MORTON suffered a cruel and accursed end to their valiant League Cup adventure last night. With extra-time appearing a certainty and all 92 of the adjudged minutes of a tie that neither they nor St Johnstone had done enough to win, referee John McKendrick decreed that Nacho Novo had encroached on a Stevie May free-kick 30 yards from goal.
Scorer: St Johnstone - McDonald (90)
That necessitated a retake, which May, having moved the ball forward, hit hopefully towards goal. The drive should have been dealt with by keeper Nicolas Caraux, but he let the ball bounce off his body to allow Gary McDonald to force in the loose ball.
This final act left the Morton players and their management team apoplectic. They surrounded McKendrick when he blew for full time seconds later and missiles appeared to be thrown in the officials’s direction from the Cowshed home enclosure. Morton manager Allan Moore and his assistant Mark McNally then harangued McKendrick as he made his way to the tunnel. Futile protests after an evening of more than just resistance that left the Perth team more than fortunate winners.
The efforts of Morton themselves, courtesy of the still scarelessly believable victory at Celtic Park in the last round, was supposed to have made this the League Cup that any team still in the competition could harbour ambitions of winning. Such an egalitarian view didn’t seem to be shared by the Cappielow faithful themselves. However, though they may have ended the night engaged and enraged, the 2,619 attendance at the antiquated round initially pointed to an absence of even cup hot flush, never mind fever.
That Morton are rooted at the foot of the Championship and have endured a wretched season – their fabled night in the east end of Glasgow apart – accounted for that fact.
Clyde 1 DJ George Bowie, on the mike beforehand, attempted to whip the crowd, eh, awake. His forlorn attempts to get the punters going felt akin to staging a rave in a nursing home. Maybe, the real target for his biggying up of the occasion was the home players. Certainly, they began as if feeling it. Mark McLaughlin could have opened the scoring inside five minutes, but his header from a Doug Imrie free-kick was straight at Alan Mannus. In an unmarked position, his contact seemed too hurried.
Apart from David Wotherspoon tugging a shot wide across the early stages, the home side succeeded in containing Premiership rivals expected to roll over the top of them. The same was true of Allan Moore’s men against the Scottish champions, but that proved a feat from which the Morton manager was unable to draw any lasting satisfaction.
Before the quarter-final tie, Moore spoke movingly of the enjoyment over his side’s might shock being obliterated by the death of his brother days later. It could only make the neutral hope that Moore could have a night to remember.
He certainly could be proud of his men’s endeavours throughout the opening 45 minutes. As the grew in confidence, they gradually spent more of the period on the front foot. Real openings proved elusive but St Johnstone did not look in any way comfortable from cross balls, with the ever-industrious Imrie demonstrating why he had his moments in top flight football earlier in his career.
Tommy Wright’s men had been every pundits banker for a semi-final place with the weekend win over Motherwell coming in a month when they had also destroyed early Premiership pacesetters Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Little was evidenced of Stevie May – so central a figure in these
notable victories - or his striker partner Nigel Hasselbaink. The little Englishman did cause the noise travelling support to roar
excitedly midway through the half, but the shimmering net that caused them to exercise their vocal cords proved the product of a shot and turn that struck the outside of the rigging.
Tam Scobbie replaced the Perth side’s captain Fraser Wright at the interval, the big centre-back falling awkwardly towards the close of the first 45, and this change would no doubt have given the solitary Morton attacker some hope of catching the new man cold. Certainly, the second-tier side continued to press with vigour and belief, but providing service to Novo continued to prove beyond them. The Spaniard did willingly forage deep, but required to do so all too often. For their part, meanwhile, St Johnstone did not seem unduly concerned about the lack of impression they were making on a tie that stood between Morton and a first last four appearance in a national cup since the tail end of the Andy Ritchie era in 1981.
Oh for the talent and imagination of a Ritchie-type to have lifted, what increasingly threatened to become, a dour struggle. St Johnstone’s approach suggested they were simply biding their time in the expectation that their moment would arrive, but Wright’s desire that his team prove more proactive was reflected in his introduction of Murray Davidson for the anonymous Paddy Cregg after 63 minutes.
Extra-time had started to loom large in the minds of both sets of players. Until, that is, a 25-yard free-kick from Wotherspoon struck the outside of Caraux’s right-hand post.
That moment seemed to energise the Perth side. Roy Fallon was brought on for the hirpling Hasselbaink for the final 12
minutes as the visitors began to sniff the scent of a tie decider in their nostrils. It never looked like arriving....until referee McKendrick’s intervention.
Morton: Caraux; Reid, McLaughlin, Peciar, Fitzpatrick (Page 36); Wallace, Habai, Bachirou, Imrpie, McKee (Stirling 57), Novo. Subs not used: Gaston, Campbell, Moudou Cham.
St Johnstone: Mannus; Miller, Mackay, Wright (Scobbie 46), Easton; Millar, McDonald, Cregg (Davidson 63), Wotherspooon; May, Hasselbaink (Fallon 78). Subs: Banks, Edwards.
Referee: John McKendrick