PARTICK Thistle took a giant stride towards playing in the top flight with a hard-fought win against their closest rivals at a packed Firhill last night.
Scorer: Thistle - Craigen 41
Referee: B Colvin
The Jags went into this potential league decider with more than a little doubt over their title credentials following Sunday’s heart-breaking Ramsdens Cup final defeat by Queen of the South.
Moreover, they had failed to beat Morton in the previous three encounters this season. However, Thistle dug deep both mentally and physically to move five points clear of the Greenock side, having played one game fewer.
Surely only a monumental collapse will now see recently appointed manager Alan Archibald and his players fail to take their place among the elite of Scottish football. A massive 8,857 crowd packed Firhill to capacity causing the kick-off to be delayed by 17 minutes, with hundreds of the huge Thistle support forced to move from the Jackie Husband stand and march around the trackside to the north stand, which also filled up rapidly, while Morton completely sold out the old main stand, the first time it had been opened since Celtic came visiting in a pre-season friendly two years ago. Despite the efforts to house the hordes, hundreds were still locked out.
The atmosphere was electric and befitting a game which had the First Divison title and a place in the SPL more than likely for the winners. Thistle were without defender Aaron Muirhead, beginning a two-match ban following his head butt on Chris Higgins in the Ramsden’s Cup final. They were also without their injured skipper Paul Paton and veteran Hugh Murray. In came Andy Dowie for his debut after being sacked by crisis-hit Dunfermline. Morton, buoyant after knocking five past Airdrie on Saturday, had former Thistle favourite Martin Hardie back after suspension, who was fortunate not to see yellow after a crunching tackle on Aaron Sinclair after even minutes.
The tone was set. Nerves were aplenty and the tension was high from the offset and it showed with too many misplaced passes early on and little constructive football until 16 minutes had elapsed when Peter MacDonald linked with David O’Brien, but his low 16 yard-drive was easily dealt with by Thistle goalkeeper Scott Fox.
Morton gradually became the more creative and in 27 minutes Fouad Bachirou turned brilliantly from midfield, darted forward, but his 25-yard effort went just wide of Fox’s right hand post.
Thistle had to wait 32 minutes for any semblance of an opportunity and it was created out of nothing. Sinclair picked up a loose ball on the left. He tried to cross to the back post but instead drifted just over the crossbar with Morton goalkeeper Derek Gaston looking anxious.
One minute later, Sinclair was successful in effecting a cross which striker Kris Doolan, with seven goals in his last seven games, got his head to, but couldn’t direct it past Gaston. The noise was deafening when Thistle broke the deadlock in 41 minutes. Chris Erskine fired over low cross from the left which Doolan completely missed, but the ball fell perfectly for James Craigen who dispatched a 12-yard angled drive beyond Gaston, for only his second goal of the season.
Morton threw everything at Thistle in the second half, playing three up front, with Archie Campbell coming on. However, it was the home side who remained composed and the more direct.
Sean Welsh emerged as a colossus, putting in a series of crunching tackles in midfield and then showing an attacking side to his game with a thundering 25-yard shot that went just wide of Gaston’s left-hand post.
It would probably have been no more than Thistle deserved had the ball found its way into the net. For all their endeavour, Morton failed to get a single shot on target throughout the second forty-five and, even though they had beaten their rivals twice and drawn once in the previous three league meetings, they rarely looked like maintaining that proud record. There were a few flurries from either side as the second half wore on but few genuine scoring chances in a game which was frankly disappointing.
However, as full-time approached, a crescendo of noise built among the home fans who appear utterly convinced that theirs is an SPL side in waiting.
Partick Thistle: Fox; O’Donnell, Sinclair, Bannigan, Dowie, Balatoni, Welsh, Craigen, Doolan, Forbes (Lawless 70), Erskine (Elliot 81). Subs not used: Daniels, Craig, Archibald.
Morton: Gaston; Reid, O’Ware, Bachirou, Rutkiewicz, McLaughlin (Wilkie 75), McMenamin (Campbell 68), Tidser, MacDonald, Hardie, O’Brien. Subs not used: Taggart, Graham, Hutton.