Harkins (22 pen)
Morton gifted their supporters three points as an early Christmas present this afternoon after Gary Harkins’ first-half penalty saw them record a 1-0 win over Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Cappielow.
The victory was not only the Ton’s first over the Highland outfit for 17 years but pushed Jim Duffy’s side up to fourth and into the play-off places in the Ladbrokes Championship.
Harkins converted from the spot to net his fifth goal in seven matches, four of which have come from 12 yards, and score what is only the third goal Caley have conceded in 12 matches.
And on a day replete with significant statistics, Michael Tidser achieved a magnificent milestone by making his 200th appearance for the club over the course of his two spells after starting the encounter.
The midfielder was restored to the starting line-up as one of two changes forced upon manager Duffy with Ricki Lamie suspended due to an accumulation of bookings and Ross Forbes struggling with an inflammed knee.
This meant Mark Russell returning at left-back, Andy Murdoch shuffling over to the right side of midfield and Tidser slotting in beside Harkins in the engine room.
Elsewhere, Robert Thomson and Jai Quitongo swapped positions, with the former out left and the latter through the middle after playing in the opposite roles in the 2-0 loss to Dundee United a fortnight ago.
In the intervening period, the Ton saw their Ladbrokes Championship fixture at Livingston fall foul of the recent cold snap, causing the Tony Macaroni Arena playing surface to fail a pitch inspection.
But there was absolutely no sign of the Greenock men freezing after a week in cold storage as they came searing out of the blocks in scorching fashion.
With 10 minutes played, Carl Tremarco wrestled Quitongo to the ground with a maneouvre more suited to a WWE ring than a football pitch, presenting the hosts a free-kick in prime Harkins territory.
The dead-ball specialist got the ball up and over the wall from 20 yards, on the right side of the box, and kissed the top of the bar on the opposite side of the goal after dropping it over goalkeeper Mark Ridgers.
Although the Caley custodian was beaten all ends up by that attempt, he would produce a heroic performance between the sticks in the first half, beginning with a memorable double save in the 13th minute.
First, he did well to spring to his right and parry Quitongo’s side-footed shot after Murdoch had slipped the striker in down the inside-right channel with a clever pass, to which he cleverly used his body to ease in on goal.
The second stop was even better, Ridgers arching up to his top left to claw Thomson’s laser-beam precise rising drive away from the target.
Ridgers continued to keep his side in the game, thwarting Harkins as he attempted to score with another free-kick from an almost identical position from where he earlier hit the woodwork.
He took a completely different route to goal this time, though, curling a cheeky attempt around the wall inside the right post. Ridgers had edged the opposite way, but mananged to scramble back across to palm clear.
The former St Mirren shot-stopper then blocked from Quitongo at close range after he burst through the middle and tried to touch Thomson’s flick-on beyond the outrushing goalkeeper.
A bustling Thomson was proving too hot for Inverness to handle, and it was he who was hauled back by David Raven as he eased past the right-back on the left side of the box.
Raven was sent off for the foul and Harkins stepped up from 12 yards, stroking a cool penalty beyond Ridgers’ dive into the bottom-left corner, the outcome never in doubt.
The 32-year-old now has six goals for the season. Impressively, five of those have come in his last seven matches: four from the spot and the other a rebound after a penalty was saved at Falkirk.
It really was a sensational first-half performance from Morton, certainly their best 45 minutes of the season as they relentlessy tore through a defence that had kept 10 clean sheets in their last 11 outings.
Tidser was the next player to stretch Ridgers, hitting the target with a curled free-kick from 22 yards on the left – favouring a left footer due to the side – that the keeper clutched relatively comfortably at his top right.
And on the occasions that the man between the sticks was left helpless, the Highlanders enjoyed a huge slice of fortune, twice in quick succession in the 37th minute.
Forward Thomson saw a header from a Tidser inswinging corner cleared off the line by Liam Polworth before Murdoch then nodded towards the target only to see the ball deflect off Quitongo and skew wide.
Two minutes later, Ridgers produced the save of the match, plunging down to his left to prevent Thomson’s textbook downwards header from a Mark Russell delivery finishing inside the right post.
It meant that the Ton would go in the break with just a one-goal advantage to show for their almost total domination, illustrated by stats kindly provided by Opta’s resident statistician Graham Duncan.
Duffy’s men had not only enjoyed 60 per cent of possession, but registered eight shots on target from a total of 11 attempts compared to Caley’s paltry zero from three.
The second half was an altogether more even affair, with John Robertson’s side offering more in an offensive sence, albeit without ever really threatening to breach Derek Gaston’s goal.
Luca Gasparotto and Thomas O’Ware had fine outings at the back, with skipper O’Ware in particular excellent, displaying fine reading of the game and almost faultless positioning.
Although Morton’s defensive record might not be as immediately obvious as their opponents’ due to their recent run, there is a reason why only six clubs in Scottish senior football have conceded less goals so far this term.
And this shutout meant that despite not being able to add to Harkins’ penalty, almost exclusively because of Ridgers’ indomitable display, the Sinclair Street side recorded their first win over Inverness since 25 November 2000.
Of more immediate concern was the fact that maximum points meant everyone of a blue and white hooped persuasion exited Cappielow set up for a very merry Christmas.
6. Doyle 19. Gasparotto 4. O’Ware (c) 17. Russell
3. Murdoch 14. Harkins 12. Tidser 10. Thomson
Subs used: 15. Tiffoney (for Murdoch, 74), 9. Quitongo (for McHugh, 78), and 22. Armour (for Oliver, 85).
Subs not used: 21. Langan, 36. Hynes, 20. Doohan (gk).
Booked: Quitongo (75).
Inverness C.T. (4132): Ridgers; Raven, McKay, Donaldson, Tremarco; Vigurs (c); Mulraney (Trafford, 77), Polworth, Chalmers; Baird (Oakley, 69), Bell (Seedorf, 26).
Subs not used: Warren, Doran, Calder, Esson (gk).
Booked: Baird (15), Vigurs (57), Polworth (69).
Sent off: Raven (22).
Referee: Colin Steven
Images: David Bell