How Soon Is Now?

November in Scotland is a wondrous month. A combination of high atmospheric pressure and shallow angle of sunlight produces a prominent, romantic vision of the arrival of winter. The invariable crispness of the atmosphere during Guy Fawkes’ Night is a natural stimulant for the observer at a football match – sounds of studs clicking and shin guards colliding are amplified and sight across the pitch appears to sharpen. Even in low pressure, if we’re lucky, some subtle precipitation might reflect from the light in such a way as to briefly convey our thoughts back to the day when terraced, purpose-built stadia with standalone floodlights were in their prime.

It can also be a disastrous month for some. As horizontal rain, frozen pitches and lukewarm tea can aggrieve spectators, November also appears to be a hazardous time for football managers who might find themselves relieved from their posts. The current calendar year has been a kind one in Scotland in that respect, with only Pat Fenlon sacked from Hibernian in the month before Allan Moore’s recent departure from Greenock Morton; the latter is unlikely to show any nostalgic sense of fondness for November in the future.

Moore’s own future at the club had been in doubt for some time. This site’s Five Things We Learned column mused on his prospects a couple of times only last month. Fourteen matches into the league campaign and currently sitting bottom of the Championship table, chairman Douglas Rae’s introspection after the latest 1-5 thrashing delved deep enough to realise that the club would soon reach the point of no return in sliding towards the SPFL’s third tier.

In a sense, the loss at home to Livingston was typical of the season so far. Moore made a couple of changes from the recent loss to Queen of the South at Palmerston, but the same issues remained. An orthodox 4-4-2 was outnumbered in midfield on both occasions, in the most recent case allowing Livi’s Martin Scott the freedom to burst forward and support the forwards from deep, as he does best. A flat defence has invited attacks from various angles, with the ailing Jonathan Page’s continued inclusion at centre-back an increasing mystery, particularly since Craig Reid had returned to the club to help solve some of the defensive problems.

The recently departed manager had joined from Stirling Albion, a team promoted from the Second Division in May 2010, but whose part-time status wasn’t enough to keep him at Forthbank. Moore’s preference on arrival was for 4-4-2, something which suited the squad at the time: Peter Weatherson and Stewart Kean reprised the classic “little and large” partnership up front, while Stuart McCaffrey’s leadership at the back brought a multiplying effect on the rest of the defenders. Allan Jenkins was arguably Morton’s finest player in an era of mediocrity, with his strength married to technique bringing eight goals in Moore’s first season, from either the right or centre of midfield. Jenkins often played on the right because new signing David O’Brien brought natural width on the left, while other recruits Fouad Bachirou and Graham Holmes fought with Michael Tidser, signed by James Grady, for the remaining midfield places.

The 2010-11 season had the making of a successful year, until the middle of April 2011 at least. Moore had Morton sitting in fourth place at that point, but four straight losses saw the Ton finish in seventh, only two points ahead of a Ross County side who were only sure of relegation on the penultimate match of the season. Given that prior to the reinvention of the play-offs to the top flight there was no prize for second place, Moore couldn’t stop his side from falling down the table (which said as much about the state of competition within the First Division at the time as it did about his ability to motivate the squad).

If 2010-11 had hinted toward something better to come, the following campaign wholly disappointed. Early domination of lower league opposition in the cups (8-0 away to Stranraer; 3-0 at Alloa Athletic) gave Morton confidence going into the league and they topped the table at the end of September 2011, with a 100 per cent home record. However, they lost the hugely influential Tidser to injury early on and had already endured some heavy league defeats by then; their scatter-gun form wasn’t sustainable for a title challenge and they quickly fell away, never placing higher than fourth at any time after that. Morton finished in eighth place that season and only won four times after January. Confidence among the squad dissolved as Moore oversaw barely tolerable collective performances.

Occasional flirtations with 4-5-1 and 4-3-3 systems took place, but Moore always seemed to prefer his new strike partnership of Andy Jackson with Peter MacDonald up front – while the latter was prolific, the former wasn’t enough of a number 10 to complement the rest of the team and they were sometimes easy to defend against en bloc. The biggest problem with Moore’s 4-4-2 was that until the signing of Willie Dyer in 2012-13, he had never recruited quality full-backs of whom the system relied upon to feed the midfield and the attack without simply chipping the ball up to relatively small forwards.

Last year was undoubtedly Moore’s best at the club, but they still finished in second behind Partick Thistle who eventually romped through the league in the second half of the season. Morton started slowly but were capable of winning streaks that propelled and kept them towards the top of the table. What facilitated that was an extreme change in the playing staff, as Moore turned over 27 players in pre-season. Veterans of winning the First Division in Mark McLaughlin, David Graham, Martin Hardie and Kevin Rutkiewicz were drafted in as previous flavours of the month Andy Jackson, Colin Stewart and Paul di Giacomo were punted. Morton won 20 times that season and scored an average of two goals every game – while they were generally not as fluent an attacking team as Thistle, the quality of the side prevailed more often than not. However, the 0-1 loss at Firhill late in the season came as a red letter day and Moore presided over five losses in the final seven matches, reminiscent of the slump at the beginning of his first season.

The current campaign has been wretched from the beginning. A record of two wins and three draws from 14 matches highlights a team in significant decline and a shyness in front of goal that is criminally vulgar. Perhaps Moore is a victim of his own (and his employer’s) ambition to get the club promoted: the failed moonshot of the previous season wasn’t sustainable and further wholesale changes took place, with the quality of the incoming players generally not matching those leaving as the playing budget was surely cropped. An extra-time win at Celtic Park in the League Cup surprised everyone and it probably bought Moore some time through October and November to galvanise the squad.

Moore’s time at the club will be remembered for a succession of unsuccessful short-term strategies leading up to his dismissal. Only David O’Brien, Fouad Bachirou and Michael Tidser are close to 100 league appearances over the three and a half seasons of his tenure – turning over the squad each season carries a risk every time that the new staff will not improve on what has come before, which ultimately cost the manager his job. Even in his last days at the club, signing Nacho Novo and Jake Nicholson on deals until January was never going to give more than brief extra impetus at best.

Evidence of the short-term approach can be found by looking at the players who Moore signed and subsequently discarded. In recent times, it is only Tidser who has moved on to more prosperous circumstances. Although not recruited by Moore, the player formed with Bachirou possibly the best midfield partnership in the lower leagues in recent times before being sold to Rotherham United for £50,000 in the summer. Bachirou and Craig Reid had both left the club to find higher placing teams but eventually returned when no formal advances were made elsewhere. Peter MacDonald and Willie Dyer both moved on in the summer to join Dundee, who to some extent are this season’s equivalent to Morton from 2012-13. Graham Holmes and Iain Flannigan departed for Alloa Athletic, a part-time club who sit five places above their previous side, while Andy Graham is now at Dumbarton, another team also above the relegation placings. Other than that, it is difficult to see who of Moore’s numerous captures have proven themselves after being let go, with the rest falling down the leagues and some even into junior football.

Why consider that at all? Within contemporary Scottish football there are few long-term contracts, and successful sides tend to stay together to improve or are eventually head-hunted. Allan Moore’s three-and-a-half seasons at Cappielow made him – until now – the longest serving manager in the Championship among his peers: in that time he has seen other teams develop and move on to other successes (either collectively, or by joining bigger clubs) while rebuilt his squad every year. With crowd numbers dissipating every season (audiences reaching up to 3,000 in the Second Division were unsurprising at the time, while this season’s attendances have ranged between roughly 1,400-2,100), Douglas Rae had to act on the setting malaise.

Rae has left David Hopkin in charge of the first team on an interim basis: it remains to be seen how long he will be leading the side and whether or not he will be considered for the permanent job. The club’s development squad coach will already be well known to the decision makers and his current position already gives him a head start on the previous haphazard promotion of James Grady in 2009. The chairman has some long-term goals to set the club now, and those will largely be dependent on whether or not the they can afford to retain their full-time status. The SPFL reconstruction will provide a financial stimulus for clubs like Morton, but only if they finish high enough up the table.

For now, though, Greenock Morton must consider escape from relegation as an urgent priority.

John A Maxwell

John A Maxwell

John is a Ross County supporter whose care for the lower leagues is just as thoroughgoing as when Billy Ferries tore down the wing. His footballing favourites include Fernando Redondo, Gordon Connelly and André Hainault.

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