Morton’s shock League Cup victory over Celtic last month and their quarter-final against St Johnstone coincides with one of the most memorable seasons ever experienced by the Greenock club.
Fifty years ago this week, under the charismatic Hal Stewart, Morton possessed one of the most exciting sides in the country, and reached the final of the League Cup as a Second Division side.
It marked a remarkable transformation in the club’s fortunes under shrewd Dundonian Stewart, who was invited on to the board after the club finished last in the Second Division in 1961 then lifted them to the dizzy heights of Hampden and a major cup final within two years.
Stewart earned a reputation as the greatest showman in Scottish football, and even coined a new title for himself – “director-manager”. In 1964, he proved himself a trailblazer by triggering an influx of Scandinavian players into Scotland with the signing of Erik Sorensen. But the core of his team was Scottish and one of his star players in that stellar 1963-64 season, inside-left Allan McGraw, has fond memories of those heady days under Stewart.
“Hal was the most likeable conman you could ever meet, and I mean that in a nice way,” McGraw, now 74, told The Scotsman. “He was way ahead of his time in terms of the commercial side of the game. He was the first to recognise the benefits of hospitality and sponsorship and the like. If he had been with Celtic or Rangers he would have made them one of biggest clubs in Europe. He did everything in style.
“We always travelled first class, stayed in the best hotels and wore the best suits. Hal didn’t really know much about the game, but he picked the team, no doubt about that. He had an eye for a player, and he appointed good coaches like Bobby Howitt and Doug Cowie, while he got on with the wheeling and dealing.”
Stewart’s background was in sales – he had no real football experience apart from a short association with Dundee, but his salesman’s instinct allowed him to assemble on a shoestring budget a side that played fast, attractive, attacking football. McGraw and left-back Jimmy Mallon had come straight from the Army. Jim Reilly, Bobby Adamson, Joe Caven, Bobby Campbell and goalkeeper Alex Brown were picked up on free transfers, as were Morris Stevenson, freed by both Motherwell and Hibs, and Hugh Strachan.
Strachan had been Ian St John’s understudy at Motherwell, but converted with ease to centre-back. Only winger Jimmy Wilson incurred a transfer fee – £3,000 from Newcastle.
Stewart’s side of free transfers and journeymen pros quickly set about taking Scottish football by storm, and by the time they faced Rangers in the League Cup final on 26 October 1963, the ’Ton were on course for promotion, unbeaten in 20 league and cup matches, having scored 69 goals, with all of it witnessed by large, vociferous crowds.
In the quarter-final, 20,000 fans crammed into Cappielow to witness Morton eliminate First Division Motherwell in thrilling fashion, and the ecstatic Greenock fans demanded and received a lap of honour by their victorious side. A McGraw penalty, his first in senior football, won the semi-final replay against the more fancied Hibs at Ibrox. McGraw remembers that Hibs’ goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson had a ploy at the time of standing off the centre on his goalline when facing penalties.
“When I went to take the penalty, I noticed that Ronnie was standing near his right-hand post, and he later admitted to me that it was a deliberate ploy to fool the kicker into aiming for the wee end, but I just stuck it in the big end.”
McGraw’s coolness under pressure took Morton into the final where they faced Rangers, watched by a then-record crowd for a League Cup final of 105,907.
The fans, the players and the management felt they had a chance., but the reality was different – they lost 5-0. That stark statistic is not a fair reflection of the match, however. At 0-0 at the interval, Morton were well in the match, but as McGraw, who later signed for Hibs and was the Morton manager betwen 1985 and 1997, recalls a crisis of confidence in the dressing room and a subsequent positional switch contributed to Rangers running away with the match. “Jim Kiernan was a great centre-half for us, and he had held Jim Forrest well, but he mentioned at half-time that he was a bit worried about the pace of Forrest, so Hal told Jim Reilly, our captain and key man in midfield, to play deeper as cover, and we lost the midfield.”
Forrest subsequently ran riot, scoring four goals, with his cousin Alex Willoughby grabbing the other.
The heavy defeat did not derail Morton’s season. Rather, they went from strength to strength, taking it out in time honoured fashion on lesser opponents. The stats are breathtaking. Morton won their first 23 league matches in a row, a record only broken by Martin O’Neill’s Celtic, and lost just one match as they won the Second Division by 14 points. They scored more league goals (135) than any British side.
In all league and cup matches they scored 164 goals, with McGraw the leading goalscorer in Britain, netting 58. With Renfrewshire Cup matches, friendlies, and the short-lived Summer Cup, Morton scored an incredible 203 goals in 62 matches in season 1963-64.
McGraw added: “I suppose it would have been easy to let the heads go down after the final, but we had a team full of strong characters, and we just got on with it – so much so that winning just came naturally to us. We had goals throughout the team. Our full-backs loved to get forward – Johnny Boyd would have run through a brick wall and I would say Jimmy Mallon was one of the first attacking full-backs. We played with two wingers, Bobby Adamson and Jimmy Wilson who made and scored loads of goals. Morris Stevenson was a lovely footballer, a dribbler, and Joe Caven made so many goals for me.”
At a distance of half a century, the impact that this Morton side made on Scottish football still resonates with success-starved Morton fans, who can only hope that the present Morton side, stranded at the bottom of the SPFL Championship, can somehow recapture the spirit of ’63 and go some way to emulating “Hal’s Heroes”.
Teams for 1963/64 cup final
Rangers: Ritchie, Shearer, Provan, Greig, McKinnon, Baxter, Henderson, Willoughby, Forrest, Brand, Watson
Morton: Brown, Boyd, Mallon, Reilly, Kiernan, Strachan, Adamson, Campbell, Stevenson, McGraw, Wilson.