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Why Does It Always Rain On Me?


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Gillespie(2).jpg

(Photo- Gary Bradley)

Why Does It Always Rain On Me?

A Review of Morton’s 2023-24 Season, Part One

By Russell Gordon

So, after ten months of ups and downs, another season has come and gone. Once again, Morton have finished fifth in the Championship- but while last time around, the season’s climax was met with a sense of gut-wrenching disappointment at such a near miss in the race for the play-offs, this time around, the sense of frustration can only really come from Morton’s own failings to give themselves an opportunity to reach the end-of-season finale.

But that fifth-placed finish would have been something many of us would have taken after a torrid start to the league campaign that saw them rooted to the table’s foot and staring at the prospect of League One football next term.

Close seasons for Morton have in recent years, always been times of uncertainty. Season ticket sales were encouraging- off the back of the previous season’s near miss, over a thousand were shifted to a support who were hoping for more of the same.

But behind the scenes, a board of directors who refused to allow a penny more to go out than came in, appeared to be at loggerheads with a manager who wanted to push Morton on and strengthen his squad.

As is always the case, there were plenty of comings and goings from Cappielow. The likes of Ali Crawford and Brian Schwake’s loan spells ended, while Carlo Pignatiello, Reece Lyon, Efe Ambrose and Liam Grimshaw all moved onto pastures new.

Fans’ favourite Lewis Strapp, still recovering from and injury sustained at Celtic Park in last season’s Scottish Cup defeat, was allowed to leave, but offered training facilities to aid his recuperation, while winger Calvin Miller, who had enjoyed a fruitful second half of the campaign in the famous blue-and-white hoops, looked to have agreed a new deal before having his head turned and accepting the devil’s coin from League One minnows Falkirk.

In came experienced former Scotland, Kilmarnock and Rotherham centre back Kirk Broadfoot, who had spent the previous season with Lowland League circus act Open Goal Broomhill, and was seen as the natural replacement for the departing Ambrose, to provide cover for Jack Baird and Darragh O’Connor.

Calum Waters made his loan from Kilmarnock a permanent deal after his release from the Premiership side, and young goalkeeper Ryan Mullen arrived from Clyde, who had been relegated from League One.

In the forward positions, Steven Boyd signed up after his release from fellow Championship club Inverness, and winger Jack Bearne signed up following his release from English Premier League also-rans, Liverpool.

While the arrivals were underwhelming, to those watching on there was a massive problem position that Imrie needed addressing. The loss of Liam Grimshaw to title favourites Dundee United was huge, and there was no obvious replacement at right back in the current squad, though former Morton defender Michael Doyle came in during pre-season to train with the club.

There were other pre-season trialists, and the Morton team who kicked off the first friendly, an insipid 0-1 defeat by Alloa at Recreation Park, was unfamiliar from the side who agonisingly missed out in Aberdeen two months previous.

The following midweek, Morton made a trip to Galabank to face Annan Athletic, having hit the headlines by giving an opportunity to defender Brandon Diau, who had previously played in the Welsh League, and chronicled his attempts to gain a professional contract on a social media platform, and drawn much attention to his efforts. Given Imrie and Andy Millen’s own career paths, they were prepared to give the defender an opportunity to prove himself in training and against the Galabankies.

While Diau was to unfortunately only get on a minute before the match was abandoned, the real victim on a difficult night was fellow trialist Doyle, who had already been told he wouldn’t be getting a deal, but agreed to play with Morton needing numbers. Doyle went down with what looked like a career-threatening injury, and with a lack of medical facilities at the ground, and those treating him needing to keep the stricken defender’s leg stable while awaiting an ambulance’s arrival, the match reached a premature conclusion with Morton leading 1-0 through Calum Waters’ first half goal.

Things did look up the following Saturday though, as Morton beat local rivals St. Mirren in a Cappielow friendly. A second half penalty from Robbie Muirhead and a Lewis McGrattan goal, following a terrific through ball from another trialist, Frankie Deane sent the home fans home with a sense of optimism going into the League Cup campaign. As it turned out, neither Diau nor Deane were handed deals.

Morton were handed a manageable group, with Ross County, Kelty Hearts, Edinburgh City and Stranraer. With the Premiership Highlanders favourites to progress, the ‘Ton’s ambitions were at worst a second-placed finish and the opportunity to progress depending on their record in comparison to the others.

And that’s exactly how it turned out- Morton made their first visit to New Central Park, Kelty and after falling behind in the first half, rallied well to record a comfortable 3-1 victory, thanks to goals from Boyd, Robbie Crawford and Broadfoot. That was followed up by a resounding victory over Stranraer at Cappielow, thanks to goals from Jack Baird, Cammy Blues and Crawford. They did however, suffer their first set-back of the season with Baird forced off late on with a broken metacarpal and fractured fingers which saw him sit out for five weeks.

Fellow defender Darragh O’Connor gave Morton a first half lead at group favourites County, but after dominating the first half, their defensive frailties saw them fall to a 1-2 defeat thanks to second half Jay Henderson and Simon Murray strikes. All was not lost however, and a 4-1 Cappielow victory over Edinburgh City took Morton through to the knockout stages and a tie against Rangers at Ibrox that provided a welcome financial boost with Imrie still in the process of building his squad with a month of the transfer window remaining.

There was however, sad news with the passing of one of Morton’s greatest ever managers, Benny Rooney, who left us at the age of 80 on 28th July.

Injury problems were never far away, with Mullen forced out with an injury on the eve of the league campaign. After an encouraging start to his Morton career, particularly excelling in the victory over St. Mirren, it was to prove a massive blow for the young goalkeeper, and Imrie turned to former Kilmarnock goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, with the experienced keeper recently released by big-spending Raith Rovers. In with MacDonald came another experienced former Killie man, Irish midfielder Alan Power, with both preparing to debut against their ex-employers’ local rivals, Ayr United in the season’s curtain-raiser.

And what a start it was. An abysmal first half challenge from ex-Morton midfielder Andy Murdoch took Jai Quitongo out, but also ended the United skipper's season before it had began. With the teams going in goalless at the break, Murdoch’s replacement, Oliver Pendlebury gave the Honest Men the lead, but a fantastic turnaround saw Morton register the three points thanks to a beautiful curling effort from Crawford from the edge of the Ayr box, a Robbie Muirhead penalty and Boyd’s late goal, following great work on the right from Bearne. Three points against a team who had a bit of an Indian sign over Morton the previous season was a great start!

Crawford Ayr.JPG

Robbie Crawford's fine equaliser helped Morton towards an opening day victory over Ayr United.

(Photo- Gary Bradley)

But the following week’s trip to Kirkcaldy was not such a happy affair. Raith Rovers were on the crest of a wave. They’d received significant investment, with Kelty Hearts investors jumping ship across the Kingdom, with the Maroon Machine perhaps having reached their ceiling. A lot of money had been spent on infrastructure and on their playing staff, and on entering the ground, it was easy to tell there was a sense of optimism around Stark’s Park.

If their financial muscle wasn’t enough of an advantage against Morton, referee David Munro was quick to offer a helping hand, on an afternoon that he produced perhaps the worst refereeing performance this observer can recall in over 30 years of watching football in this country.

Morton started poorly, falling behind to an early Jack Hamilton strike, before Lewis Vaughan went down in the box in the vicinity of O’Connor, and directly in the hapless official’s line of vision. Vaughan converted the resultant spot kick to give the big-spending Fifers a two-goal advantage and delighted in goading an incandescent visiting support, but Morton hit back straight away, with Muirhead bulleting home McGrattan’s pinpoint cross from the right on 17 minutes.

Later in the first half, the referee further infuriated the Morton support by failing to order off Hamilton for what was clearly a second bookable offence, and in the second period, he decided that Ross Millen’s flying elbow only merited a yellow card. He did of course, find time to throw yellow cards at eight Morton players on the afternoon.

With 20 minutes remaining, Crawford finally found Morton’s equaliser after a dominant performance, but a mistake from Broadfoot late on was pounced upon by Callum Smith, who ran half the length of the park to seal the three points for the Kirkcaldy big-spenders. While Josh Mullin missed an injury time penalty, it was to provide no consolation to Dougie Imrie’s side, who could feel extremely hard done to on an afternoon that still leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

With the promise of a big payday at Ibrox, Imrie had the opportunity of adding to his squad, which he did by bringing in a familiar face- Iain Wilson, on loan from League One Queen of the South. The signing didn’t appear to be met with much enthusiasm from the Morton support, many of whom must have had short memories from his previous spell at Cappielow. Bizarrely though, despite the Doonhamers already having exited the League Cup and Wilson not having taken part in any of their group games, they refused Morton permission to include him in the squad for the trip to Ibrox. A few “good Rangurz men” in the Palmerston boardroom, I’d suggest?

So onward to Govan it was, and against a team who had endured a slow start to the season by their standards, and had mixed their team up a bit with a view towards a crucial Champions League qualifier against PSV Eindhoven in midweek, Morton gave a decent account of themselves, despite their own selection issues. Able to only name four substitutes, including Ryan Mullen and Jack Baird, neither of whom were going to get any game time as they recovered from injury, it was perhaps surprising to see the sides go in goalless at the break. But nowhere near as surprising as to see that rarest of events, as Rangers striker Cyriel Dessers was adjudged to have caught Broadfoot in the box. With referee David Dickinson called to the monitor, he had little choice but to award the visitors a spot kick. With 1600 Morton fans in the corner of the ground on tenterhooks, Gillespie stroked the ball home with aplomb to give the ‘Ton a shock lead and send the visiting support into delirium.

Gillespie(1).jpg

Grant Gillespie takes in the applause of the Morton support after putting the 'Ton into a surprise lead at Ibrox in the League Cup.

(Photo- Gary Bradley)

We’ve had our League Cup glory to last us a lifetime though, and within a few minutes, and three big money substitutes coming on to help rescue the hosts, VAR official Gavin Duncan alerted Dickinson to a real needle-in-a-haystack infringement from Broadfoot. While I wouldn’t want to go all Kenny Miller and say it wasn’t a foul, one wonders if a referee would have been alerted to such a challenge at the other end of the park. Dessers took the opportunity to make amends for his earlier indiscretion and levelled the affair, before Danilo took advantage of a Gillespie mistake at the edge of the area to send the bad guys through, despite an inspired performance from MacDonald between the sticks. Beaten, but not humiliated, Morton could again focus on their league campaign, with the added financial boost the tie brought them.

The league campaign however, was to take a horrid turn. Consecutive home drubbings weren’t what the doctor ordered, especially when the first came from relegation favourites Arbroath, who stuck three past Morton without reply, thanks to a Michael McKenna penalty, a Wilson own goal on his Morton return and a Joao Balde coup-de-gras.

The second was even more painful. Partick are never the most welcome of visitors to Cappielow, but they certainly enjoyed their trip this time around. It was Morton who started the better, with Muirhead lashing home an early free kick, but their fortunes took a turn for the worse when Robbie Crawford was withdrawn through injury after 20 minutes. Steven Lawless levelled the affair before half time, before Brian Graham, the man Morton fans all love to hate, scored two within a minute, with twenty minutes remaining to the delight of the Partick fans and the despair of a rapidly emptying Cowshed. Though Partick’s Harry Milne was ordered off, they still found time to add a fourth through substitute Tomi Adeloye to round off a miserable afternoon for the Morton fans.

With Scotland’s relentless charge to Euro 2024 in Germany taking centre stage, Morton welcomed League Two strugglers Elgin City to Cappielow in the third round of the SPFL Trust Trophy. Despite falling behind to the Highland side, goals from Muirhead and McGrattan eventually eased the ‘Ton through.

On their return to league duty, Morton faced formidable opposition at Tannadice- not only in title favourites Dundee United, but also in Scotland’s worst official, David Munro, who had played such a significant role in costing Morton the points at Stark’s Park five weeks previously.

With loan signing Tyler French from United’s next-door neighbours, Dundee debuting and hoping to solve the problem right back position, Morton fell behind to an early Louis Moult header, but acquitted themselves well and stayed in the game until the break, before taking their chance. Muirhead latched onto a mix-up between ex-St. Mirren defender Declan Gallagher and United keeper Jack Walton to rescue an unlikely point. It was the United fans this time who were incensed by Munro’s performance this time though, as he ordered off Matthew Cudjoe for an elbow on Calum Waters. It was the correct decision, but we’ll credit Munro’s assistant for alerting the referee to the incident.

Any green shoots of optimism were quickly extinguished, though. A trip to newly promoted Dunfermline proved a harrowing afternoon. Two down in half an hour French would be replaced by Darragh O’Connor after taking what looked to be a nasty injury, and O’Connor lasted only seven minutes before he was also forced off. Everything that could go wrong, did. Robbie Crawford clawed Morton back into it late on, but with the ‘Ton pressing for an equaliser, Michael O’Halloran added a third in injury time to compound the visitors’ misery.

It didn’t get any better against the other promoted side the following week. Airdrie arrived at Cappielow having won all their home games and lost all their away games. That anomaly had to end some time, and it of course ended here, thanks to a first half goal from Lewis McGregor, released by Morton the previous season. To compound matters, new loan signing from Rangers, right back Jack Harkness was injured in the warm-up and never kicked a ball for Morton, while bottom of the table Inverness beat Arbroath 3-2 at Gayfield in new manager Duncan Ferguson’s bow to climb off the foot of the table at Morton’s expense. It didn’t rain but it poured.

Imrie Airdrie.jpg

Morton boss Dougie Imrie didn't have his troubles to seek after a devastating home defeat by newly promoted Airdrie.

(Photo- Gary Bradley)

And after that, it certainly did pour- quite literally. In a week of torrential downpours that saw all routes in and out of Greenock blocked, Queen’s Park managed to get the game on for the visit of Morton despite treacherous conditions around the national stadium, the vast majority of the Morton support and even Morton winger Bearne being unable to reach Hampden. That Morton managed to salvage a point from a thoroughly forgettable 0-0 draw was cause for satisfaction, if not celebration.

The SPFL Trust Trophy campaign continued with a comfortable 4-1 home win over Kelty, with Robbie Crawford adding the final goal to a Robbie Muirhead hat-trick, after ex-Morton midfielder Reece Lyon had brought the Fifers back into the tie in the first half.

But the following week,  weather conditions were taken into account, as it was deemed unsafe for Inverness to travel to Greenock, coincidentally while they were suffering an injury crisis, and their visit was postponed.

The Morton fans finally had something to cheer at Somerset Park in late October as a tousy affair was settled late on by George Oakley, who headed home Power’s 87th minute free kick to send the Morton support wild and ensure an unlikely three points for bottom of the table Morton.

Oakley Ayr.JPG

George Oakley was on everyone's mind as he headed home a late winner against Ayr at Somerset Park to give Morton a vital three points.

(Photo-Gary Bradley)

But it was to prove a false dawn. Big-spending Raith Rovers visited Cappielow for a Halloween horror show. Aidan Connolly, the smallest man on the park, headed two first half goals to give the Fifers a 2-1 victory, Wilson’s second half reply proving to be mere consolation.

After that Tuesday night reverse, it was a quick turnaround for a televised Friday night Cappielow showdown with Raith’s Fife cousins, a well-rested Dunfermline, who had been allowed the midweek off as their exit from the SPFL Trust Trophy opened up a weekend slot for their previously scheduled game with Inverness. Even the fixture list did Morton few favours. They only had themselves to blame for falling behind in 17 seconds though, to an Owen Moffat strike. Moffat doubled his account on five minutes on a real landmark evening in Morton’s season, as in front of a national television audience, boos rained down on Imrie and his team, with Broadfoot a particular target of the fans ire. With Wilson withdrawn after only half an hour and losing his temper as he stormed up the tunnel, Morton’s season reached its nadir.

The second half however, was much improved, with Bearne especially producing a fine cameo from the bench. In the end, a Boyd penalty only proved consolation, and Imrie was under serious pressure from an increasingly impatient support.

Oakley Dunfermline.jpg

Defeat to Dunfermline at Cappielow was perhaps the lowest point of Morton's season as the pressure ramped up on Dougie Imrie and his under-fire team.

(Photo-Gary Bradley)

The following week’s trip to Firhill was a daunting one, and it was imperative that Morton didn’t concede early. So, Kerr McInroy gave Partick a 1-0 lead in the third minute. Again though, Morton rallied and got back into the game, thanks to a Gillespie penalty half an hour in.

With fifteen minutes remaining, Partick captain Graham was replaced by Adeloye and gesticulated to the Morton support, earning himself a red card- only Morton could see their opponents’ talisman ordered off and not see them reduced to ten men. Of course, a few minutes later, Blair Alston won the match for Partick, and Morton were in a massive hole.

The result brought great pleasure to some, and completely unjustified criticism of a manager suffering the first really difficult time of his career from others who should have known better.

While the jibes of “I love all those laughing, smiling Morton faces. Their wee moment if (of) joy before being stuffed again and remain rooted to the bottom of the league” and “8 points and you’re going down” were understandable from a support from which there is no love lost, but to see Imrie’s head being called for by an online fans’ page ran by guys who had never in their lifetimes seen a better boss was uncalled for.

While Imrie’s treatment in some quarters was unfair though, the manager was bullish about the situation- continually reiterating his confidence that on the return of his main men from injury, Morton would be fine. He was however, acutely aware that things would have to improve sooner or later…

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