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The Disaster Seasons Part 2- From the Sublime to the Ridiculous


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(Photo- Getty Images/SNS)

The Disaster Seasons Part 2- From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

By Russell Gordon

While I recently wrote about Morton’s worst ever season on the anniversary of that game at New Douglas Park ten years ago, it’s safe to say Morton have had a few bad experiences at that particular venue, not to mention difficult seasons when the year ends in a four.

Though 2013-14 was, certainly in my time following Morton the club’s worst, in what is arguably the least successful period in the club’s history, no campaign has fitted in so much joy, despair, controversy and downright regret as the bizarre 2003-04 campaign.

Having led the league by a staggering twelve points at Christmas time and fallen to fourth place in the pre-play-offs era to end with nothing after a 0-2 defeat by champions Airdrie, twenty years ago today, there are still Morton fans of a certain vintage who quiver at the mere mention of that horrible season.

Regardless of their age, there will be few Morton fans unfamiliar with the back story. Having been rescued from the brink of liquidation by Douglas Rae in 2001, and fallen to the Third Division, Scotland’s fourth tier in 2002, Morton bounced back as champions in dramatic fashion on an emotional day as they beat Peterhead 1-0 to claim the crown, and were taking the step up with a real sense of optimism that they could win consecutive promotions to return to their natural level of the First Division.

Manager John McCormack hadn’t been too busy in the transfer market over the summer, preferring to rely on the core of a squad brimming with confidence from the previous season’s success. In came Stewart Greacen from Forfar, a centre back who had a previous, injury-plagued spell at Cappielow as Morton dropped into the Third Division two years previous. He was joined by winger Paul Walker, who arrived from SPL Partick, and Morton’s marquee signing, £30,000 Queen of the South hitman, Peter Weatherson.

Pre-season went well- a tour of the Highlands was embarked upon, which yielded a 1-1 draw at Buckie Thistle, a 3-1 win at Keith and a 4-1 win at Deveronvale, as well as giving the fans lovely few days of exploring the north of Scotland’s hostelries! On their return to civilisation, Morton hosted Partick at Cappielow and played out an encouraging 1-1 draw, before going to Love Street to face First Division St. Mirren in the Renfrewshire Cup Final. A second half Greacen header was enough to take the trophy back to Greenock, to the delight of a healthy travelling Morton support.

The season started in earnest the following week, with the visit of Arbroath in the first round of the Challenge Cup. With the previous season’s star man Alex Williams suspended, the bookies that back then lay on the ground floor of the Norseman building supplied fairly generous odds on Morton new-boy Weatherson to bag the opening goal.

Weatherson duly obliged in only four minutes, but the ‘Ton were to make heavy weather of a game that should have been comfortably negotiated, with John McGlashan pulling the Red Lichties from 1-3 down to equalise in the final minute. Fortunately for Morton, Weatherson went straight up the park to complete a debut hat-trick and send Morton through in injury time, leaving the local turf accountant short of cash to satisfy the queue of punters who took advantage of his generosity.

The league campaign opened with a real classic. A terrific crowd turned up at Cappielow for the visit of Airdrie, who most saw as the main threat to Morton’s promotion ambitions. Morton fell behind to a Stephen McKeown goal but hit back through a deflected Williams free kick and a fine John Maisano strike, to put them in front. The game then took a dramatic turn as referee Dougie Somers went down with a hamstring strain, to be replaced by his assistant. As a result, a tannoy announcement was made for a qualified official, and Morton fan Chic Kavanagh, resplendent in his replica shirt, emerged from the Cowshed to the fury of the Diamonds’ faithful. In truth, he didn’t have any influence on the final score, though Morton added a third through a Weatherson penalty to seal the points. Airdrie did enact swift retribution by knocking Morton out the Challenge Cup in midweek, but Morton had laid down an excellent marker for their league season.

Weatherson Airdrie.jpg

Morton's players celebrate Peter Weatherson's goal in the 3-1 opening day victory over Airdrie at a rauchous Capppielow.

(Photo- source unknown)

The deadly duo of Williams and Weatherson secured the points at Ochilview the following week, before Dumbarton emerged from Cappielow with a 2-2 draw. A disappointing result perhaps, but there could be few complaints about collecting seven points from the first nine. And the fine run continued with victory over East Fife and a League Cup win against Stranraer, both at Cappielow, before Morton travelled to Station Park, Forfar.

Despite falling two behind in the first fifteen minutes, Morton staged a terrific fight back, with goals from Weatherson and Marco Maisano drawing them level, before Paul Walker’s sublime chip secured three vital points and sent the ‘Ton faithful back down the road in fine spirits. Home form though, wasn’t as great as that on the road, and another couple of points were dropped in a 1-1 draw with a mid-table Hamilton side who hadn’t yet clicked into gear.

The League Cup campaign came to an end at Tannadice, though Morton’s fine performance in a 1-3 defeat drew numerous plaudits, and was financially rewarded by a purring Douglas Rae, despite failure to progress. But after that midweek reverse, it was back up the east coast at the weekend to Gayfield, where Arbroath were ruthlessly dispatched, 4-0.

After eight games though, Morton’s unbeaten record fell, as they were beaten 1-3 by Berwick Rangers, and that concerning home form which yielded only eight points from fifteen should have drawn more attention than it did, such was the efficiency with which the team were performing on the road. A solitary Alex Williams goal at Recreation Park maintained that 100% away record as Morton concluded the first quarter on the top of the tree, a point clear of East Fife and Airdrie.

And the second quarter started with another Cappielow thriller- this time around, Stenhousemuir were the visitors, and it was to prove another difficult afternoon in front the Cowshed. Having coasted to an early two-goal lead through Williams and Weatherson, Morton were pegged back to 2-2 with 25 minutes remaining before a late burst from Marco Maisano, Weatherson again and Jani Uoitinen secured the points. It was a good thing Morton were scoring for fun, as the defence was unconvincing as they made heavy weather of games that should have been comfortably negotiated.

But scoring for fun and negotiating the game wasn’t a problem when they faced what many saw as their toughest test of the season- Airdrie at New Broomfield. Morton were three up in the first half hour- goals from Greacen, John Maisano and Williams put them in easy street going into the break.

After the previous week’s indiscretions, there was to be no risk of losing this lead, as Greacen headed home his second of the game, Walker added the finishing touches to a terrific move to add a fifth and John Maisano added his second and Morton’s sixth. A last-minute McKeown consolation did little to ruin the Morton fans’ day as they witnessed what was perhaps the best overall performance a Morton team have produced this century. Seven points clear at the top and it was only November, what a time to be alive!

Maisano.jpg

John Maisano enjoyed a prolific season, but was caught up in the end-of-season controversy.

(Photo- source unknown)

But the old frailties couldn’t be shaken off- more points were dropped at home, with Forfar emerging from Cappielow with a point, before a trip to Methil saw Morton drop their first away points of the season with a 0-0 draw against East Fife. We didn’t know it at the time, but Morton had reached their peak for the season.

The trip to Hamilton was a late victim of the weather, but when it was played, Morton were battered by an Accies side who threw everything but the kitchen sink at them. A last-minute Williams header secured a scarcely deserved three points as Morton prevailed 2-1, on an evening they got away with murder. It was perhaps, better to be lucky than to be good.

But the cracks were really starting to emerge as struggling Arbroath came to Cappielow and were beaten 6-4! There was no doubt this was a thriller, as the scoreline suggest, but it was clear that all was not well. Morton were scoring for fun, but conceding at an alarming rate. A 3-2 victory against Berwick at Shielfield Park was another positive away result going into Christmas, and a routine victory over East of Scotland League minnows Vale of Leithen to kick off the Scottish Cup campaign was the least anyone would have expected. Morton were twelve points clear as Santa came down the chimney, so what was all the fuss about? We would soon find out.

McCormack.jpg

John McCormack's Manager of the Month Awards quickly dried up as Morton's form fell off a cliff.

(Photo- Getty Images/SNS)

As we left 2003 and brought in 2004, Morton made their first visit to Dumbarton’s new home, and lost their first away match of the league season by a goal to nil in front of a huge visiting support. The cup visit of bottom of the SPL Partick was seen by many as a potential cup upset, but proved to be the dampest of damp squibs as Morton were soundly dispatched 0-3 by the Glasgow side.

McCormack brought in defender Chris McLeod from Rangers to help shore up the leaky defence, and the defender was culpable for Hamilton’s opener in the first minute of the Cappielow 2-2 draw. In truth, his time at Morton didn’t get much better after that.

And two trips up the east coast yielded only a point, with a 2-2 draw at Arbroath and a 1-2 reverse at Forfar. There wasn’t much love in the air when East Fife visited Cappielow on Valentines Day with Morton’s lead over second-placed Hamilton cut to seven points. A last-minute Scott Bannerman goal rescued a point for Morton, but it was clear Morton’s form was cause for real consternation. The ‘Ton saw out February with more dropped points, this time from a 3-3 draw at Alloa.

As we entered March, Morton registered their first win of 2004. A second half Chris Millar strike claiming the points at Stenhousemuir before the midweek visit of Airdrie for a rearranged midweek fixture. With Airdrie motoring at this point, and by now sitting only five points behind their hosts, a victory would have provided breathing space in what was turning into a real tussle, having previously looked like becoming a procession. Alas, Morton had to settle for a point despite leading through a John Maisano free kick. With those dropped points, Hamilton were now breathing down their neck, only four points behind, and Airdrie only a point further back.

So, two home wins over Dumbarton and Berwick were just what the doctor ordered. But Doctor Kenny Deuchar added to the ill-feeling around the Morton support by scoring the only goal in a 0-1 defeat at East Fife.

With a massive game at Hamilton approaching, form continued to be patchy. A narrow 1-0 win over Arbroath was sandwiched by draws with Alloa and Forfar. Morton had been usurped at the top of the table by Airdrie, but with two going up, still had breathing space over Accies.

Though heading into the match with a degree of trepidation, nobody could have foreseen a 1-6 drubbing from a rampant Hamilton. If Morton had been let off the hook on their previous visit to New Douglas Park, they were shown no mercy this time around as they were humiliated by a team that clearly smelt blood. Bannerman’s last-minute consolation flattered Morton, and all of a sudden, even promotion was beginning to look unlikely.

Paul Walker’s last-minute winner at home to Alloa was enough to win the points on a nervy afternoon that saw Cappielow erupt as the ‘Ton’s season took what was to prove it’s last positive turn, and a trip to Noth East England saw a miserable defeat by Berwick.

But by now, if it didn’t look like things could get any worse, Morton’s season took a turn that nobody could have predicted. A squad of young guys with a few quid in their pockets who were treated like local celebrities was always going to have its faults- in the early days of camera phones, it wasn’t uncommon to see the players out enjoying their newly found status and attention, and the generosity of their adoring public. Unfortunately, that often led to overindulgence, and photos of players lying drunk on couches were often exchanged between fans. This of course, wasn’t a problem when the team were winning, but with results turning, fans looked for scapegoats, and rumours started to emerge about some members of the squad placing a not insignificant amount of money on Airdrie to win the title, at the point Morton were coasting. The prime suspects appeared to be Williams, Weatherson, the Maisano brothers and Millar- all relatively young players who were perceived to be too big for their boots and found the fans had turned against them.

With Airdrie confirming themselves as champions at Alloa, Morton travelled back to Dumbarton, and this time took a 0-3 hammering, with captain Derek Collins receiving his marching orders in front of an incandescent travelling support. Marco Maisano was dragged from a furious fan in the car park after being asked if he was “off to collect his winnings” to compound a horrible afternoon for Morton.

Nevertheless, a victory over Stenhousemuir the following week could have secured promotion in second place. Morton had collected nine points from nine against the beleaguered Warriors, who sat bottom of the table, thirteen points behind ninth-placed East Fife and already relegated. Stenny however, left Cappielow with a resounding 4-1 victory, and for the first time all season, Morton were out of the promotion places, and with one game remaining, away to champions Airdrie, promotion was out of their hands.

With goal difference in Hamilton’s favour, realistically Morton had to win and hope Forfar could do them a turn. It didn’t happen. With Accies striker Brian McPhee proving the hero in a week that he had earlier battled an explosion in a Maryhill plastics factory in has day job as a fireman, he took more plaudits in helping the Lanarkshire side to a 4-0 victory, as Morton slumped to a 0-2 defeat to the newly-crowned champions and even slipped to fourth behind Dumbarton.

Williams Gaughan.jpg

Alex Williams is consoled by Paul Gaughan after their final day defeat at Airdrie completed a monumental collapse.

(Photo- Kenny Ramsay)

As betting slips flew onto the pitch like confetti, Airdrie fans raced on to celebrate and some Morton fans to show their displeasure at the goading of their hosts. The players stood and saluted their support, with many in tears at how a season that promised so much had unfolded.

It would be the making of some, and the breaking of others as Weatherson and Millar went onto stellar careers, while Williams in particular suffered. The best natural finisher this observer has ever seen in a Morton shirt saw his career fizzle out after brief renaissances at Clyde and Ayr, but he, and we, were left with a sense of what might have been, though you still hear fans in their late thirties upwards talking fondly of “Super”.

The betting rumours came to nothing, with no concrete evidence found to implicate anyone, but mud sticks, and only the players themselves could tell us of the personal impact it had on them going forward.

For Morton, while the 2014 relegation may have been a blessing in disguise, this was nothing of the sort. With the rise of big-spending, all-conquering Gretna forthcoming, they suffered in the Second Division for another three seasons before finally gaining promotion. McCormack was sacked the following season and replaced by Jim McInally, who twice failed to take Morton up before finally getting it right.

Worst of all, the trust between the club and fans had evaporated. A club that had so much going for it wasn’t the same again, and the damage that season brought felt irreparable, as McInally commented during the 2007 title-winning year.

While he may disagree, I don’t think the trust was properly built up again until Jim Duffy’s arrival years later, and some may argue that twenty years down the line, the club has still never recovered.

Though there were many directions the finger of blame could be pointed in, that many of us look back on that season more with sadness now, than with anger, is perhaps the worst thing about it. Morton was a club we felt were really going places, but more so than any other near miss, there was a horrible sense of what might have been.

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