IN THE final match before Fergus McCann’s Celtic takeover, the headlines were stolen by the on-field appearance of a fox.
In yesterday’s final match before the 20th anniversary of that regime change, commemorated yesterday, it was a fox in the box that drew all eyes. A hat-trick from Leigh Griffiths in only his fourth appearance for the club was the product of the sort of opportunistic predatory instincts that are synonymous with those scurrying, sleek animals.
The carnage that could have been inflicted on Inverness is evidenced in the fact that Griffiths scored three chances, two of them exquisite finishes, and missed three easier chances. The curious character that is the 23-year-old, in afterwards declaring himself “buzzing” about his treble and excited about the “bonus” of a Scotland call-up that was announced last night, took greatest pleasure in his first goal because this was a “sclaff”. In reality, it wasn’t, an Emilio Izaguirre cross from the left poked in by Griffiths and clipping off the shoulder of keeper Dean Brill as it flashed into the roof of the net.
“That is the kind of goal I like to score,” he said. “People normally associate me with long-range shots and trying to beat people but front post, near stick, that is where I want to be. That is what the manager wants, he wants a penalty-box striker. From day one the Celtic fans didn’t really want me here but I am trying to prove everybody wrong and try to score as many goals as I can and those are the kinds of goals I like to score.”
Griffiths really laboured this point about being unwanted by the Celtic support when he made the move for £850,000 from Wolves on the final day of the January transfer window. These fans did not doubt that the player was capable of scoring goals of the calibre of his superb second strike, when in the 57th minute he bustled in to take the ball off the toe of Josh Meekings, lashing an effort in from the edge of the area in one blurred movement.
His ability to be architect and finisher in creating goals from nothing wasn’t required for the late strike that brought up his treble, the striker latching on to a ball over the top from Kris Commons to guide a low drive into the corner of the net. “You see the crowd today, as soon as I scored my hat-trick they erupted and that is a great release and hopefully I can keep going,” he said, to acknowledge he is being taken to Celtic hearts.
That was obvious in the agonies expressed when a spot of one-two with Anthony Stokes as each of them attempted to set up the other ended with his shooting wide, as he did on two other occasions. “After Stokes gave me it back and I ballooned it over the bar, I thought my chances had gone of a hat-trick but as soon as Kris Commons came on, he gave me a good through ball and I just managed to tuck it away,” Griffiths said.
His manager Neil Lennon afterwards talked of his latest signing being the penalty-box striker the club were looking for after losing Gary Hooper last summer, and the Northern Irishman has clearly being saying as much to Griffiths. “As long as I have the manager’s backing that’s enough for me,” said the striker. “He said to try to emulate him [Hooper] and if I was half as good as he was he will be happy.”
John Hughes’ side proved all too compliant as Celtic looked to in some way atone for the midweek loss at Aberdeen that ended their 26-game league unbeaten run and Scottish record sequence of 13 straight league clean sheets. The Inverness manager said it was simply “not Inverness” to lose sloppy goals such as the 22nd-minute Griffiths corner when Charlie Mulgrew strode to the front post to volley in. And for Brill, the less said the better about the Commons 22-yard strike that made it 4-0, when the midfielder turned and fired in a swerving effort the keeper got down to but inexplicably allowed to dribble under him.
Hughes, with big fixtures to come, refused to be downhearted about an awful day for his team. “We can take a lot from the game,” he said. “One thing I will say is that we came and had a go. We played 4-4-2 when we could have come and packed the midfield and the defence. The boys wanted to come and have a go and in hindsight you’re asking yourself if that was right or wrong. But that’s where we are, we’re having quite a good season and playing with confidence.
“Given our defensive record it’s disappointing to lose five goals – we could have prevented one or two. But Celtic are the best in Scotland and you need to learn from these games even in defeat. I don’t think we’ll ever get to where Celtic are and I said that to our boys after the game. This result isn’t going to define our season. It won’t harm us. It’s the next month that’ll define our season. We have Dundee United next week in a Scottish Cup quarter final and then a League Cup final to look forward to.”
Celtic: Forster, Matthews (Fisher 80), Ambrose, van Dijk, Izaguirre, Brown (Johansen 86), Biton, Mulgrew, Forrest, Stokes (Commons 66), Griffiths. Subs not used: Zaluska, Boerrigter, Samaras, Kayal. Goals: Griffiths 12, 57, 85; Mulgrew 22; Commons 78.
Inverness: Brill, Shinnie, Meekings, Warren (Devine 68), Raven, Tansey, Ross, Draper (Watkins 69), Foran, Vincent, McKay (Christie 81). Subs not used: Esson, Tremarco, Polworth, Pepper.
Ref: B Colvin