SO FATE ensured that Celtic claimed the title on the ground where their season had threatened to unstitch just a few months ago. The spectators at Rugby Park witnessed another six goals.
This time, rather than being shared out, they were all greedily, and hurriedly, collected by the visitors.
Two goals at the start meant the party needed little time to get going and the fourth goal, scored just before half-time, saw the interval go with a swing. Two goals at the end were yet more fuel for the celebrations, which continued long after the final whistle. It couldn’t have gone more smoothly for Celtic, who were back to their confident, merciless best.
There had been some talk of the visitors perhaps playing for the point required to clinch a first championship since 2008. Some chance. It was remarkable to think that on the Hampden Park stage just a few short weeks ago, Celtic had been undone by the same Kimarnock side. Here Neil Lennon’s team, liberated by the knowledge they had room for error, exacted revenge.
Urged on in the first half by the tireless midfield work of Scott Brown and Ki Sung-Yeung, they quickly established a hold on the game. To the detailed extent that Celtic were even shooting the same way, Kilmarnock quickly recognised the movie; this was a re-run of the impossible task which the home side had been handed in May last year, when Rangers arrived in search of goals and glory.
The Ibrox side, who claimed the title in the same setting last year, had been three up by the time Celtic claimed their first on Saturday, when an unmarked Charlie Mulgrew headed in Ki’s corner after eight minutes. But Celtic exhibited the same delirious appetite and had four goals before half-time, by which stage Rangers were only three up last May. After 16 minutes Mulgrew whipped in a left-foot cross from the right which proved impossible to defend against, and Glen Loovens had the simple task of heading the ball past an exposed Cammy Bell.
Mulgrew himself was proving unplayable. After 34 minutes, the rampaging full-back cut inside James Fowler and curled a shot wide of Bell with his apparently weaker right foot. Mulgrew was also the architect of Celtic’s fourth, with Gary Hooper sweeping his cross into the roof of the net from the distance of a few yards.
It was stirring stuff. And what an atmosphere. Much was made of Celtic having been frustrated in their aim to clinch the title at Celtic Park last weekend. But this, certainly as far as the 13,000 away supporters who gained admission were concerned, was surely more fun. The compact ground was three-quarters full of rejoicing Celtic fans. Rugby Park shook with their songs of love and devotion, and also wry paeans to one of the men who had helped make it all possible, Craig Whyte.
Would a full-strength and financially-sound Rangers have lived with Celtic’s vigour? You have to doubt it. Lennon later noted the youth which Celtic have on their side at present. Giorgios Samaras, Kris Commons and Loovens were the senior members in Saturday’s team, and they are only reaching their late twenties. Lennon marvelled at the others. “I look back to what I was doing when I was the same age as [Adam] Matthews and [James] Forrest,” he said later. I was at Crewe in front of maybe 3000 or 4000 people, under no pressure. These guys are doing it in front of 60,000 every other week, with huge expectations. Not only have they got the talent but they have great temperaments as well.”
Kilmarnock tried their best to play a part but were caught in the slipstream of a team on a mission. You have to feel for the Rugby Park side’s fans, many of whom had been removed from their usual seats to make way for the Celtic supporters, and who then had this humiliation piled on for good measure.
There was not much Kilmarnock could do. When even Loovens is scampering up the park looking to get on the end of crosses – as he did in the second half, having already scored a more routine header – then you know something’s up. Bell was injured in the clash with a diving Loovens, and, for a moment, it looked as though Kilmarnock, who had used all three substitutes, might have to try and stem the flow of attacks with only ten men, and with an outfield player in goal. It didn’t bear thinking about.
Fortunately for them, Bell struggled back to his feet. There wasn’t much he could do about the final two goals, scored in the last few minutes. Joe Ledley dinked in an exquisite finish after a neat back-heel from the impressive Filip Twardzik, who replaced Brown shortly after half-time. Hooper then wrapped things up with a collector’s item – a goal from outside the box, with the striker having flicked the ball up for himself before unleashing an unstoppable effort from 20 yards into the top corner.
Kilmarnock improved towards the end, but not enough to claim even the consolation of a goal. Their players quickly scampered off and left the way clear for the celebration. They had again been the victims of circumstance as much as anything else.