A win for Hibernian last night was supposed to mean that the race to the Premiership was all over bar the shouting but a spirited Morton team wanted their voices heard and Jim Duffy’s men grabbed a deserved draw.
Although not using hard arithmetic to make his assertion, Easter Road boss Neil Lennon believed three points would be enough. They scrapped hard for them, maybe too frenetically at times, but their opponents competed well, too.
But the biggest battle was reserved for the dying moments – a vicious brawl at the mouth of the tunnel involving nearly every player and dugout occupant. It began with a lunge by Morton’s Kudus Oyenuga on his fellow substitute Jordon Forster. Oyenuga was red-carded as was Hibs’ Darren McGregor but referee Nick Walsh wasn’t finished and sent off both managers.
Hibs, in reaching for the title, had to be mindful of a visit by Morton last season, and a three-nil defeat no one saw coming, which threw that promotion campaign off course. They also had to be aware that the Ton, despite losing players since, had improved from 12 months before thanks to the canny stewardship of Duffy, formerly of this parish.
And if Hibs could glimpse something tantalising up ahead, it was possible for Morton to treat themselves to a fanciful notion. If they were to beat the Hibees, see them lose at Dunfermline on Saturday, beat them again the following weekend and win their game in hand, then suddenly from ten points behind it would be Duffy’s men leading the league by two.
Unlikely? Lennon labelled this “the mother of all collapses”. Worse, such a scenario would mark the return of the dreaded “Hibsing it” curse, just when the Scottish Cup triumph suggested the club had got over their tendency to stride confidently towards the Oscars podium only to ruin the acceptance speech with a wardrobe malfunction.
Duffy had spoken of making the night an uncomfortable one for Hibs. “Let’s see if we can throw a spanner in the works,” he said. Hibs didn’t hang about, hitting the woodwork after just 40 seconds. Martin Boyle, on a mazy dribble where he might have known where he was headed, set up John McGinn and the Scotland midfielder’s 20-yard grasscutter scudded the left-hand upright.
But Morton settled down and their midfield four established a bright rhythm. Three corners were won in quick succession and twice Lennon was out of his seat to chastise Jason Cummings for cheap giveaways.
In the 13th minute the striker forced Hibs’ first corner but Boyle from a good position blasted over. Two more corners followed after Derek Gaston had blocked Cummings from a cute McGinn dink, the keeper producing an even smarter save to deny McGregor and then Grant Holt headed wide.
Hibs had wrested control of the game but had to be wary of Thomas O’Ware. The defender scored in last year’s game and lurked at set-pieces whenever Morton broke quickly, which was often. It was a fast, open game with the Greenock men – no stultifying banks-of-four for them – looking the best bet for runners-up if Hibs are to be champs and Michael Tidser should have done better than fire over the bar after Aidan’s Nesbitt’s pace had sprung the offside trap.
But his strike was no more ugly than Hibs’ final effort of the first half. Not much was working for Holt and Cummings – the former clattering about to little effect, the latter not making much stick – but then they combined. The ball sat up nicely for Holt only for him to sclaff his shot.
Hibs began the second half at a rocketing pace. Too fast for Lennon, who told them to calm down. They still had to watch for Gary Oliver’s electric bursts but Boyle, no slouch, was zipping around in search of a killer final ball. On the hour Gaston came to the edge of the box to avert the danger and seemed to catch the ball on the wrong side of it.
But Morton were far from out of it. Twice McGinn was outmuscled by Oliver in the middle of the park. That doesn’t happen very often and from one surge a deflection was needed to take the sting out of an Andy Murdoch shot.
Lennon sent on Brian Graham for the flagging Holt and the lanky striker came closest to breaking the deadlock. Lewis Stevenson slung over a cross from the left and his looping header drifted just past the far post.