THERE was no trophy today, no tickertape nor party hats, just a quick post-match photograph and a lap of honour, which is probably just as well, for the performance that preceded the so-called festivities was not in keeping with Celtic’s season.
SCORERS: Celtic - Commons 35; Ross County - De Leeuw 16
Denied the opportunity to celebrate properly at Firhill last week, the newly-crowned champions and their supporters gathered for a show of mutual appreciation at full-time, when around half of the crowd stayed behind to mark what has been a thoroughly dominant league campaign.
Heaven knows, the acclaim was not for Celtic’s insipid and remarkably cheerless display here.
Careless, even carefree at times, they fell behind to an early goal by Melvin de Leeuw, equalised through Kris Commons and struggled thereafter to turn their possession into clear-cut chances.
“We were a wee bit flat, but I totally understand that,” said Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager. “The game was probably an aside to the celebrations. We have done no preparation work for this game at all and you could probably see that in the way we played. I’m not angry or disappointed or anything. We will play better between now and the end of season, that’s for sure.”
By that time, the trophy will have been presented, and Lennon hopes to have equalled the record 103-point total set by Martin O’Neill’s team in 2002. To do that, his players must win each of their six remaining games. It will not be easy, especially if Lennon carries out his plan to experiment. “We might change the shape of the team,” said the manager. “I want a bit more vibrancy in the next six games.”
County have rather more to play for but, if they continue in this vein, they will surely avoid relegation. While the point keeps them three ahead of second-bottom St Mirren, Graham Carey almost stole them a victory with a late 25-yard shot that cannoned off the post.
“I thought we were better than Celtic today,” said Derek Adams, the County manager, who adopted an adventurous diamond formation. “I’m disappointed we’re not going away with three points. We controlled large aspects of the game, passed the ball well and created openings.”
County had welcomed Celtic on to the pitch with a guard of honour, just as they had on the opening day of the season, but they could not be accused of showing their opponents too much respect. No sooner had the home support stood up for the champions than the visitors were putting themselves about, particularly in the gap between midfield and attack, where Carey, who started his career with Celtic, had the freedom to roam.
Carey warned them of his intent by pouncing on an early midfield lapse and briefly unsettling the Celtic defence. A few minutes later, when Scott Brown hesitated in the same area, the County player intervened more effectively. After skipping away from his marker, he laid the ball left to De Leeuw, whose low shot skidded back across the goalkeeper and into the net.
“Ooh to, ooh to be, ooh to be a Staggie” was the distant chant away in the corner. De Leeuw, a Dutchman signed at the start of this season, certainly seems to be enjoying life in the Highlands. That was his eight goal of the season, and he nearly made it nine when he spun to hook a Carey corner over the crossbar.
All of which was not how young Eoghan O’Connell had planned it. The centre-half – cousin of Paul O’Connell, the Ireland rugby captain – was making his competitive debut for Celtic alongside Virgil van Dijk, a change that forced Efe Ambrose to play at right-back. With Liam Henderson keeping his place in midfield, this meaningless end to Celtic’s season is clearly an opportunity for their young players.
Here, they were confronted by a sticky situation, which required their established players to step up. Just when the pressure was mounting, Leigh Griffiths obliged with an awkward shot that bounced in front of the goalkeeper. When Mark Brown could only parry, Commons followed up to convert.
Griffiths was the likeliest source of a Celtic goal, as he demonstrated after an angled pass by Commons. The striker stepped inside his marker and turned a shot goalwards with his weaker foot, but it was deflected over the crossbar.
Early in the second half, Celtic attacked with more purpose, most notably when Henderson headed Stefan Johansen’s deep cross off the outside of a post, but it wasn’t long before the match returned to its former pattern. Celtic had most of the ball, but there was no edge to their play, or indeed the atmosphere. Goodness knows what the celebrations would have been like had Carey’s late effort gone in.