The tension hung in the air. It was like the classic moment in every corny Western when the stranger moseys into the saloon bar and piano-man stops playing and the bartender stops pouring and the good-time gal stops draping her bosoms over the poker table. We thought: it’s all going to kick off again.
Every time the ball was there to be won, every time one of those painted as a bad guy from the previous instalment lumbered into view. Even before the game kicked off you could feel it, with the names of Scott Brown, Virgil van Dijk and Aidan Connolly being roundly booed as the teams were announced.
It was hard yesterday not to think of Celtic and Dundee United as being like the grumblesome, grudgeful inhabitants of rival Wild West towns who can’t help but gather on some dusty, parched ground for a shootout. They’d squared up the previous Sunday and won’t be able to avoid each other right through this week.
After that Scottish Cup quarter-final, the jails were full and the Celtic critters and the United varmints were made to sleep it off while the county sheriff tried to make sense of the charge-sheet. Simulation? Kicks to the head? Tackles to frighten the horses? Eventually he lined them up and declared: “Everyone gets off with everything.” The decision surprised many but it was like one of those old amnesties popular in cowboy times. By giving the pesky teams another chance, so the reasoning went, maybe there would be a realisation that, when they’re locked in dispute like this, keeping the head and keeping all their players on the pitch could bring them some reward.
There was a fair bit of peace and harmony at the start. When the United end burst into applause in memory of the late Frank Kopel in the third minute – the Tangerine stalwart was No 3 – the Celtic stands joined in. And we actually had to wait quite a while for the first foul, Nir Bitton being the offender.
Paul Paton, wrongfully and ridiculously sent off the previous week, must surely have thought about turning up at Hampden with an electronic tag round his ankle and handing referee Bobby Madden the monitor-box to avoid any more cases of mistaken identity. Or maybe a ten-gallon stetson would have made him nice and conspicuous. The Tangerines’ midfielder was far from prominent in the opening exchanges, but then no one else was either.
Some were amazed that Brown was free to play. Many were shocked when, two days before the final, he turned up on newspaper front pages, slumped in the street, tired and emotional after a reported lapdance-and-pizza bender. The United fans continued to boo him, but the Celtic hordes – who can be puritanical about the conduct expected of players who wear the hoops, not least their captain – retorted with chants of “Broony, Broony”.
One of those involved in the Tannadice rumbustiousness couldn’t play yesterday, despite Nadir Ciftci getting off with a two-game ban on the very Scottish ruling of “not Davie Provan”. It was an earlier ban which did for the Turkish striker and United fans must have wondered where their goals were going to come from. Mario Bilate didn’t look like he was going to pose anything like the same threat, but, to be fair, opportunities were few and far between for him.
The sub-plot of this relentless cowpoke epic features Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong, formerly of a town called Arab, who moved to Celtic amid much sulking and resentment up on Tayside. They couldn’t turn out for their new club yesterday and reports earlier in the day claimed they were still too emotionally attached to United to be in the stands, and that Ronny Deila was relaxed about them staying away. But, just before kick-off they were spotted in the bowels of Hampden in their Celtic blazers.
In the game’s pallid early stages, United could have done with them on the pitch, but then so could Celtic until Kris Commons, after blazing two shots high and wide, gave them the lead.
Just before then, one of the protagonists from last week had finally made a mark on this match, Van Dijk also making a mark on Sean Dillon’s shin. The United captain had to go off for treatment, Commons capitalising on his absence. Then Brown got involved, surviving a penalty claim for a dunt into the back of Ryan Dow as the midfielder hurtled past him.
The Celtic skipper followed this by being fouled by Ryan McGowan, who was booked, and, in TV re-runs, the Aussie seemed to mutter something to the ref about “last week”.
Dillon returned to the action, only to depart for good on a red card early in the second half for a studs-up lunge on Emilio Izaguirre, which seemed to belong to “last week” and not this much less eventful affair.
At that point, the game might have boiled over when a Paton tackle left Efe Ambrose slumped on the turf, but it quickly quietened down again, with Celtic concentrating on trying to run United out of town – or least the final; they won’t get rid of them that easily – but being wasteful in front of goal. This didn’t seem to matter as United were unable to get back into the contest.
If this western had an imposing, ruthless Jack Palance-type character, then it was probably Van Dijk, who wouldn’t let a United man go past him and, on the rare occasion that one did, his incredible athleticism always enabled him to retrieve the situation and emerge striding with the ball, a fairly imperious sight.
In contrast, Brown stuck to his duties and didn’t draw attention to himself. The Celtic fans drew attention to him when the penalty was awarded. “Broony, Broony,” they shouted, urging him to step up for the spot-kick, but he declined. Well, 2-0 was sufficient. A man should know when he’s had his fill and it’s time to head for home for bed.
Not for long, though. The third and hopefully more gripping episode comes around on Wednesday. Yee, as cowboys liked to say, ha.
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