THE Irn-Bru First Division title race promises to be a fight to the finish.
More than 5000 fans gathered at Cappielow on Saturday to evoke the kind of old-time atmosphere in which even battle-hardened veterans lose their heads, as witnessed by the late dismissal of Partick Thistle's Hugh Murray.
However, it was a half-time rammy in the home dressing room which provided the impetus for Morton's second-half resurgence, which kept them eight points clear of their closest challengers, albeit having played three games more. Morton had not been all bad in the first half but a difference of opinion between Kevin Rutkiewicz and Michael Tidser in the dressing room turned into a screaming match until manager Allan Moore stepped in.
Although Steven Craig doubled Thistle's advantage immediately after the restart following Chris Erskine's smart opener, the exchange of words – combined with the half-time arrival of Martin Hardie – may have been the moment which turned the match.
Peter MacDonald gave Morton a lifeline with a blistering free-kick, and held his nerve to level matters from the spot after Murray had used an arm to stop an effort from Tidser, a moment Rutkiewicz marked by giving his adversary a bear hug.
"I have been in dressing rooms like that before and it is not a bad thing, there was certainly nothing malicious or vicious," said Rutkiewicz. "It was just words, that was it – a wee moan at each other. It lasted all of two seconds. We had a wee shouting match, then the head honcho came in and told us to sit on our backsides.
"Tids was trying to get us up the park and I was saying it was too easy possession – if it is easy possession then we can't squeeze the game. It escalated because of the pressure. We will have a wee laugh about it but sometimes that is what it takes to get everybody going and get some nervous energy out."
The status quo at the top of the division left everyone putting their own spin on the outcome. While Moore claimed his team had acquired a psychological edge, Alan Archibald, Partick's new manager, correctly pointed out that his team still have matters in their own hands, with one further meeting between these two scheduled for Glasgow in April. The picture will become clearer in the next few days, when Partick play the first of their rescheduled games against Hamilton Academical, and Morton face a Dunfermline Athletic side desperate to stay in the hunt.
The sense of celebration may have been ultimately stolen from them, but Saturday also provided a clear signal that Partick's fans and players are unified in their support of Archibald. The caretaker, who left himself out of his first team due to the difficulties of combining training and management, was embraced by the excellent Chris Erskine when he notched the eighth-minute opener following good play down the left by Aaron Sinclair.
"I think that it is clear for everybody to see that the Partick dressing room is right behind Alan Archibald," said Erskine, a threat all day with his unorthodox brand of angular forward play and who could well have made the game safe at 3-1 when his header went right at Derek Gaston, the Morton goalkeeper. "The players believe that Archie will go on to become a great coach and a great manager. We just wanted to show Archie that we are all behind him and that's why we all made a bee-line for him after the opening goal."
The ultimate destination of the title is not even close to being settled yet, but Erskine epitomised the feeling of a missed opportunity in the visitors' ranks afterwards. Neither was there much in the way of complaints about the penalty award or the late dismissal of Murray, compounding a trait of poor discipline away from home which Archibald said was "killing his side".
"I think we have to say that it is two points dropped," Erskine said. "The way the game ended for us feels like a defeat. Although a point at Cappielow is not a bad result we feel a bit disappointed. I had a chance with a header to make it 3-1 and if I had scored that we would probably have gone on to win."