It perhaps accounts for the confidence imbued in Motherwell’s play on Saturday that Scott McDonald revealed afterwards he had been taken off against Dundee seven days earlier to save him for the meeting with Celtic.
Such was Mark McGhee’s conviction that his side could gain a win at Celtic Park, he was already preparing for the trip while his side led Dundee by two goals. So off came McDonald, who had scored Motherwell’s opener in an eventual 3-1 win, after just over an hour, much to the striker’s displeasure.
Now, after playing the full 90 minutes of Motherwell’s victory over former club Celtic, he recognises the method in mystic McGhee’s actions.
“It’s funny, we were playing Dundee last week and he took me off, and he was like: ‘if we get this result, we have a great chance of beating Celtic next week’. So it was clearly already in his mind. And that was after only 65 minutes or so. I don’t think he will admit that. But he was already thinking like that. So, as you can imagine, in the run-up to the match we were positive we could get something.”
McDonald had further motivation. Despite a successful period with Celtic, where he scored more than 50 goals, his name was still wrongly spelled on the team-sheet as “Macdonald”. Although he didn’t score on this occasion – McDonald let strike-partner Louis Moult successfully convert the penalty he earned, then watched him score again a few minutes later – the Australian contributed hugely to the victory, particularly in the second-half.
McDonald is happy to be playing in his preferred position again, “right up top”. He and Moult were superb on Saturday, ably supported by Marvin Johnson on one wing and half-time substitute Lionel Ainsworth on the other in the second-half.
Ainsworth looked set to have delivered the game’s defining moment just a couple of minutes after coming on. Sent clean through after an attempted clearance rebounded into the Motherwell winger’s path, Ainsworth tried an ambitious lob over Craig Gordon rather than square the ball to McDonald on his left for a simple tap-in. Celtic opened the scoring shortly afterwards through Nir Bitton’s deflected effort.
But rather than be deflated by the glaring miss that was so quickly followed by the loss of a goal, McDonald claimed he and his teammates were heartened. “When we got in like that, we thought ‘well, we can get in there again’.” And they did, several times. Had Motherwell scored four or five, it would not have seemed outlandish, given the amount of chances.
The two goals they did score both came from Moult, the first from the spot after Jozo Simonovic hacked at McDonald’s heels. The striker’s second was tapped in after Celtic’s defence was left exposed by Johnson’s angled cross from the left.
The home fans watched with sinking hearts as Nadir Ciftci toiled again up front for their team, unable to build on what many equated to the pressing of the ignition button in his Celtic career a week earlier against St Johnstone.
Indeed, a fit, lithe-looking McDonald simply prompted Celtic supporters to wonder whether their former striker might have been a better bet if Ronny Deila wanted to augment his frontline. The late introduction of Carlton Cole failed to inspire these fans either, although it was hard to judge him on a period when Celtic were resorting to lifting high balls into the box.
Even then, Celtic could not take advantage of Stephen McManus’ absence, after he was left “sparko” – to use McGhee’s description – following a challenge with Cole.
It was possible to hear McManus’s angry shouts of frustration at being instructed to come off by his manager from the press seats. Strangely, on a day when Billy McNeill’s statue was unveiled, Celtic could not summon up half the passion of one former centre-half in the shape of McManus, never mind McNeill. They certainly came nowhere near to matching Cesar’s warrior spirit. This, by severe contrast, was meek, abject surrender.