AT VARIOUS stages of this tempestuous cup tie, the fear was that Neil Lennon was going to spontaneously combust on the touchline, one minute he would be there and the next he would be gone, only his suit and shoes left where once he railed.
St Mirren 1(Goncalves) Celtic 2 (Ledley; Stokes)
Referee: Alan Muir
Bookings: St Mirren (Thompson)
stoked-up celtic prevail
It wouldn’t quite cover it to say that the Celtic manager was so fired up that he metaphorically kicked every ball. He practically kicked every one of his own players as well. Plus the referee, the linesmen and a fourth official who would have had an easier afternoon had been asked to go play with the traffic on the motorway. Lennon was determined that the torpor of Celtic’s 3-2 Hampden League Cup semi-final defeat to St Mirren in January was not going to be repeated here. It wasn’t. Celtic had their revenge, but nothing came easy to them yesterday.
Lennon attributed his spiky mood to a number of things. Firstly, there was the grief he was getting from the home fans behind the Celtic dug-out. Secondly, and more importantly, there was the knowledge that had things gone pear-shaped in this cup tie the way they had done at Hampden, then their season would just peter out. “If we’d lost, then our season, competitively, might have been over, but we kept it alive. We have another semi-final to look forward to, a championship to win and a Champions League match during the week, so it’s all guns blazing.”
To give credit to St Mirren, after so much pain in recent years at Celtic’s hands, they have seemingly figured out how to avoid humiliation against them. This didn’t have a joyous ending like their last meeting, but they made them sweat and they gave them an almighty scare in the closing minutes when Graham Carey’s crashing free-kick forced a terrific save from Fraser Forster. They were defeated, but there was optimism here for St Mirren all the same.
Which is a lot more than you thought they’d have given at the beginning of this match. The fact that Celtic scored so early rather suggested that this was going to be one of those days when they brutalise opponents with their tempo and goal power. The nature of Joe Ledley’s opener – Ledley was Celtic captain for the day – only added to the feeling that St Mirren were not so much going to exit the cup as get fired out of it with the velocity of a bullet leaving a gun.
When James Forrest’s cross came to Ledley there really wasn’t any defender causing him undue pressure, the Welshman stooping to glance a header past Craig Samson. That was after just five minutes. On the touchline, Neil Lennon liked what he saw. Then his mood darkened at the concession of a surprise and slapstick equaliser.
Nobody saw it coming, Emilio Izaguirre most of all. Izaguirre has been a fine Celtic player but there is no question that this finest work is done up the field rather in the basic art of defending, which is what he was supposed to be doing when John McGinn launched a cross into his air-space just eight minutes after Ledley had put Celtic ahead.
Izaguirre felt the heat of Steven Thompson’s presence behind him, which accounted for the first of two duff headers, one that sent the ball towards Forster and the second which sent it past him and into the path of the in-rushing Esmael Goncalves who headed in from about two yards. After all of Izaguirre’s build-up play, he couldn’t miss. “A comedy of errors,” said the Celtic manager. “We’ve got to stop doing that.”
In fairness, the visitors struck back quickly and it was again thanks to some awful defending and some clever thinking to take advantage of it. Forrest worked a short corner with Gary Hooper and then got it back from the striker. While this was going on, Stokes peeled off his marker at the front post and made his way across the six-yard box. Forrest picked him out before St Mirren twigged that they were in danger and Stokes headed home, but it was a desperately slack moment from Danny Lennon’s team, the classic “bad goal to give away” to borrow a hoary old line from the book of clichés so beloved by managers.
The goal did nothing to calm the Celtic manager, pictured, who couldn’t have got on his players’ case more effectively had he put a saddle on their backs and galloped them around the park. To be fair, he had good cause. This was nothing like we thought it might be after the early goal. It became a battle and, clearly, one that St Mirren were up for despite the handicap of a vulnerable heart to their defence. It was also one Celtic could have settled midway through the second half when Hooper got away from Lee Mair and then thrashed a shot off Samson’s crossbar, the goalkeeper getting important fingertips to it.
That was a frustration for Celtic and soon there was to be a scare. Carey came on as a substitute and thundered a free-kick at the Celtic goal, forcing a one-handed save from Forster. With Forster’s defence spread-eagled, Conor Newton seized on the breaking ball, but headed harmlessly over.
“Our day,” said the Celtic manager, later. By then he was chilled-out and smiling. Lennon will have slept well last night.