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Hat-Trick Heroes and Stunning the Steelmen.


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(Photo- Gary Bradley)

Hat-Trick Heroes and Stunning the Steelmen.

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

By Russell Gordon

Sitting on eight points and at the bottom of the Championship, if ever Morton needed a relief from league duty it was now. While the country’s focus was diverted to marking the national team’s fine achievement in reaching the summer’s European Championships in Germany as Scotland drew the curtain on their excellent qualifying campaign with a 3-3 draw at home to Group A also rans Norway, the ‘Ton’s focus moved to the cup competitions.

With Scotland’s match being played on the Sunday, there was SPFL Trust Trophy action at Cappielow a day prior, as Airdrie put an end to Morton’s interest in the competition, condemning the ‘Ton to a scarcely deserved quarter final defeat after a far more encouraging Morton performance. After an entertaining 0-0 draw which was very much a game of two halves, the first of which Airdrie had the better of, Morton dominated the second period, missing numerous chances before Lewis McGrattan’s missed spot kick proved the difference as the Diamonds progressed.

While Robbie Muirhead’s last-minute ordering off was a sore point, with the striker taking one for the team to ensure the game progressed to a penalty shoot-out, the returns of Ryan Mullen to the starting line-up, and Jai Quitongo and Darragh O’Connor to the bench, with both getting the last fifteen minutes, were encouraging signs that Morton’s injury woes were beginning to ease.

With another week’s respite from the league, the Scottish Cup campaign kicked off with the visit of Lowland League side Bo’ness United. Though the most entertaining aspect of the first half was the visiting support giving Morton’s under-worked, over-officious stewards a run for their money, until George Oakley gave Morton the lead on the cusp of the break.

While Morton were never really in danger, the 52nd minute ordering off of Bo’ness defender Ryan Stevenson killed off any chance of the visitors producing a shock before Jack Bearne added a second and Robbie Muirhead dispatched a 79th minute penalty to make it three.

During the SPFL Trust Trophy campaign, it was good to see Imrie introducing youngsters Matthew Davidson and Cameron Keay, and on this occasion, it was young Logan O’Boy’s opportunity, which he took in style- adding a debut fourth a minute from time. Montrose at Cappielow would be Morton’s reward for a resounding victory, with the added bonus of a bit more game time for the returning duo.

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Young Logan O'Boy enjoyed a dream debut as Morton progressed in the Scottish Cup at the expense of Lowland League Bo'ness United.

(Photo-Gary Bradley)

Mother Nature saw to it that Morton were relieved of league duty for a third week, with the visit of title favourites Dundee United postponed due to the weather. While the board would have been disappointed to lose the revenue from a potentially large travelling support coming to town to support the high-flying Terrors, there would be some good news around the corner.

Morton would return to league action against bogey side Arbroath, whose new manager Jim McIntyre was debuting in the dug-out following the departure of long-serving Dick Campbell, who resigned after a shock cup exit to Spartans. But there was also an incoming at Cappielow, with Lewis Strapp returning to the club on a short-term deal on his return to fitness.

With the Red Lichties unbeaten in the previous thirteen meetings between the sides, the signing of Strapp proved a galvanising force for Morton. McGrattan got onto the end of a beautiful Jack Bearne through ball on 37 minutes to dispatch the ball past ex-Morton custodian Derek Gaston, but on the hour, it looked like a familiar old story would be playing out, as David Gold levelled the affair. Strapp then entered the fold from the bench and, as though he’s never been away, entered the book two minutes later.

But it was from a trademark Strapp long throw that Morton’s winner arrived. The full back hurled the ball into the box, and aided by a Muirhead nod-on, the ball landed at the feet of Oakley, who turned and lashed the ball into the roof of Gaston’s net. Finally, the hoodoo was broken, and Morton were now within a point of their ninth-placed hosts.

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The return of Lewis Strapp proved a timely boost to help Morton climb the table.

(Photo- Gary Bradley)

In midweek, Inverness came to Cappielow for the re-arranged fixture from October that was conveniently re-arranged due to injury travel issues. Not that it did them a lot of good, as a rejuvenated Morton took the game to their visitors, taking the lead in the twentieth minute as George Oakley latched onto a Nikola Udjur mistake to caress the but over Mark Ridgers’ head and into the net. With Morton always in control, it took until ten minutes from time for a second to arrive, again from a long Strapp throw in, which was lashed in by Jack Baird. Inverness’s Adam Brooks scored an injury time consolation, but Morton held on to climb off the foot of the table ahead of the visit of another struggling side, Queen’s Park.

The Spiders arrived at Cappielow with Paul Nuijten in the bench following the departure of the hapless Robin Veldman, who had only won one of their last fourteen matches, and even that was against Welsh minnows Bala Town in the Trust Trophy.

When Muirhead finished off a delightful move to give Morton an early lead, all was well in the world, but this is Morton after all. Five minutes before the break, Oakley fouled Queens’ Jack Thomson on the halfway line, and was shown a straight red by referee Craig Napier, an official who has form for flashing cards without taking time to think, for what was no more than a yellow card. To make matters worse, Napier then pointed to the spot just before half time for well, I don’t know.

Fortunately for Morton, despite what appeared to be the official’s best efforts, they went in at the break ahead, as Mullen smothered Ruari Paton’s tame penalty.

The second half predictably saw Queens dominate possession but lack a cutting edge, as Morton managed the game superbly, restricting their guests to little more than a couple of half chances and making it three wins from three. In a week, Morton had accumulated more points than they had in the previous four and a half months and were sitting in mid table.

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Ryan Mullen's penalty save from Queen's Park's Ruari Paton proved pivotal as ten-man Morton claimed three points against the Spiders at Cappielow.

(Photo- Gary Bradley)

They made it five unbeaten in an insipid 0-0 draw at New Broomfield. Given that Morton were missing Oakley due to suspension, this was very much a point gained against a side who had the measure of Morton to date, but the only really noticeable thing about the game was the performance of the much-derided Willie Collum in the middle. In a season in which refereeing standards were plummeting to new depths, it should be noted that the difference between some of those Morton had been subjected to and Scotland’s best official was night and day. Perhaps some of his detractors who are used to watching Premiership football should be careful what they wish for.

After Christmas passed, and we approached new year, the fixture list saw Morton handed a trip to Inverness in inclement weather conditions. Of course, Morton weren’t handed the same courtesy of a postponement that the Highlanders were offered ahead of their scheduled visit to Cappielow a couple of months prior when it was a bit windy, but we’ve come to expect that. Again, a solid point from an uneventful 0-0 draw was a satisfactory outcome to take before the difficult journey down the A9.

As 2023 left us and 2024 arrived, Morton were first footed by Lee Bullen’s Ayr United. With Morton currently on a six-match unbeaten run, Robbie Muirhead opened the scoring with a back post header after Cammy Blues stood the ball up beautifully for him on 35 minutes.

Muirhead added a magnificent second on 57 minutes, curling a beauty past Ayr keeper Robbie Mutch with his right foot, and taking great pleasure in reminding his bosses of the qualities his “weaker foot” possessed. Not that Imrie and Andy Millen were complaining!

Two minutes later, with Ayr on the ropes, Muirhead completed a perfect hat-trick, reversing Kirk Broadfoot’s pass across the face of Mutch’s goal into the corner to the delight of the Cappielow crowd. The statisticians had no issues in noting Muirhead’s second treble of the season, but had more problems establishing the last perfect hat-trick scored by a Morton player. They would have few problems establishing the next.

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Hat-trick hero Robbie Muirhead takes the acclaim of the Morton bench after putting Ayr United to the sword.

(Photo- Gary Bradley)

The visit to Tannadice saw the return of Michael Garrity from a successful loan spell at League One Annan Athletic. And while young Garrity made his mark on the game, he wasn’t to steal the headlines. With the Premiership in shut down due to its winter break, Scotland’s match of the day saw title favourites Dundee United host a Morton team enjoying a terrific run, and it was Garrity’s cross on 25 minutes that was headed into the net by George Oakley to give the visitors a shock lead. Oakley doubled Morton’s advantage nine minutes later, prodding home a Lewis Strapp cross to the shock of the home support.

It didn’t take long for United to hit back though, as Kai Fotheringham nodded home to reduce the arrears two minute later, and Louis Moult levelled on the stroke of half time.

Morton would receive a boost at the break though, with Moult not coming out for the second half. They had their scares in the second period, notably a penalty appeal, but Morton were to finish the game the stronger after United’s Craig Sibbald saw red for a second booking two minutes from time. A minute later, Oakley got onto the end of an up-field clearance from Mullen, outmuscled Kevin Holt and launched a fantastic left footed drive towards Jack Walton’s goal, kissing the inside of the post on the way in, and sending the Morton bench and the away end into raptures. A second perfect hat-trick from a second Morton player in the space of a couple of days, shocking the best team in the division in their back yard. A day that will live long in the memories of those who travelled from the west!

The visit of good friends Partick saw Morton’s biggest league crowd of the campaign, as 3568 descended on Cappielow for a meeting of two clubs who were pushing for play-off places by this stage of the season. With that big crowd though, came the logistical problems of actually getting a crowd into Cappielow, as Warren Hawke’s legacy reared its ugly head with hundreds of fans locked out well into the match with an entry system and stewarding operation that couldn’t cope with around 2500 Morton fans.

On the park, Morton took the game to their visitors, and were unfortunate to see a Robbie Crawford goal ruled out early on before Jack McMillan’s own goal put the good guys in front. They weren’t to hold onto that lead, however, as Ricco Diack, son of former Morton “ace” Ian, provided a fine late equaliser for the baddies, and the sides had to settle for a point apiece.

Following that, the Scottish Cup campaign continued apace, with the visit of League One play-off chasers Montrose. Morton had never beaten the Gable Endies in the cup before, and those of a certain vintage will have had horrible memories of their most recent cup meeting, in 1996 when a far worse Montrose team shocked perhaps the best Morton team in a generation in a Links Park replay.

There was to be no shock this time around, however. A tenth minute Grant Gillespie penalty settled any nerves before George Oakley nodded in from an inch out in the second half to ease Morton through to a home fifth round meeting with Motherwell.

To add to the feel-good factor, the club announced the pre-contract signing of Welsh striker Jordan Davies from Connah’s Quay Nomads, who was paraded in front of the Cappielow crowd.

Montrose’s Angus rivals Arbroath were next to visit Cappielow, and after Morton’s victory on the road finally ended the Arbroath hoodoo, they made a good job of making it a distant memory, with a helping hand from Red Lichties’ captain Keaghan Jacobs, who foolishly picked up a couple of bookings in a couple of minutes, half an hour into the game to make life even more difficult for his injury-hit side. While Morton laboured against the resilient ten men, a Muirhead penalty on 63 minutes, before Oakley added a second from Tyler French’s fine ball down the line in the 75th minute, and Gillespie added a third, also from the spot, eight minutes from time.

Though not a vintage performance, the three points were the priority, but the following weekend saw Morton record their most resounding victory of the season over another injury-hit side, Dunfermline.

Though the Pars had taken maximum points so far from the previous meetings, they were blown away by a Morton performance that emphasised everything that was good about Glen’s Championship Manager of the Month Dougie Imrie’s side.

Pressing high up the park and not allowing their opponents a second on the ball, with Lewis Strapp’s throw ins causing chaos in the home defence, this was big-bad-physical Morton, a label the team had been unfairly hit with all season, at their absolute best.

Though they were aided by a horrific defensive performance, doubles from centre backs Darragh O’Connor and Jack Baird, both of whom scored in each half, put Morton in a commanding position, and Michael Garrity added a fifth in front of a nearly empty East End Park, with the exodus from the home stands having started early in the second half.

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Jack Baird stabs home his second and Morton's fourth in a resounding victory over Dunfermline at East End Park.

(Photo- Gary Bradley)

This of course set Morton up well for their Friday night TV encounter with Premiership strugglers Motherwell in the Scottish Cup. If the Steelmen were short of confidence going into the game though, they got back on track in the nick of time, battering Ross County 5-0 a few days earlier.

But in a season when cup shocks were at a premium, Morton produced an excellent performance against their more fancied opponents to produce perhaps the shock of the tournament in front of a raucous Cappielow crowd. In a fairly even first half, the ‘Ton drew first blood in bizarre circumstances after 35 minutes when Robbie Muirhead’s near-post corner was fumbled into the net by ‘Well keeper Liam Kelly, a moment the Scotland international would rather forget.

Ten minutes into the second half, Morton’s press again paid off, as a poor touch from another Scotland international, Paul McGinn allowed Cammy Blues to play in cinch Championship Player of the Month George Oakley, who made no mistake to double Morton’s lead and send Cappielow into ecstasy!

A late Jack Vale goal five minutes from time made for a nervy ending, but on the final whistle, Morton boss Imrie certainly enjoyed his moment of retribution towards the visiting fans, doing his reputation with the Morton support no harm whatsoever.

The following day’s draw saw Morton paired with familiar foes Airdrie or less-familiar opponents in Hearts, who met immediately after being pulled out the hat. There was one familiar face in the Jambos ranks however, and our old pal Lawrence Shankland stuck a double past the Diamonds in their 4-1 win to give us a wee warning of what could be to come.

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George Oakley and Darragh O'Connor lead the celebrations as Morton's season reaches its peak in the Scottish Cup defeat of Motherwell.

(Photo- Gary Bradley)

With dreams of Hampden in the forefront of the fans’ minds, they had a visit to the National Stadium in less glamorous circumstances to face Queen’s Park, now managed by Callum Davidson. The Spiders could count themselves lucky to come away with a point after keeper Calum Ferrie broke the habit of a lifetime and had a good game against Morton, his highlight being a fine point-blank stop from Oakley late on.

The visit of Airdrie saw Morton collect a costly three points, with Diamonds defender Aaron Taylor-Sinclair lucky not to see red for a flying elbow on Crawford after five minutes.

However, Morton took the lead four minutes later, as Jai Quitongo, a hate figure to the visiting support, flighted a beautiful ball to Oakley at the back post, who headed the ball across Josh Rae to give Morton an early lead. A magnificent Garrity volley, from what initially looked to be from an offside position, doubled Morton’s lead.

In a bad-tempered affair, Taylor-Sinclair struck a significant blow in Morton’s promotion challenge, aiding his own side’s in the process by landing a sore one on George Oakley, and forcing the talismanic hitman off with twelve minutes remaining, and at a crucial time of the season.

Airdrie’s Callum Fordyce pulled one back late on, but while Morton held on to win the battle, winning the war without Oakley would prove far more problematic.

A midweek trip to big-spending Raith Rovers saw a further injury blow, with inspirational midfielder Iain Wilson carried off on 38 minutes. With Ryan Mullen missing the game, and replaced by a clearly unfit Jamie MacDonald, Morton held on for a decent point in a pretty turgid 0-0 draw with the monied title-chasers, but after sixteen games unbeaten, it was clear that the problems that had beset Imrie earlier in the season were returning, and just as we were heading into the business end of the campaign.

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