AT THE end of a season they have dominated from start to finish, it was only fitting that Celtic should win the last game. In a campaign of nearly 60 matches it was impossible for them to be at their best all the time, but on almost every major occasion, they came good.
Some critics of Neil Lennon’s team have remarked on the lack of competition in an SPL without Rangers, as if that somehow diminished the champions’ achievement. But paradoxically that lack of competition has if anything made things harder, not easier, for Celtic. They have reserved their best football for their best opponents, above all in the Champions League, and turned in substandard performances against sides they should normally have beaten with something to spare.
For those of a Celtic persuasion, that was perhaps the worry about the Scottish Cup final: the fact that, with all due respect to Hibs, Lennon’s players should have been able to defeat them if not quite in comfort, at least without making a superhuman effort. And there might also have been something a touch unsettling about the pre-match build-up, and the relative importance the teams were putting on the game. As far as Hibernian were concerned, there was a simple, all-consuming purpose to the occasion: to end the supposed hoodoo of 111 years, and take the cup back to Easter Road at last. But for Celtic, it seemed, the occasion was more nuanced.
At the club’s press day at Lennoxtown, Anthony Stokes had said that victory would be needed to turn a very good season into a great one. Later in the week, Neil Lennon made the same point in a different way, saying Celtic had already achieved a lot this season.
But the manager added that getting to the club final was “always a nice bonus”. So could it be that for Celtic this would be just one more trophy, no more than the cherry on top of the trifle, whereas for Hibs this would be the cherry, the whole trifle, the bowl it was served in and possibly the entire kitchen whence it came?
Then you recalled that the build-up to last season’s final was similar, with Hibs again emphasising the historic nature of the occasion, and then-Hearts manager Paulo Sergio insisting he was treating it as he would any other game. And that day, of course, belonged to Sergio, whose team crushed their Edinburgh rivals 5-1.
In other words, when a manager or player talks about treating a particular match as he would any other, it would be wrong to presume he is being lackadaisical about it. The key thing is how professionally he prepares for each outing; how intensely he commits himself to trying to get that “nice bonus” of a victory.
As the teams came out, the Celtic end held up green and white flags which together spelled out 1888, the year the club was founded. In the middle, a portrait of the founder, Brother Walfrid.
Hibs, having been established in 1875, may like to boast of being “first to wear the green”, but this was a reminder that the occasion was every bit as special for Celtic, in this their 125th year. And of the fact that Celtic were a mere 14 years old the last time Hibs won the cup.
Mind you, in the opening minutes of the game there was no doubt that Pat Fenlon’s team were at least determined to make a game of it. They were sharper, faster and apparently more committed.
Hibs had the first attempt of any kind on goal – a harmlessly high effort by midfielder Tom Taiwo – and also the first attempt that was on target – a header by Eoin Doyle that produced a fine reflex save from Fraser Forster. But then, with barely eight minutes on the clock, Celtic conjured their first threat out of nowhere – and scored from it, with Gary Hooper ghosting in at the back post to right-foot Stokes’ cross into the net.
With just over half an hour played, a very similar move made it 2-0. The Celtic support did the huddle en masse, turning their back on the action.
Between the two goals there had been a lot of Hibs pressure, but while Taiwo was one of the most impressive midfield players during those first 30 minutes, Hibs had very little to show for all their hard work. And as if being two goals down was not bad enough for Pat Fenlon’s side, Leigh Griffiths, their best hope of mounting a comeback, was clearly struggling with injury.
The striker went down twice, his right thigh apparently the problem, and then had to leave the field briefly ten minutes before the break. He was not long back on when he almost nicked a goal from a wide angle after some hesitation in the Celtic defence, and that was a sign that the league champions could not afford to be too complacent.
Even so, the ease with which they had scored their two goals had to be encouraging. And, as the second half began, Hooper, for one, looked in the mood to score more.
Ten minutes into that second period, Scott Brown, who had run the show in the first half, reacted angrily after being brought down from behind by Jorge Claros. Both men were booked by referee Willie Collum.
While the Hibs support jeered their former player, you had the feeling that riling Brown was not a wise thing for Hibs to do. The Celtic captain had dominated the contest although not coming close to his dynamic best: who knew what he would be capable of if he went at it full throttle?
In the end, neither Brown nor his colleagues needed to produce their best. Content to give ground to Hibs for much of the second half, they finally killed off the match 12 minutes from time when Joe Ledley scored their third.
There was a richly deserved standing ovation for Brown when he left the field to be replaced by Efe Ambrose. When Paddy McCourt came on for the last few minutes instead of James Forrest, the fans were on their feet again, singing You’ll Never Walk Alone.
McCourt was even given the captain’s armband for what could be his final Celtic appearance. A good season had become a great one, and the celebrations could begin in earnest.
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