AT THE end of a week in which the value of Celtic’s participation in the Champions League had been startlingly illustrated by the publication of their annual accounts, it took just a short trip down the M77 to remind everyone of the straitened domestic environment from which they try to maintain their status as a major European club.
Kilmarnock 2-5 Celtic
Scorers: Kilmarnock - Clingan (35), Clohessy (42); Celtic - Commons (20), Samaras (24, 27, 88) Balde (90)
Referee: J Beaton
In the recession-hit world of Scottish football, Kilmarnock’s current debt of around £9.5 million equates roughly to the profit which Celtic made last year on the back of their lucrative run to the last 16 of the Champions League.
Neil Lennon’s team extended their unbeaten start to the Premiership campaign in front of just 6,149 spectators – the lowest recorded attendance at Rugby Park for a visit by Celtic since the Second World War.
A combination of circumstances contributed to the 12,000 empty seats inside the stadium. Kilmarnock chairman Michael Johnston’s clumsily handled discounted ticket price scheme for Celtic fans had inflamed the ongoing discontent being expressed at his tenure, while live television coverage of a lunchtime kick-off has its own inevitable effect on crowd figures.
These are testing times for Kilmarnock on and off the pitch, with new manager Allan Johnston still waiting for his first victory after nine attempts. Oddly enough, there were probably as many encouraging signs for Johnston in this ultimately comprehensive defeat as there have been in any of Kilmarnock’s previous outings this season.
Up until Kris Commons opened the scoring for Celtic in the 19th minute, Kilmarnock had been the brighter and more enterprising side with Kris Boyd missing a fine early chance to give them the lead. Even when they found themselves 3-0 down after just 26 minutes, the home side displayed admirable grit and no little enterprise to haul themselves back into contention at 3-2 before half-time.
Two late goals by Celtic at the end of a stuffy second half gave the final scoreline a painful look from Kilmarnock’s perspective, but their overall performance level was not one of a team who should expect to be in relegation bother.
That was due in no small part to a first appearance of the campaign by Sammy Clingan, the experienced Northern Ireland international midfielder who suffered a knee injury during pre-season. Along with captain Manuel Pascali, he brought greater solidity and composure to much of Kilmarnock’s work.
Clingan insists the Kilmarnock players have not been distracted by off-the-field protests against their chairman and is confident they will soon turn their fortunes around.
“We have just got to concentrate on what happens on the field,” said Clingan. “What happens off the field, we leave up to other people.
“Once we get our first win, we will get that burden off our back and go on to get more victories. We can talk until the cows come home, but we have to go out and produce on the pitch.
“Even though we lost 5-2, we’ve got to take a lot of positives from the performance because Celtic are a great side.
“It didn’t feel like a 5-2 defeat. Their goals came totally against the run of play. I thought we started really well. When they scored their first goal, we should have shut up shop for a little bit. But we didn’t and they scored two more goals pretty quickly.
“To be fair, the lads dug in and we came back into it. We saw it through to half-time at 3-2 and regrouped again. We conceded two more goals late and I think that was a bit harsh. But we haven’t picked up any points today and we have to start doing that quickly.
“We have to keep clean sheets. We are conceding too many goals. That’s not just about the defence, we have to defend from the front as a team. If we do that, then we have people like Boydy who can score at the other end.”
In the business of deadly finishing, Boyd was outshone for once. Georgios Samaras ultimately proved to be the difference between the teams, scoring a magnificent hat-trick and delivering a fine all-round performance.
At the ground where he made a scoring debut for Celtic five-and-a-half years ago, the Greek was at his best. He created the opener, whipping over a cross from the left which Kilmarnock goalkeeper Craig Samson punched weakly into the path of Commons who struck a left-foot shot down into the ground, the ball looping into the net.
Five minutes later, Celtic doubled the lead when Samaras brilliantly steered a firm left-foot half volley beyond Samson after the home defence had failed to clear an Adam Matthews cross properly. The visitors made it 3-0 in the 26th minute, Samaras tapping in from close range after his exchange of passes with Commons had dissected the Killie backline.
A real rout looked on the cards, but Kilmarnock fought back impressively. Clingan pulled one back with a superbly-struck free kick in the 35th minute, after Virgil van Dijk had needlessly fouled Michael Gardyne. It was then Celtic’s turn to be cut open at the back, Emilio Izaguirre the guilty party as Sean Clohessy played a one-two with Gardyne before driving a low right-foot shot beyond Fraser Forster.
But Kilmarnock rarely threatened to draw level as Celtic regained control in the second half. The issue was put beyond doubt when Samaras completed his first league hat-trick for the club, heading Charlie Mulgrew’s free kick home from close range in the 87th minute. There was added gloss for Lennon’s men in the final minute when substitute Amido Balde scored his first competitive goal for Celtic, bursting down the right and beating Samson with a fine, low finish.