Referendum fever is gripping Scotland and Saturday was one of the rare days in the football season where the afternoon’s fixtures seemed a distraction to bigger news elsewhere. The Clyde Riviera, so often associated with heavy rain and leaden skies, glinted like vintage stained glass in the late September sun, the sleeping river stretched out like a lank greyhound before a roaring fire. On entry into the Port Glasgow and Greenock conurbation, however, raw politics clamoured for attention: SAVE OUR SHIPYARD, an urgent caps lock post-industrial plea. The shipyard seems to have been saved, happily for now; whether salvation lies around the corner for Greenock Morton, is much more of a moot point.
Since that fateful Firhill night towards the end of the 2012-13 season, the moment when Partick Thistle lanced Morton’s strong promotion challenge once and for all, the Inverclyde club have dropped as a burning moth from fate’s hot light bulb. Last season was a strait-jacketed self-lacerating paroxysm; a final day double-digit humiliation by Hamilton Academical summarising their most wretched campaign since they shipped over 100 goals in the Premier League in the mid-eighties.
This summer’s total clear out saw enigmatic gaffer Kenny Shiels replaced by Jim Duffy, a move that went down like a severed ski-lift. Duffy was a hero as a player at Morton, even if these days he is more associated with Dundee; a gifted, leisurely, comfortable on the ball centre-half whose dodgy knees prevented a good career becoming a great one. However, his gingham-check record as a manager means he has a lot of convincing to do of the home faithful.
Gary “Bobo” Bollan, his opposite number in the Airdrieonians dug-out, has more latitude than many managers would be given by Scottish fanbases after such a poor start to the season. Bollan’s shrewd judgement and hard work saw Airdrie transformed from relegation certainties to fringe-of-the-play-off contenders last term; many Airdrie fans reckon that, with a full campaign last year, Bollan might just have got the Diamonds back into the Championship. But, after a summer of high profile departures and with a low-ish budget, the manager must work the same formula, somehow, again, with an altogether different group of players.
Airdrie took to the park in a truly hideous away kit, a livid henny-night pink hue; goalkeeper Andy McNeil tastefully offset his team-mates in Vitamin C supplement orange, with varieties of psychedelic boots completing the hallucinogenic visual nightmare. But if either side was to suffer a bad trip in the first half, it was the home team.
Morton started well enough, with Declan McManus and Robbie Crawford prominent in a couple of early attacks; after a one-two between them, Crawford shot straight at McNeil when well placed. Moments later, McManus drove wide of the left-hand post after some neat passing. But, as the first half wore on, Airdrie began to grind down their opponents. They were well-organised, compact and flooded the midfield against a Morton team shy of using their wide players. They also niggled at their opponents, snapping into the tackle and trying to capitalise on the Ton’s growing frustration.
In a fizzing parabola, Liam Watt’s shot eluded Derek Gaston and nestled into the bottom corner of the net
The strategy worked, as Conor Pepper gave away a silly freekick on the edge of his own area after quarter of an hour after a crude foul. After much niggling and jostling, the resultant set-piece ricocheted off the wall and looped to the lurking Liam Watt, who caught the dropping ball on the volley with his right. In a fizzing parabola, the ball eluded the flailing Derek Gaston and nestled in the bottom left-hand corner. One-nil.
From that moment on, Airdrie were very comfortable in their lead and probably should have extended it further. Another freekick was lofted over the Morton defence and Ben Richards-Everton, the on loan centre-back, should have done better than to head the ball over. Striker Kyle Richford caused consternation with a couple of Rory Delap-ish throw-ins which the Ton’s swaying backline cleared only with great difficulty. And, when the ball was booted away, a statuesque Morton midfield just could not get past their well-drilled counterparts. Reece Hands in particular had a dreadful half – continually flustered and harassed, playing panicky short passes or dispossessed altogether by a relentlessly energetic punk opponent. So locked down was the midfield area that Morton’s centre-backs Sean Crighton and Thomas O’Ware exasperatedly passed the ball between them for want of anything better to do with it. The home support grew just as restless and began to shout abuse at their players’ lack of capacity to make any progress at all.
On the half hour, it was Lee Kilday’s turn to lose the ball in an unfortunate area and all of a sudden Airdrie were in a two-on-two situation and looking likely to add to their tally; Richford clipped the ball agonisingly over the bar as the angry murmuring increased from the chaffed-off home fans in the enclosure. Andy Barrowman, three-quarters fit but bustling, finally won a corner for the home side – nothing came of it. Then Hands, briefly released from his tight pink manacles, wasted a good chance, lofting an effort over the bar after the visitors failed to clear their lines. Joe McKee, one of Morton’s better players, was flattened by a clogging hack from Richards-Everton who was booked when then home support felt the card should have been red rather than yellow.
But Morton, although they came more into the game as the interval approached, couldn’t break Airdrie down, even after Barrowman and McKee linked up well on one or two occasions. There was just no width from the blue and white hoops and there was no joy to be found through the packed midfield. Morton left the pitch at the half time whistle slump-shouldered to a ragged farrago of boos. A tactical change was needed urgently from Duffy.
And, to be fair, the alopecian Cappielow boss duly delivered, drawing a line under Hands’ inconsequential doodlings and inviting Jamie McCluskey to create something better with a newly blank etch-a-sketch instead. Initially, it looked like more of the same as Watt sent a thrumming low drive across Gaston and agonisingly wide of the right-hand post at the Wee Dublin end. Had it gone in, it would have been hard to see a way back for Morton. But it didn’t, and from that point on the home side began to gain the ascendancy.
Five minutes after the interval, Crighton, determined to get the better of the boo-boys in his own support, strode purposefully beyond the halfway line and fed the lively McKee. Jinking like a tadpole avoiding a hook, the midfielder slipped through an opening hole in Airdrie’s net. His deft little ball across the face of goal found Barrowman, lurking in a good position just outside the six-yard box. The forward, marvelling at the space he found himself in, had all the time he needed to smack the equaliser firmly past the helpless McNeil.
Once Airdrie’s shackles were broken, they began to look ragged and frustrated
Bluntly, Morton had needed an early goal and now that they had it, they began to dominate. Just before the hour there was a lovely flowing move involving five or six players that sliced Airdrie apart but McManus headed over. Airdrie, their shackles broken, began to look ragged and frustrated. Marc Fitzpatrick, late of Cappielow, was booked for a dreadful late challenge on Pepper; it might have earned him a red card from a more sensitive referee. Morton’s fans seethed in an abusive cacophony towards the Airdrie player and there were long boos when he was only cautioned. As well as the Diamonds losing their discipline, Morton had begun to use their full-backs on the overlap much more effectively and breached Airdrie’s defensive mindset.
It was McKee again who was at the heart of his side’s winning goal. More brisk interchanges in midfield saw the player released and with a sudden turn of pace, he burst into the Airdrie area and let fly from 12 yards; his rising shot was parried by McNeil. All of a sudden it was pinball chaos on the edge of the six-yard box; McNeill’s parry reached McManus who unleashed a decisive sclaff and the ball trundled towards Crawford, who gratefully turned it past the goalkeeper from very close, just as Airdrie’s defence struggled to react. Two-one. By this stage, the visitors looked badly rattled and were completely losing their grip on the game.
Further chances fell to McCluskey, who harried and hassled the Diamonds defence into a mistake and subsequently miss-hit a shot blocked on the line; an angled cross from Crawford eluded all but the lofty Richards-Everton, who had to head behind under pressure; Keigan Parker, the Blackpool disco king, was booked for a late nasty challenge; then Fitzpatrick himself had a spoiled-three-year-old-denied-a-glass-of-Sunny D moment when he furiously bounced the ball down in front of the flabbergasted linesman after a throw in call went Morton’s way. As laughter rang around the ground at this petulance, it was clear that Airdrie – who had been dominant in the first half – had simply been out-battled both mentally and physically in the second.
So ended a game that, whilst not a bad one, was not particularly memorable either. After an atrocious first half display, Morton comfortably had the better of the second, with the hapless Hands’ substitution for McCluskey proving decisive. This win won’t fool the home fans though – a better side would have punished them decisively, and been out of sight, by the break. That said, Airdrie will take some encouragement for a hard working display in the opening 45 minutes, and disappointed that they couldn’t maintain that level of performance after the restart. All in all, it will be absolutely no surprise to see both these sides meeting again in the same division next season. Morton, at present, don’t look good enough to challenge seriously for promotion; Airdrie aren’t bad enough to go down.
Man of the Match: JOE McKEE (Greenock Morton)
Conor Pepper might have been the matchday sponsors player of choice and, whilst he did okay in the second half, young Joe McKee had a much better all-round game. He was one of the few home players who emerged from the first half with any credit, and he also has a hand in both of Morton’s goals after the break. Andy Barrowman will be a handful again once fully fit. For Airdrie, meanwhile, Liam Watt had a very decent hour before fading; the hulking Ben Richards-Everton at centre-half also looked a calm and assured player, which couldn’t be said for all his defensive team-mates.