History is unkind to the losers, and never more so than in league football. The…
In 2012/13, the First Division was entering its final season before it would add promotion playoffs and rebranded itself as the Scottish Championship the following campaign. There was only one way to gain promotion to the top flight: by winning the league. Falkirk, Livingston and Hamilton Accies were amongst the favourites to win the title before the season kicked off but the title race ultimately consisted of two unlikely challengers: Partick Thistle and Greenock Morton.
The two sides had featured in the 2011/12 First Division but neither made much of an impression, with Thistle finishing in sixth place and Morton concluding the season in eighth. For both clubs it was an unexpected chance to win the league and seal promotion to the top flight for the first time in years – a rare opportunity that had to be seized.
Historically, both sides have enjoyed decent spells in the top flight but more recently had been spending the majority of their time in the second tier, with the occasional season in the Second Division. For clubs like Morton and Thistle, chances to win promotion to Scottish football’s top table don’t come around very often so when it became clear that the league was a two-horse race, both sets of fans dared to dream of what could be.
Partick Thistle came flying out of the blocks, winning their first six fixtures, and Morton were left playing catch up. The two sides jockeyed for supremacy at the top of the table but neither could ever pull away decisively from the other. Going into the final stretch of the season, the two teams met at Firhill for their last head-to-head of the season on the 10th of April 2013. Morton were two points behind Thistle in the league with give games to go, although Alan Archibald’s side had a game in hand over their opponents. For Morton, their mission was clear: win, and keep their promotion dream alive and finish the match top of the table.
The crowd of 8,875 was one of the largest recorded in Scotland outside of the top division at the time and a tense and exciting match eventually finished 1-0 to Partick Thistle, thanks to James Craigan’s first half goal. Partick Thistle moved five points clear and strolled to the title; Morton capitulated, finishing eleven points behind them in second place. Thistle would go on to play in five consecutive seasons in the newly established Scottish Premiership and just a year later, Morton would be relegated to League One.
Ultimately, it all came down to that Wednesday night in Glasgow’s West End. The shift in fortunes for the two clubs that were previously equatable was dramatic and had the result gone the other way, things would look very different for each side. So, let’s ask ourselves: what if Morton had won that night?
Going into the last few games of the season, Morton would be setting the pace as opposed to doing the chasing had they won. Sure, Thistle had a game in hand but it would count for little and the squad’s confidence likely would have been rattled by such a defeat – after all, this is what happened to Morton in reality. Both sets of fans agree that whoever won that match would almost certainly have went on to lift the title so for starters, Greenock Morton would be back in the top flight for the first time since the 1997-88 season.
Once promotion was secured, the next question to ask is whether or not Morton would survive in the Premiership. Initially, it seems, the Greenock side almost certainly would have. The team already had players like Kevin Rutkiewicz, David Graham and Colin McMenamin with experience in the SPL and it seems fair to assume that other experienced players would join over the summer as the club prepared for the forthcoming season.
Perhaps more pertinently, however, were events going on in the capital. Hearts would enter administration in June 2013 and began the season with a weakened squad and a fifteen point deduction, all but guaranteeing that they would finish last in the automatic relegation position. Hibernian were undergoing an implosion of their own and were ultimately relegated via the playoffs. So long as Morton weren’t disastrous, a second season of Premiership football would be very probable.
From here on it’s difficult to say how long Morton could have realistically stayed in the top flight, but history suggests that their stay would have probably been a significant one. Relegation would probably be inevitable, given the size of the club, but plenty of Scotland’s smaller sides have thrived in the Premiership when given the opportunity. Since 2007/08, the mean number of consecutive seasons a promoted side spends in the top division is 4.07, meaning that any promoted club spends an average of four or five seasons before being relegated again. There’s no reason to think that Morton would be the exception to that rule.
You could argue that Hearts, Hibs and Rangers are special cases and that it was always unlikely that they would be relegated once promotion was achieved, but these clubs aren’t the outliers in this regard. St Johnstone, for instance, are now enjoying their tenth consecutive season in the Premiership. Inverness lasted seven years, and Hamilton and Dundee are competing in the top flight for the fifth campaign in a row. Generally speaking, when clubs are promoted to the top tier, they stay there.
There’s no reason to think Morton couldn’t follow the example of Ross County, for instance, and establish themselves for a few seasons in the Premiership. There are, of course, some teams that have failed to last in the Premiership – Gretna, Dunfermline and Dundee have all been immediately relegated after one solitary season of top flight football in recent years – but in each of these instances they failed to fight off relegation in the first instance. Providing Hibs don’t get relegated this season, the recent historical data suggests that if you can survive your first season in the Premiership, then you’ll probably get at least another two season before you can expect to get relegated. So long as Morton were run better than Hearts or Hibs were during 2013/14 – which is hardly inconceivable – safety would be achieved, and a decent stay in the Premiership could be expected.
Relegation would almost certainly happen eventually but when it did, Morton would be far better prepared for life in the Championship. Partick Thistle are in a much healthier financial state than they were when they were last in the second tier – even discounting the contributions from their millionaire benefactors, the Weirs – and Ross County are the bookies’ favourites to win the Championship this season. There are probably about seven or eight teams between the Premiership and the Championship that regularly swap between the divisions and for now, it’s hard to argue that Morton are one of them. But with a few Premiership seasons under their belts and the improved squad and finances that that longevity brings, it’s likely that the Greenock side would become part of that group. The club competed in League One during 2014/15 but if only they’d managed to win that night at Firhill, Morton could conceivably be in the Premiership today.