THERE have been more pivotal days at Dingwall. None more dramatic, though, and none more emblematic of the remarkable rise of Ross County to the upper echelons of the Scottish game.
Scorers: Ross County - Munro 30, Morrow 36, Wohlfarth 90 ; Celtic - Mulgrew 15, Hooper 21
The Highland club’s first league win over SPL champions-in-waiting Celtic was achieved in a manner that domestic defeats are rarely inflicted on the Glasgow club.
Two goals down after 21 minutes, Derek Adams indefatigable side subsequently extended their unbeaten run to 11 games and moved up to third in the Scottish Premier League with an added-time winner from German substitute Steffen Wohlfarth – only the third time in 13 years Celtic have lost after being 2-0 up.
It might have been expected that, on a farcical sandpit of a pitch, the depleted side sent out by Neil Lennon would be vulnerable to suffering a post-Juventus comedown. Not in the fashion that ensued, though.
Their second-half display was desultory and the wonder of the afternoon was that the sustained pressure of their hosts did not yield a winner inside 90 minutes. It was no mere coincidence, however, that the decisive strike contained at least three hapless interventions from Celtic players. Efe Ambrose and substitute Thomas Rogne were both complicit in allowing a ball played down the left to find its way to present Wohlfarth with a header that he made count courtesy of Fraser Forster proving slow to recognise the danger.
In his latest post-match denunciation following domestic defeat, Lennon spoke of comical goals lost by unnamed players with minds not on the job as the result of possibly being tapped up. With Ambrose and Forster having been linked with moves and Rogne having rejected a new contract, these three may have been in the Celtic manager’s firing line.
There were madcap moments from both backlines to shape a scatty encounter. County keeper Michael Fraser seemed to suffer an attack of the sponge hands as Celtic claimed the early ascendancy. A 15th-minute Charlie Mulgrew corner swung in from the left found its way into the net despite Fraser getting a mitt on it. Six minutes later, Gary Hooper spotted the keeper off his line and sized up a cute chip from the edge of the area that the County keeper punched… but only behind him, and it was 2-0 to the visitors.
“Celtic hadn’t caused us any problems until then but they were two poor goals from our point of view,” said County manager Adams. “Michael Fraser knows he should have done better. We were two down and both teams had done nothing but we knew we had the quality to get back in it and deserved to win. Celtic didn’t really create any opportunities in the 90 minutes.”
That was stretching it from a County manager who sported a sombre countenance hardly in keeping with the fact that his team have accrued more points in the SPL over the past three months than any other team. A place in the Europa League qualifiers is a real possibility for the Highland team in their first top-flight campaign, but Adams presents their progress as an obvious outcome of his team building that meant County didn’t even appear handicapped yesterday by the injury loss of recent regular matchwinners Ivan Sproule and Richard Brittain.
“If you know a bit about football, you’d have had a look at our squad and thought we had an opportunity to push on in the league,” said the inscrutable Adams, who wasn’t for musing on a European place. “We want to get into the top six first. Our main aim was to stay in the SPL – now we just need to finish the season as strongly as possible.”
They grew in strength against the champions thanks to a strike from Celtic goal specialist Grant Munro, who famously netted when Inverness scuppered the title hopes of Lennon’s side two years ago. This time around, he chested the ball down and let fly following a bit of head tennis at the edge of the area. That goal put the encounter back in the mix just on the half-hour mark, and within six minutes, County were the team on the front foot after Mulgrew slipped on the left flank to allow Ian Vigurs to float a cross over to the back post. Dylan McGeouch and Forster got in a fankle attempting to knock it away from the line, which in turn presented Scott Morrow with the opportunity to net.
Celtic fielded a back three that initially featured Rami Gershon alongside Kelvin Wilson and Ambrose. The system was forced on them by injuries, Lennon maintained. It looked an ill-fitting system, as County came at their visitors with vigour after the interval. Martin Scott failed to capitalise on an Ambrose error, and then Wohlfarth passed up a good opening before making amends and becoming “a crazy German” able to delight in scoring his first goal for the club in such memorable circumstances.
It was a day that will stay in County minds and be harder for Celtic to forget than they might like, or believe.
Ross County: Fraser, Kovacevic, Ikonomou, Boyd, Munro, Lawson, Kettlewell, Scott, Vigurs, Quinn, Morrow. Subs: McCarthy, Hainault, Wohlfarth, Glen, Cooper, Ross, Porritt.
Celtic: Forster, Ambrose, Wilson, Gershon, McGeouch, Ledley, Kayal, Mulgrew, Stokes, Miku, Hooper. Subs: Zaluska, Nouioui, Commons, Rogic, McCourt, Rogne, Watt.