THE sense that Ronny Deila’s departure as manager will merely begin scratching the surface of Celtic’s current problems gathered fresh evidence with another dismal display from the Scottish champions.
Deila’s long goodbye remains almost certain to end with the capture of another Premiership crown but seldom can any team have made their way towards the finishing line of a title race in such underwhelming fashion.
A week on from the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Rangers, the response from Celtic was weak to the point of timidity as they were held at home by Ross County.
Leigh Griffiths’ 38th goal of the season was countered by a stunning strike from Stewart Murdoch which earned Jim McIntyre’s League Cup winners a fully merited draw.
Now nine points clear of Aberdeen at the top of the table with just four games remaining, it is surely still a case of when and not if they wrap up a fifth consecutive title. But that is unlikely to diminish the discontent and concern being expressed by their support over the club’s direction on and off the pitch.
If the midweek announcement of Deila’s pending departure had taken the sting out of any potential display of ill feeling from the Celtic fans towards the Norwegian, it certainly did not spare the club’s board from their ire.
Shortly before kick-off, banners unfurled at either end of the ground made especially uncomfortable reading for chief executive Peter Lawwell.
Even a mis-spelling of his name could not lessen the clear message of discontent which also took aim at Celtic’s major shareholder Dermot Desmond.
‘Lawell and Desmond’s Legacy - Empty Jerseys, Empty Hearts, Empty Dreams, Empty Stands’ proclaimed a display in the Lisbon Lions Stand, while in the Jock Stein Stand there was a damning assessment which referenced a famous quote from the club’s greatest ever manager, stating ‘From Boardroom to Dressing Room, You’ve Embarrassed Yourselves, The Celtic Jersey Has Shrunk to Fit Inferior Players’.
That rancour was not translated into a vocal form of protest. Instead, there was a curiously subdued atmosphere in the ground with the Green Brigade section maintaining a conspicuous silence.
Against this unusual backdrop for a team so close to clinching a league title, Celtic often appeared laboured and uncertain in a performance which scaled few heights.
Griffiths, one man who can be absolved of any responsibility for the failings of Deila’s team this season, tried to lift the mood in the opening exchanges with a left foot shot from 20 yards which dipped just over.
It was no surprise that Griffiths broke the deadlock in the 23rd minute, although it did raise a few eyebrows that he did so with his less favoured right foot.
Collecting a pass from Colin Kazim-Richards just outside the penalty area, Griffiths could not have struck the ball any better with his deadlier left peg as he directed a rising shot beyond Scott Fox’s left hand into the top corner.
There then appeared to be an element of angry frustration in Griffiths’ celebration as he collected the ball from the net and booted it into the section of the ground housing the Green Brigade.
As Celtic tried to build some momentum on the back of the goal, Tom Rogic drove a shot from distance straight at Fox and then passed up a clearer opportunity when he miscued wide from close range after being picked out by a Patrick Roberts cross.
County grew in confidence and ambition towards half-time and should have equalised in the 42nd minute. Liam Boyce found himself unmarked just six yards out as he rose to meet a Jonathan Franks cross but County’s top scorer tamely sent his header straight at Craig Gordon.
The visitors missed another inviting chance at the start of the second half when Michael Gardyne ought to have done better than blaze a left foot shot over from around eight yards.
Although Griffiths and Roberts both forced saves from Fox at the other end, the warning signs were clear that Celtic’s lead was increasingly vulnerable. It was duly cancelled out by Murdoch’s thunderous 64th minute strike which beat Gordon from around 30 yards. The Celtic ‘keeper felt his view had been impeded by a County player standing in an offside position but his protests to the referee and his assistant went unheeded.
It might easily have got even worse for Deila’s team seven minutes later when County substitute David Goodwillie glanced a header narrowly wide after latching onto another good cross from Franks.
Kazim-Richards summed up the lamentably ineffective nature of his performance when he contrived to miss a simple opportunity inside the County penalty area, dragging his shot wide.
The most enthusiastic cheer of the afternoon from the Celtic fans came when Kazim-Richards was replaced in the closing stages by Kris Commons who has been bewilderingly left on the fringes of the Celtic side by Deila in recent months.
His arrival in this game came too late to alter the outcome as County saw out the final minutes with a degree of comfort. Even the jeers from the home fans who remained in the stadium at full-time were of the half-hearted and resigned variety, in tune with the manner of their team’s display.
Teams with substitutions:-
CELTIC (4-2-3-1): Gordon; Lustig, Sviatchenko, Mulgrew (Ambrose 90), Tierney; Brown, Bitton; Roberts, Rogic (McGregor 65), Kazim-Richards (Commons 81); Griffiths. Subs not used: Bailly, Armstrong, Christie, Mackay-Steven.
ROSS COUNTY (3-5-2): Fox, Fraser, Quinn, Robertson; Franks (De Vita 78), McShane, Irvine, Murdoch, Gardyne; Schalk (Graham (90+2), Boyce (Goodwillie 60). Subs not used: Woods, Boyd, Dingwall, McLaughlin.