Football / Fan's Eye View: The day the sheep perished: N0. 46 Morton

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The Independent Online
MORTON Football Club of Greenock on the Clyde: these words may one day head a sparse and diffident chapter of 'Scottish Football - The Collected Works'. Sandwiched perhaps between 'The Argentina Debacle' and 'Tips on Goalkeeping', it will feature few of the rich, talismanic images from which legend has evolved: Stein, Shankly, the Lisbon Lions, Wembley Weekends, Dalglish, Baxter, the Hampden Roar.

Cappielow Park, amid the shipyard cranes of Clydeside, is in every sense remote from such lustre. Rather, our modest contribution will recall the great goalkeeper, Jimmy Cowan, whose 25 Scotland appearances make him - by a street - Morton's most capped performer. Sadly, Cowan remains the club's last capped player despite having plied his trade in roll-neck sweater and cloth cap.

Celebrated, too, should be Morton's musical devotee of the Fifties and Sixties, 'The Cappielow Bugler'. To his clarion call an inspired 'Ton would push forward in numbers. Melancholy cadences lamented the loss of goals or matches.

Worthy of inclusion is surely the tale of a sheep which, between the wars, grazed happily on the pitch. Unflagging must have been her efforts on behalf of the groundstaff for Saturdays brought the reward of a blue rosette and the accolade of Matchday Mascot. These ceremonial duties she observed with rectitude for many years until an arresting event occurred.

Morton won, and in spectacular fashion. Quite how the victory celebrations unfolded remains shrouded in mystery but the ill-starred creature perished that night in the players' bath. To this day, the schoolboys of Greenock do not readily volunteer for mascot duties.

These tales will comprise the chapter devoted to Greenock Morton I should like to read one day, being personally acquainted with only the last 20 years or so.

In 1975, Scottish League football, customarily organised in two divisions, further subdivided into three - Premier, First and Second. Since then, more League flags have flown over Cappielow Park than at any other venue outside Glasgow. In the decade from 1977, Morton bobbed giddily twixt Premier and First divisions, capturing in the process no fewer than three of the latter titles.

Yet only the perspicaciously challenged were failing to recognise the emergence of a disheartening pattern. Promotion drives were becoming successively more laboured and workmanlike, the falls from grace swifter, more painful, more inevitable. Six seasons have elapsed since Premier status was lost. Crowds in excess of 5,000 are now a rarity and must, of necessity, comprise a sizeable visiting contingent. Often of late, springtime fixtures have been drearily inconsequential.

Yet for all this, the picture could be a deal bleaker. Morton are widely regarded as Scotland's premier nursery club with a youth policy the envy of most. The stream of talented young players now passing through the team betrays no sign of abating. Inevitably, however, their departures are hailed more loudly at the bank than on the terraces.

In the manager, Allan McGraw, the fans distinguish a kindred spirit, a man whose affection for, and loyalty to, his club, contrast starkly with the rapaciousness of his chosen profession.

Thus far, McGraw's tilt at management compares unfavourably with his goalscoring feats of yesteryear - 58 in 1963-64 - yet endorsement of him is widespread, dissent uncommon and isolated.

Quite unexpectedly, Morton have developed a fondness for knockout competition. A 3-0 drubbing at Arbroath in January was the more disappointing for its interruption of an extended run of thrilling cup-tie adventures. Morton have been regular quarter-finalists in recent years, with excitement at fever pitch and big crowds embarking for venues such as Celtic, Aberdeen and Motherwell.

The demotion in 1991 of our county rivals, St Mirren, heralded the return of a derby fixture whose capacity to arouse fevered partisanship appears to have lost nothing for the drop in grade.

Plans are afoot for ground improvement and signs are that the club is becoming more adroit in its self-projection. Resplendent were the Japanese tourists recently spotted in Glasgow sporting the 'all new' tartan strips. If being able to contact the chairman first time by telephone is undeniably parochial, it is also pleasingly personalised.