Ross County’s Highland home contains plenty of photographic evidence that the Staggies had beaten Celtic at Hampden once before.
Manager Jim McIntyre urged his players to “make their own memories” in this League Cup semi-final and they duly did, ending all talk of the treble for Ronny Deila’s men.
The cup holders had to play for 77 minutes with ten men after Efe Ambrose was sent off but this shouldn’t be allowed to detract from a stirring show by the Staggies, who had heroes performing all over the park and it is they who will meet Hibernian in the final on
Deila had once again been unimpressed by the state of the pitch at the national stadium. He criticised its condition at the same stage of the same competition last year, when Hampden was still getting back to being a football arena after 2014’s Commonwealth Games. “Could be better” was the verdict this time, but that was a decree Hoops fans would have quickly delivered on the club’s recent record in Mount Florida.
Inverness Caley Thistle, Hearts, St Mirren and Kilmarnock had all beaten Celtic at Hampden in recent seasons, with County, of course, showing the way in the 2010 Scottish Cup semi-final.
“Anyone can win this cup,” McIntyre had said and for this tie he gave a start to Paul Quinn, back with the Staggies after a spell at Aberdeen when he had scored the winner against Celtic in the league.
Deila had also criticised the Hampden atmosphere. “Could be better,” was again the verdict, but crowds need something to cheer. Well, this time his players produced almost straight from kick-off. Callum McGregor’s through ball sprang Leigh Griffiths, who ran in on Scott Fox and unselfishly squared for Gary Mackay-Steven to score.
It was a terrible start for County and it almost got worse, Richard Foster having to clear a goalbound Ambrose header off the line. An Alex Schalk shot requiring a save by Craig Gordon was a decent response, though, and the same player would be involved in the big drama which led to County’s equaliser in the 13th minute.
It was another moment to forget for the accident-prone Ambrose. A Martin Woods through ball was helped into the box by a flick from Jackson Irvine and Schalk was too nippy for the defender whose contact with him was slight but referee Craig Thomson had no hesitation producing the red card. Woods sent Gordon the wrong way with the spot-kick.
Celtic had to re-shuffle, bringing on Erik Sviatchenko for his debut. Callum McGregor was sacrificed to make way for the Dane and County would have been relieved to see the back of the young midfielder as he had been bright and dangerous even over the course of such a short space of time.
It was going to be a long stretch – and on a criticisable pitch which was cutting up all the time in the incessant rain – to have to play with ten men but Celtic coped well enough for 20 minutes until a squirted shot by Woods forced Gordon into a save. Then they had a chance themselves when Fox dived to punch away a corner but the ball didn’t travel very far at all. In the stramash the keeper took a dunt on the head from Sviatchenko but
After the break it was County’s turn to make an electric start. A slick move down the right forced Dedryck Boyata to concede a corner. Michael Gardyne’s delivery to the far post was nodded back inside by Andrew Davies and Quinn had a straightforward job to score with his head.
The towering Irvine, who was five years at Celtic when he came over from Australia, but only managed 45 minutes of game-time, was becoming increasingly influential for County and he was involved in the move which produced their third goal. Woods, who was just as prominent with surges of his own, broke through the middle and fed Schalk, who beat Gordon with a thumping left-foot finish.
Celtic had a great chance to get back into the tie when, trying to clear a corner, substitute Brian Graham went for the ball with both head and arm. Thomson adjudged him to have handled, but Griffiths elected to hammer the penalty straight down the middle and Fox, already committed to a dive, saved with his feet.
Irvine could have added to County’s lead as their fans smelled a famous victory,
with Gordon required to scramble his shot away, before Griffiths had another opportunity to set up a big finish. Fox, falling backwards, once again got a foot to the effort and the ball spun high over the bar.
Deila claimed before the match that not all Celtic fans had been expecting a treble. These discerning types, he said, did not view the world in such a black-and-white way, rather in more realistic shades of grey. But there was nothing vague about the booing for his team at the end as County ran towards their jubilant fans to celebrate.