What should have been just another fairly routine victory for Celtic in their unbeaten domestic season was transformed into a hugely contentious and potentially costly draw for the champions in an astonishing and briefly ugly finale to their Easter Sunday outing in Dingwall.
Their anger at referee Don Robertson’s decision to award County a spot-kick, coolly converted by Liam Boyce, for what was plainly a dive from substitute Alex Schalk was fully justified. It was a blatant piece of simulation from the Dutch striker who went down despite no contact from Celtic defender Erik Sviatchenko.
Brown allowed his own sense of injustice to get the better of him, committing a needless and reckless foul on Boyce in stoppage time which saw Robertson reach straight for his top pocket. Celtic are set to appeal the decision, allowing Brown to play in Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Rangers at Hampden.
While Celtic seethed, County savoured a precious point which could prove crucial in their bid to preserve their top-flight status for another year. Fortunate to only be trailing 1-0 at half-time to a Kieran Tierney strike, they improved after the break to level through Michael Gardyne. Celtic substitute Patrick Roberts appeared to have won it with 12 minutes remaining before the refereeing blunder allowed Jim McIntyre’s men to salvage a draw.
Brendan Rodgers’ determination that his team will not lose any of the momentum and purpose which has carried them so impressively throughout his maiden campaign in charge was evident in the sustained focus of their work here as they dominated proceedings from the start and stretched their undefeated sequence in domestic football to 40 matches.
While seeking to ensure there is no diminishment in Celtic’s intensity, however, Rodgers, pictured inset, can also allow himself some licence for experimentation in the closing weeks of the league season. That manifested itself in the deployment of a fluid and relatively unconventional 3-4-2-1 system which saw Tierney line up alongside Erik Sviatchenko and Jozo Simunovic in a three-man central defence.
Tom Rogic, making his first start since being sidelined by an ankle injury in December, joined Scott Sinclair in the most advanced of the midfield roles behind leading scorer Moussa Dembele, who returned up front.
Celtic’s possession stats did not take long to enter 70 per cent territory with County opting for a policy of containment, their own three-man central defence effectively turned into a back five for most of the afternoon as wing-backs Reghan Tumilty and Kenny van der Weg found little scope to push forward.
The hosts did succeed in limiting Celtic’s incursions into their penalty area but Tierney provided the first sign of the threat he carried from distance when his 18th-minute drive from around 25 yards was gathered by Scott Fox low at his right-hand post.
As Celtic steadily built up a head of steam, the County goalkeeper was grateful to Van der Weg just a minute later when the Dutchman did well to block a close-range effort from James Forrest after a cross from Callum McGregor had broken into the winger’s path.
Celtic could afford to be patient in their pursuit of the opener, which was fully deserved when it finally arrived in the 34th minute after a bout of intelligent probing play which had the home side chasing shadows. It ended with Rogic sliding a pass into the path of Tierney who this time sent his low left-foot shot from distance beyond the left hand of Fox into the corner of the net.
Having offered so little ambition up until that point, County could have no complaints at falling behind but they passed up a decent chance to equalise three minutes later when Tim Chow was unable to get enough purchase on his shot from around 12 yards which was comfortably held by Craig Gordon.
There was a greater urgency about County at the start of the second half, more befitting of a team still very much involved in the relegation equation. It brought them a rapid reward when Gardyne drew them level five minutes after the restart. Ryan Dow was the creator with a fine cross from the left, the quality of the delivery matched by Gardyne’s header which beat Gordon via the underside of the crossbar.
There was a sudden vulnerability about Celtic defensively and they survived a couple of Jim O’Brien corner kicks none too convincingly, the first scrambled off the line by Brown and the second seeing Andrew Davies allowed a free header which Gordon saved.
As County sought to take advantage of the unexpected shift in momentum, Gordon then had to react sharply to hold a snapshot from Boyce after good work from Gardyne.
Rodgers made a double substitution, replacing Rogic and Dembele with Cristian Gamboa and Leigh Griffiths, and the champions gradually regained a significant measure of control over proceedings. The introduction of their third replacement made a more tangible impression as Roberts put them back in front with a superb individual goal.
The on-loan Manchester City winger cut in from the right and bamboozled both Van der Weg and Marcus Fraser with some dazzling footwork before spearing a low shot through Fox into the corner of the net.
Celtic almost wrapped up the three points when Stuart Armstrong’s free-kick smacked back off the crossbar but were forced to settle for just one as the match reached its dramatic and controversial conclusion.