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The Disaster Seasons, Part 1- Celtic Park Celebrations and Douglas Park Despair


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The Disaster Seasons, Part 1- Celtic Park Celebrations and Douglas Park Despair

By Russell Gordon

With Morton’s season reaching its climax this evening with a trip to play opponents who have far more at stake than our own favourites, it’s perhaps appropriate that the trip to an Inverness side who are desperate for points, but thankfully not requiring to make up a goal difference deficit, falls on the tenth anniversary of Morton’s darkest day, on the park at least.

The 2012-13 season was a gamble for Morton. Morton had recruited well in the previous couple of years, with young players such as Michael Tidser and Faoud Bachirou, picked up from the academies of much larger clubs at home and abroad and looking to relaunch their careers, and Chairman Douglas Rae opening the purse-strings to bring in more experienced campaigners such as Peter MacDonald in 2011, and in 2012, Mark McLaughlin, Martin Hardie and Kevin Rutkiewicz to make a challenge for the First Division title and promotion to the SPL.

Alas, they were to fall short to a Partick side who were ultimately to prove too strong in the end and the all-or-nothing approach ended with Morton empty handed and needing a massive re-think in their strategy going forward as the club opted for a far more streamlined approach to squad building going into the 2013-14 season.

While Bachirou remained under contract, most of the other big hitters moved onto pastures new, and the club took a, let’s say “novel” approach to squad building, with what was mooted to be an 8-8-8 structure, an idea apparently concocted by then club advisor, and future director and CEO Warren Hawke.

In essence, the squad would consist of eight senior pros, eight less so, be they youngsters or players aspiring to achieve at First Division level, and eight kids. Fool proof, as we discovered.

Morton’s biggest asset Tidser, with a year remaining on his contract made his big money move to English League One side Rotherham United for an Earth-shattering fee of, err… £50,000. MacDonald would move on to title favourites Dundee, while Hardie also departed, but only to League One Airdrie before his career fizzled out. There was however, one unnecessary departure who would come back to haunt Morton far earlier than even the most pessimistic of ‘Ton fans would have predicted. More of that later.

So, Moore’s recruitment drive began, and the net was cast far and wide. In came two Slovakians- centre back Tomas Peciar and midfielder Michal Habai, Belgian-born Gambian striker Kabba-Modou Cham and Nicolas Caraux, a French goalkeeper brought in to challenge Derek Gaston for the number one jersey.

On these shores, midfielders Reece Hands and Joe McKee came in from Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers respectively, along with left back Marc Fitzpatrick from Motherwell and the most high-profile signing, Dougie Imrie from local rivals St. Mirren.

And things started promisingly. There was no shame in losing to Sheffield United and drawing with Tidser’s new club Rotherham at Cappielow, before Morton lost 0-1 to St. Johnstone in the departing Peter Weatherson’s testimonial, as the long-serving striker was thanked and waved off to League Two Annan Athletic.

The following week, Morton visited their nearest and dearest, St. Mirren, to contest the Renfrewshire Cup at St. Mirren Park and a terrific performance saw Moore’s side blow the hosts away with a 4-2 victory thanks in no small part to a Reece Hands howitzer from range and a double from Morton’s new talisman, Cham. Happy days.

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A resounding victory over St. Mirren to lift the Renfrewshire Cup provided plenty of scope for optimism going into the new season. (Photo- SNS)

But it didn’t take long for the cracks to appear. The Challenge Cup campaign was over before it begun. A lovely sunny afternoon in Annan in July is normally one of Scottish football’s great joys. When you go down there and lose 0-1 to a late free kick dispatched by the long-serving striker that you prematurely released a fortnight after his testimonial, it doesn’t quite have the same lustre. To add to Morton’s woes, Marc Fitzpatrick started as he would go on by following up a horrendous performance by engaging in an altercation with the furious travelling support.

Lessons were at least learned the following week in the League Cup as, despite conceding a last-minute equaliser at East Fife, Morton eased through to a second round date at home to Montrose with a 6-2 extra time victory over the Fifers.

The league campaign started with a comfortable, and not unexpected 2-0 home win over Cowdenbeath. With The Blue Brazil, Dumbarton and Alloa all in the division, there was reason to feel that even if Morton were to endure a more difficult season with budget cuts, there would be enough of a buffer with three part-time clubs likely to finish below them, and allowing Morton to cash in the following campaign with the inevitable arrival of at least Rangers and Hearts coming into the league from opposite directions in 2014-15.

But two 1-3 defeats on the road, at Falkirk and perhaps more alarmingly, part-time Dumbarton, opened the eyes of many as to just how difficult a season Morton were going to endure.  A comfortable 4-0 victory over Montrose earned Morton a plum League Cup draw at Celtic Park, a draw that was conducted the same day as the Glasgow side were thrown in with AC Milan, Ajax and Barcelona in their Champions League group. Perhaps the League Cup draw garnered more attention in Greenock than in Glasgow!

In the meantime, a home draw with Raith was followed up by another tie at Livingston before Queen of the South came to Cappielow and sauntered out with three points having not even needed to break sweat. Reece Hands’ penalty hitting the Sinclair Street car park proved a particular lowlight.

And so, it was off to Celtic Park for what everyone anticipated would be a midweek League Cup hounding. I won’t go into it too much as I’ve discussed it at length in a previous article, but of course, Morton defied all odds despite the loss of David O’Brien to an injury that effectively ended his career, and a barrage of Celtic pressure, with Dougie Imrie’s penalty in the first period of extra time producing the shock of the round and sending the visiting support into raptures, ending the favourites’ treble hopes in the process.

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Allan Moore fell by the sword in November despite Morton's heroic League Cup win at Celtic Park two months previous. (Photo-SNS)

In an eventful week for Allan Moore, he was to tragically lose his brother the following day, before Morton fell to the foot of the table with a 1-3 loss at Dens Park. Things got really desperate the following week as Alloa came to Cappielow and left with a 2-0 victory. But with a few quid pocketed from the Celtic tie, Rae sanctioned the signing of former Rangers striker Nacho Novo, who debuted in a 1-1 draw with Hamilton. Two trips to Fife would follow, with Morton suffering what would, in any normal season be by far their most ignominious result, crashing 1-5 to Cowdenbeath at Central Park, and then 1-2 at Stark’s Park.

A spirited performance against St. Johnstone in the League Cup quarter final ended in despair, as Novo was penalised for charging down a free kick that should never have been awarded in the first place, before Caraux spilled the re-take, allowing Gary McDonald to score an injury time winner to send the Perth side through on a night that referee John McKendrick didn’t cover himself in glory.

Morton’s 2-0 weekend victory over Dumbarton was to prove a false dawn, as they would go on a losing run of eight games that would see Moore finally relieved of his duties after a 1-5 home defeat by Livingston, Morton exit the Scottish Cup with a 0-4 mauling at Premiership Inverness and go into the new year firmly rooted to the bottom of the pile.

But Rae had to go back to the drawing board and appoint a new manager. On paper, the man he plumped for looked a reasonably sound appointment. Kenny Shiels had won the League Cup two years previous during a relatively successful spell at Kilmarnock, and was seen as one of Scottish football’s more colourful characters at the time. He was certainly colourful!

After a horrible new year defeat at Dumbarton, which saw disputes breaking out amongst different factions of the support in the stand and fans and players’ relatives exchanging “frank” views, things started to look up.

Shiels had dipped into the transfer market in order to rebuild Morton’s failing squad, with the likes of Cham, Novo, McLaughlin, Stephen Stirling and short-term signings Craig Reid and Jake Nicholson moving on.

There were a number of arrivals, some with higher profiles than others. Full backs Ben Sampayo and Jamie McCormack came in along with Rangers loanee Barrie McKay, Stuart Findlay on loan from Celtic, the notorious David Robertson, freed Rangers centre back Darren Cole, and the two celebrated, or rather costly arrivals- former Scotland striker Garry O’Connor and Hibernian loanee Rowan Vine.

O’Connor and McKay combined for the latter to score the only goal as Morton registered their first away win of the season at Almondvale, before tragedy struck the following week. Only a few minutes into the home game with Queen of the South, Morton fan Andy Kemp collapsed on the Sinclair Street terrace and sadly couldn’t be resuscitated.

When the game was replayed the following midweek, the club opened the gates for free, asking for donations as a thank you to St. Andrew’s Ambulance services, and attracted their biggest crowd of the season. The eventual 1-1 draw summed up Morton’s frailties as they failed to capitalise on Queens being reduced to nine men, only scraping a draw thanks to Archie Campbell’s late equaliser.

Though Morton were in the middle of a five-match unbeaten run, four draws and a win did little to convince their watching public that they had the minerals to get out of the mess they were in.

Consecutive home games against fellow strugglers Cowdenbeath and Alloa in February yielded a solitary point and by this stage, there was an inevitability about Morton’s fate. The 0-1 home defeat by the Wasps, which saw Dougie Imrie ordered of for a professional foul as he tried to pick up the pieces from his hapless teammates’ failings, kicked off a run of six consecutive defeats, which included 0-3 doings at Central Park and Palmerston, with Vine seeing red for reacting to the Cowdenbeath locals’ jibes on a chastening evening for the ‘Ton. Morton looked to have plumbed to their deepest low when Rae bemoaned the signing of the clearly unfit O’Connor in the national press. Things were really, really grim.

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The signing of former Scotland striker Garry O'Connor proved an unmitigated disaster (Photo- source unkonwn)

Morton hardly proved to be April fools though, and consecutive home wins over Dumbarton and Livingston at least raised a smile before relegation was confirmed by a 0-2 defeat to Alloa at Recreation Park. We all knew it was coming, and it was perhaps comforting to get it out the way so that we could look for some green shoots of optimism.

Joy of joys, Morton had the top three to play in their remaining games. Putting a spanner in Dundee’s title charge, thanks to Imrie’s late winner was great fun, possibly made better by the against-all-odds nature of the victory against a club with which there is very rarely much love lost when they meet Morton. A Rowan Vine equaliser the following week ended Falkirk’s remote title hopes, before a trip to Hamilton on the final day.

There was no hiding from it- this had been a dreadful season. But things had began to improve, and we could look forward to the new season with optimism. The club held a Question-and-Answer session in the Supporters’ Club the night before the game, and Douglas Rae confirmed that Shiels would lead Morton in their charge for promotion back to the Championship.

Those plans were all in tatters 24 hours later, as Hamilton, two points and eight goals behind Dundee in the title race, had to go for broke. With Accies two up in only eight minutes, it didn’t bode well for Morton. Imrie reduced the arrears before Tony Andreu completed a first half hat-trick to send Hamilton in 5-1 up at the break.

Morton had a chance to restore some respectability early in the second half as Imrie was felled in the box by ex-Morton keeper Kevin Cuthbert, but the custodian redeemed himself by stopping Vine’s pathetic spot kick.

By the time Imrie added his second, he merely made the score 7-2, before three goals in the final twelve minutes, with Mikael Antoine-Curier helping himself to four on the day and Stuart Findlay, one of the few successes of the season, the unfortunate scorer of Hamilton’s ninth.

Elsewhere, Dundee held on to seal the title and Accies eventually joined them in the Premiership, thanks to a dramatic play-off final win over Hibs, but it didn’t prevent any accusations of corruption and resentment coming from Tayside, which still lingers ten years on.

It’s easy to see why, with Morton so impressively denting their title charge just a fortnight earlier, but it was hardly inconceivable that a team who could lose 1-5 and 0-3 at ninth-placed Cowdenbeath and collect a grand total of zero points from their six away games against the three part-time teams in the division, were capable of a capitulation to a team who really had to rack up the goals. There was no hiding from it- the reason this Morton team were so heavily beaten wasn’t because they were fixing anything, it was because they were appalling.

Shiels was of course to resign after the defeat- the best thing that could have happened to Morton with Jim Duffy rebuilding the squad and eventually returning Morton to the Championship at the first time of asking, while the big names, the loanees and the journeymen all moved on with few tears shed. Only Imrie and Findlay’s departures were mourned, though Bachirou’s departure was greeted with mixed reactions as he was rumoured to have gone on strike to engineer his move.

While that one game was a permanent stain on Morton’s history, the whole, bizarre season was a catalogue of errors that had to be seen to be believed. Whenever someone tells you that the Morton team they are watching is the worst they’ve ever seen, those of us unfortunate enough to have seen that Morton side will always have an answer. Surely- surely, we will never see their likes again.

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