It is almost over: the finishing line is in sight. The red and yellow bunting can be unpacked and prepared to adorn Firhill Road and Springbank Street while the trophy cabinet, neglected for over a decade, can be dusted down – it will be needed again.
Partick Thistle’s 1-0 victory over Greenock Morton on Wednesday night has effectively settled the destination of the First Division championship. In front of just under 9,000 boisterous supporters at Firhill, a close range strike from Jimmy Craigen was enough for Alan Archibald’s side to edge past their opponents and wrap a hand around the trophy. It wasn’t a great game – there were few salient points – but Thistle won’t care. Why would they.
The build-up to the kick-off was a noisy, riotous affair. The low hum of expectation gave way to a sweltering crescendo, a wall of sound that tightly wrapped itself around the stadium. It was easy to get caught up in it all, to believe in the romantic notion that something – anything – could happen. It didn’t matter what else had preceded it; this was the very essence of the sport stripped down to a single game.
The match was delayed for 15 minutes to allow the long queues of supporters into the ground. Morton fans filled out the Main Stand and an overspill from the home support had to be ushered from the Jackie Husband Stand into the North Stand. To see Firhill – or indeed, any SFL ground – filled to capacity is a rare sight of wonder, a throwback to a bygone era when football was king and little else mattered (one can only wonder how the same number of fans can be tempted into attending matches on a regular basis). It was a splendid occasion.
In truth, the pre-match excitement was far more thrilling than what followed. It was an anxious, nervy game, riddled with mistakes from both teams and it quickly became apparent the contest would be settled by an individual error rather than a sublime piece of skill or a well-worked goal. Late in the first half, Thomas O’Ware, who had struggled throughout, attempted an ambitious cross-field ball but could only look on in horror his pass was intercepted. Thistle broke forward and Chris Erskine crashed the ball across goal; Kris Doolan’s clever dummy allowed it to run to Craigen – unmarked at the back post, he could hardly miss.
The primary coloured explosion of noise that greeted the final whistle boomed and spangled, like a geyser spurting forth, the palpable sense of release. It is almost over: the finishing line is in sight.
It would be incorrect to say the league is finished just yet but it looks unlikely that Thistle will cede first place. Regardless of what happens elsewhere, they require seven points from their next five matches to win the division – two of the games include meetings with Airdrie United, long consigned to relegation and a beleaguered Dunfermline Athletic. It seems a relatively straightforward task. Only complacency and self-doubt can hinder them.
Morton were desperately poor on Wednesday night. There was no guile or incision, no poise or penetration, just an infinite series of long balls shelled forward in the general direction of the strikers. For all the acclaim afforded to centre-backs Conrad Balatoni and Andy Dowie, the pair actually had very little to do – Peter MacDonald worked hard but lacked the nous to get beyond them, while such was extent of Colin McMenamin’s contribution that had he been replaced by a life-size statue of Colin McMenamin at any point, no-one would have noticed. Allan Moore’s side asked no questions of their opponents.
The Morton players, staff and supporters will have woken yesterday morning like a drunken man waking after committing an unspeakable crime the night before – having little recollection of exactly what had happened, but still being washed in a hot dread that something terrible had occurred.
Having led the division since 29 December, they must wonder how they were toppled. Poor results will be picked over and scrutinised – the 0-3 aberration to Dumbarton and the 1-1 draw with Cowdenbeath in the New Year must particularly rankle, while recent defeats to Hamilton Academical and Raith Rovers saw them overtaken in first place and fall behind. Under normal circumstances, these results would only be minor blemishes in an otherwise successful season but against Archibald’s relentless Thistle, they will be looked back on as decisive.
One can only imagine what will happen next season. Will Moore still lead the club? With the exception of the current campaign, his three seasons as manager have been largely underwhelming. Morton’s handsome playing budget largely outstrips the majority of other Division One clubs and chairman Douglas Rae might legitimately expect more than second place. What of the ageing Martin Hardie and Mark McLaughlin? Should another season be coaxed from them? Or will they be put out to grass come May? A substantial period of rebuilding will be undertaken during the summer; this team have not been good enough to win the title.
Partick Thistle’s 2012-13 campaign must be savoured. This is their best side in a generation, a talented group of players who excite and astound in equal measure – the football played out at Firhill this season has been frequently thrilling. They too will look back at the season’s turning points – thrashing Dunfermline 5-1 to move to the top of the league for the first time; the 3-2 victory over Raith in which Steven Craig scored an 87th minute winner; Archibald’s ascension to manager; the abandonement at Central Park while losing 1-2; the 6-1 routing of Livingston, their most complete performance of the season; and of course, beating Morton.
Regardless of promotion, their better players will likely move on (Paul Paton and Chris Erskine are both strongly rumoured to be joining Jackie McNamara’s Dundee United) but such concerns can be addressed at a later date. Now is not the time for that: this is the moment when a supporter unconditionally offers themselves up for their team, the moment when season after season of loyalty is finally rewarded.
Supporting a club like Thistle, or Morton, or Forfar Athletic, or East Stirlingshire can be seen as an allegory for life itself. For the best part, it is a hapless trudge through disappointment, indifference, apathy, absurdity and hurt. But, on the rare occasions when all the stars and all the planets align, something utterly splendid happens. The triumphs and victories, the personal or the collective, the infinitesimal or the grandiose, must be enjoyed and remembered.
And this is Partick Thistle’s triumph.