Gary Oliver: I've come on a ton since leaving Hearts
Pushing Morton towards a fairytale promotion to the Ladbrokes Premiership leaves young Gary Oliver a little reluctant to speak out. He is understandably frightened that too much talk of top-flight ambitions will jinx what has hitherto been an incredible season in Inverclyde.
What he happily explains in detail is how he reached the cusp of a potentially historic achievement at Cappielow. Leaving Hearts two years ago injected his career with the fillip it needed. The 21-year-old believes he has improved tenfold as a player because he now enjoys regular first-team football every week, rather than the “kid-on” under-20 environment.
His words are no slur on Hearts specifically. Oliver remains grateful for his grounding within the Riccarton youth academy and the facilities available there. However, there comes a time in every young kid’s development when he must step into the man’s world to progress. Oliver reached that point two years ago and took the bold decision to join Queen of the South.
That and the subsequent move to Greenock to join his uncle, Jim Duffy, has been the making of him as a player.
“The best thing I did for my career was leave Hearts. I love Hearts, they’re a great club with great facilities. To push my career on I had to move club,” he told the Evening News in an exclusive interview. “I feel I’m ten times better a player now and I’ve learned so much. I’ve been enjoying playing first-team football every week. It’s just so much better.
“Any young boys who are hanging around clubs at 19 or 20, and aren’t playing regularly, I think they need to get out and play. Hearts is obviously a good club, it’s great to say, ‘I play for Hearts.’ Sometimes you need to drop down a level and it’s the best thing I’ve done.
“Under-20s is kid-on football compared to first-team. You can play under-20s all you like. I played at that level for three or four years and you just don’t learn much. You go into a first team and it’s a totally different ball game. People are fighting for win bonuses, three points, moves or whatever. I’m enjoying it so much.”
Not least because of the position Morton have muscled their way into. They are currently third in the Championship table, four points ahead of Dundee United and level with second-placed Falkirk on 48. Intriguingly, Oliver and his colleagues have two games in hand on Falkirk and one on league leaders Hibs, who are seven points better off. Morton have still to play the Easter Road club twice before the season ends.
A play-off place is all but guaranteed given fifth-placed Queen of the South are 13 points behind Morton. Naturally, thoughts of automatic promotion are beginning to creep in, and that’s when it gets edgy. Morton haven’t graced Scottish football’s top flight for almost three decades. “A few of the boys have been saying it. ‘Imagine we won the league.’ You can never tell because this season has been a fairytale so far with the number of games we’ve won. We might just be lucky enough to nick it,” said Oliver.
“Everything can change in a week, though, so we just need to secure the play-offs first. That’s the main thing. That would be an achievement for us. To win the league would be amazing. I couldn’t really explain that feeling.
“We’ve got two games in hand on Falkirk and Hibs are seven points in front of us. We’ve still to play Hibs twice. It’s been a strange season. If you told us at the start of the season we’d come this far, all the boys would have bitten the hand off you. We’ve been grinding out great results, a few one-nils and a few draws.
“It’s a young squad, everybody’s fit and we’re good athletes. We have a good manager who is helping us become better players. I think we’ve got all the ingredients. All the boys are close, which you’ve probably heard about.
“You don’t want to jinx it, though. I don’t think there’s much difference in standard between the teams in this league. Maybe Hibs are slightly better but they’re not miles away from everyone else. It’s not like we can’t beat them or can’t get a result there. We’ll give Hibs a hard game. We’ve got two games against them before the season ends.”
It is still too soon to get carried away, however difficult that is. “I think it’s a bit too early. There are nine games left so we just need to keep being consistent. That’s one thing we have been this year is really consistent and that’s brought us to the stage we’re at just now.
“I don’t want to say anything too soon in case I jinx it or things don’t go to plan.”
Urging Morton on is a healthy support base from Port Glasgow, through Greenock and Gourock and down the Inverclyde coast.
“At the start of the season we had a few bad results and I think the fans were a bit down at that time. They got behind us, though, and they’ve supported us really well,” said Oliver. “They took thousands of fans to Hampden for the League Cup semi-final against Aberdeen. That’s fantastic for a club of Greenock Morton’s size. The supporters have been great for me, I’ve had some nice messages from them, so I’m delighted with that.”
Imagine the messages if he slays Hibs twice before the season ends? Come to that, there would be a few congratulations from Tynecastle as well.
“I don’t really look at it that way. I’m just concentrating on Morton now,” said Oliver with utmost diplomacy. “I want to do as well as I can in every game, whether it’s against Hibs or whoever. I’ll play my game and work hard. I’ve got another year here because I signed a two-year deal at the start of the season.”
Might he spend the second year of that agreement with Morton in the Premiership? Stranger things have happened.