that glorious late summer’s day, the wheels were put in motion for a move to Grangemouth for McKinnon and his assistant, Darren Taylor, after only three months and three league games at Morton. Crawford Rae noted in his Club Statement that having left the Parklea training ground in high spirits after the morning session, and discussed the approach and tactics for the following day’s trip to Firhill, he was called by Falkirk’s representatives with a view to appointing his manager, an approach that was swiftly rebuffed.
Soon enough, the story was out, and despite McKinnon and his pal’s smiling faces in front of the cameras, it was straight out of Cappielow and off to meet their prospective new employers. Within six hours of that first phone call, Falkirk announced their new manager, none other than former Morton boss, Raymond McKinnon.
The reaction from the Morton support, and from inside Cappielow was one of fury, whilst the Falkirk support took great pleasure in their club’s ability, at what at the time they saw as being at their lowest ebb, to come in and help themselves to the manager of a comparatively high-flying rival.
It was ironic to see that on the day, Falkirk also added Rangers striker Zak Rudden to their squad. One wonders if the striker would have been on McKinnon’s radar to bring to Morton had he not decided to jump ship without notice?
McKinnon looked to have assembled what had the makings of a squad that could have challenged at the top end of the table before his abrupt departure. (Photo- GBR Photos)
What Happened Next?
With a makeshift coaching staff led by John Sutton and Derek Anderson on the touchline, Morton would lose 0-1 at Firhill before appointing former Finnish international Jonatan Johansson as McKinnon’s replacement and a descent down the table ensued. In truth, Johansson’s defensive style never endeared him to the Morton support, and with his wife helping to make a club that never lacked comedy value even more of a soap opera with her social media interactions, Cappielow wasn’t a happy place for the majority of the season.
One happy day though, was the return of McKinnon with his Falkirk team, seven weeks after his departure. With the Greenock Telegraph stoking the resentment in the Morton support by handing out red cards with McKinnon’s image alongside the message “Judas”, Falkirk planned an alternative route to Cappielow (whatever on Earth that may have been!) for “security reasons” but the only bloody noses they got were on the park, as Bob McHugh’s goal sent them back home pointless.
Greg Kiltie's magnificent goal gave Morton the lead over McKinnon's Falkirk on a bad tempered night in Greenock, but the Bairn's battled back to deny Morton full points. (Photo- GBR Photos)
Both teams continued to struggle as the season progressed, although Falkirk did have spells that you felt they were beginning to click only to prove false dawns. A couple of draws between the teams, 0-0 in December in Grangemouth and 1-1 in a bad-tempered affair marred by crowd trouble at Cappielow, saw both clubs in a relegation battle alongside Queen of the South, Partick and Alloa. With Alloa being that season’s “Arbroath” for Morton, it looked as though the points the ‘Ton were leaking to the Wasps could prove to be their downfall, but on a critical night that Morton collected a solid point at Somerset Park, Falkirk looked to have claimed a vital three points with a late winner at Palmerston. However, with it taking an age to clear the celebrating Falkirk fans from the pitch, Queens’ went straight up the park and won a penalty, Stephen Dobbie converting to deny Falkirk at the death.
But the relegation battle really came to a head when Morton visited Falkirk on the third last game of the season in what looked pre-match to be a winner-takes-all encounter. A defeat would have sent Morton to the bottom of the table, but we needn’t have had any fears, as second half goals from Kilmarnock loanee Greg Kiltie and Charlie Telfer rooted Falkirk to the bottom of the table with only a trip to Tannadice and the visit of champions Ross County remaining.
Kiltie and Charlie Telfer were the architects of Falkirk's downfall on a memorable afternoon in Grangemouth as Morton delivered some sweet retribution on their former boss to effectively send their hosts into League One. (Photo-GBR Photos)
McKinnon had taken Ross McLean to Falkirk in January, and had been rumoured to be after Morton’s star man Michael Tidser, but the midfielder’s excellent performance contributed more than most to Morton’s fine victory.
In the following two weeks, Morton secured their survival and incredibly, a top half finish before Johansson resigned on a bizarre final day which saw the Morton support toasting Falkirk’s relegation alongside the Dundee United fans, who had Dundee’s demotion to the Championship on the same day to enjoy.
Not slow to immerse themselves in Falkirk and McKinnon’s misery, the Tele’s Twitter response to their penultimate day reverse at Tannadice was succinct and more effective than anything I could ever say in a couple of thousand words about the whole affair. “Lol” indeed.
For McKinnon, it was relegation despite victory over County on the final day, before he helped himself to the out-of-contract Buchanan, Tidser and Telfer from Morton. But Falkirk were found guilty of tapping McKinnon and forced to pay an SPFL fine and compensation to Morton, coming to an estimated total of £100,000. For what? A place in League One.
Michael Tidser's magnificent performance helped Morton to a vital victory in that crucial match in Grangemouth, but the decision to move onto Falkirk proved to be a foolish one from a footballing perspective. (Photo- GBR Photos)
Where Are They Now?
Of all the parties involved, Morton are undoubtedly in the best place. A club mired in controversy for years have settled under fan ownership and have finally got a manager in the club who has it upwardly mobile, despite the odd setback like last weekend.
Falkirk on the other hand, are still festering in League One for a fifth successive season, having seen Raith Rovers, Partick Thistle, Cove Rangers, Queen’s Park, Dunfermline Athletic and Airdrie all winning promotion at their expense. They’ve seen boardroom shenanigans at almost every turn, often in the full view of the Scottish football public, and massive losses year on year as they throw money at promotion. Perhaps this year will be their year, but at what cost? Make your own mind up whether that is a statement or a question.
Most of his players, and the subsequent ones to leave Morton for Falkirk, haven’t enjoyed any real success, with Michael Tidser’s short lived spell being the most high profile. Buchanan and McLean have dropped down the divisions, and only Telfer is playing Championship football, ironically having won promotion at Falkirk’s expense last season.
For McKinnon, the axe fell in November 2019, the first of a number of Falkirk bosses who have failed to return them to the Championship. He did however, move onto Queen’s Park, where their relative riches allowed him a more pleasant passage to League One than his previous journey, but he was removed from his post before the season started. Currently the manager of Forfar Athletic, it’s clear a leopard doesn’t change his spots, as he appeared to resign from his Station Park role over the summer to take up the position of Duncan Ferguson’s number two at Forest Green Rovers, before Big Dunc was given his jotters, forcing McKinnon to go back with his tail between his legs having failed to plant himself in a role in Nailsworth.
He was believed to have blamed goings on in the background at Cappielow, with then CEO Warren Hawke not receiving complimentary reviews from the bold Raymond, and some club sponsors also being cited as reasons for his departure.
But, despite his promises at the time that one day the truth would come out, he’s never publicly spoken about his time in charge of Morton, and I for one doubt he ever will - he was approached by the Morton Forum for a podcast interview when in charge at Queen’s Park, but immediately declined.
Whilst that day was one of many catastrophic ones in the last few years of following Morton, it’s fair to say it all worked out well in the end and we dodged the biggest of bullets with Raymond.
There was a point in that season that Falkirk’s in house media described him as “honest as the day is long”. I for one, wouldn’t buy a car from him.