THERE will, of course, always be days like this. It is just that, as far as Celtic are concerned, they have become increasingly common in significant games at Hampden Park.
Scorers: St Mirren - Goncalves 8, McGowan (pen) 64, Thompson 69; Celtic - Hooper 45, Mulgrew 90
Referee: W Collum
This, their third straight defeat at the national stadium, again raised some uncomfortable questions for Neil Lennon to answer.
On those rare occasions when St Mirren defeat Celtic, they tend to do it with style. Although Celtic hit the bar twice and missed a penalty, it is possible to argue that the scoreline flattered the Parkhead side in the end. Charlie Mulgrew’s rasping drive from 25 yards brought his team to within a goal of St Mirren but there was no time for any further play. The centre-half’s goal, well-struck though it was, could not atone for his penalty miss at the start of the second-half, when the score was 1-1. His side-footed effort lacked the venom required although Craig Samson still deserved huge credit for the save, having flung himself to his right.
Celtic equalised in the final minute of the first-half, and they determined to quickly gain the upper hand after the interval. However, Mulgrew’s miss seemed to set them back further. If anything, Celtic’s play was even more disjointed in the second half, and they conceded two goals in six minutes to go 3-1 down with 20 minutes still to play.
As the clock counted down, many of their supporters started to drift away from a place that is fast becoming a cemetery of hopes for them and their team. “We can see you sneaking out,” the St Mirren fans sang with glee. Who would have thought it? Certainly not Frank McGarvey, the former Celtic and St Mirren player, who last week insisted the Paisley side had “almost no chance” of creating a cup shock.
Perhaps the surprise would have been Celtic winning at Hampden. Since that 2-0 defeat by Ross County in his first semi-final in charge, Lennon has seen his side win on only four of their last nine visits to the national stadium, though this, he seemed to suggest afterwards, was the worst performance they had posted under him here.
Celtic’s travails should not detract from the quality of St Mirren’s play, however. They were in control for the majority of the 90 minutes and did not let the loss of an equaliser on the stroke of half-time, or the concession of a penalty so shortly after the interval, affect them. Indeed, while Celtic visibly wilted after Mulgrew’s effort was saved, St Mirren gained great succour from their goalkeeper’s heroics.
Celtic had allowed their opponents’ midfield to dominate and St Mirren accepted the invitation to establish an early foothold on the game, with John McGinn and Conor Newton setting the tone for excellent performances. St Mirren made the breakthrough after only eight minutes with a sweeping move instigated by skipper Jim Goodwin’s fine sliding challenge to rob Georgios Samaras of possession. He then fed Esmael Goncalves, who took the ball for a run before laying it off for McGowan.
Another two passes were completed before Newton swung the ball into the area, where the on-loan Goncalves had taken up good position between the two Celtic centre-halves. He lunged at the ball and managed to make an effective connection with his shin, the ball ending up in the net after bashing off a post.
Celtic were simply unable to get going. The rutted-looking Hampden turf can’t have helped; nevertheless, it was a surprise to see just how poor Celtic’s control of the ball was. St Mirren were playing on the same patch of grass and yet managed to look so much slicker in possession. Celtic did, though, have glimpses of goal. Hooper expertly brought down a long ball by Scott Brown that had been missed by Goodwin and then sent in a shot that clipped Samson’s bar. A few minutes later Samaras saw a header hit the bar and go over.
Celtic drew level in the 45th minute, Hooper scoring his 23rd goal of the season at the back post after Brown’s cross. Having levered their way back into the game, Celtic’s subsequent failure to make any kind of headway caused Lennon even greater distress on the sidelines. Mulgrew’s penalty woe was an obvious setback though it was also undoubtedly harsh on Goodwin, the player penalised for handball after doing well to block a Lassad shot. When Mulgrew – whose hands were in the air, rather than by his side – handled a Gary Teale effort 15 minutes later, Willie Collum, the referee, had no option but to point to the spot again. The impressive Paul McGowan showed Mulgrew how to do it, and sent Lukasz Zaluska the wrong way.
Yesterday, Samaras chose to post one of those performances that make Celtic fans howl with frustration; indeed, it was similar to the one he gave against Ross County here in 2010. At one point an attempted pass to a team-mate landed 40 yards behind him and helped spring another St Mirren attack. He wasn’t alone in being patently off-form. Commons came on for Lassad immediately after St Mirren’s second goal, while Samaras made way for Anthony Stokes soon after.
In the 69th minute, Steven Thompson volleyed Marc McAusland’s cross from the right past Zaluska. It was a brilliant finish. St Mirren then played out the rest of the game in relative comfort. Celtic were restricted to long-range efforts by the end. One of them did manage to evade Samson, who saw Mulgrew’s shot whip past him into the net. It was the defender’s failure to score from 12 yards that defined his team’s day but St Mirren’s victory owed everything to their own impressive endeavours.
Celtic: Zaluska; Matthews, Wilson, Mulgrew, Izaguirre; Brown, Wanyama, Ledley, Samaras; Lassad, Hooper. Subs: Fasan, Stokes, Commons, Lustig, Kayal.
St Mirren: Samson, Carey, Van Zanten, McAusland, McGinn, Goodwin, Newton, Goncalves, Thompson, McGowan, Teale. Subs: Guy, Barron, Mair, Imrie, Adam.