NORMAL service is being resumed. Two goals inside the first seven minutes of the second half and Celtic were home and hosed for their fifth straight win of the season. The rest of the encounter became one of those goal chases.
Scorers: Celtic - Brown (46), Hooper (53, 64), Forrest (70)
For Gary Hooper that meant a fruitless chase for a hat-trick, and
for James Forrest a chase he was at last able to join, the winger netting after coming off the bench for his first senior game in eight weeks.
As Celtic manager Neil Lennon agreed afterwards, the burrowing running power of the 21-year-old puts his front players on their toes and transforms Celtic from the passive, stodgy side they’ve so often been at home domestically this season. For spells in a goalless first period, Lennon admitted he felt there were players in home colours who “if not quite half pace” were not playing with “full intensity”. Passages of the period could have passed for reruns of the home upsets against Kilmarnock, Inverness and Arbroath.
In part this was testament to the contribution of Ross County. Lennon praised the Highland visitors for “giving it a go” before Celtic’s “quality took over” while his County counterpart Derek Adams was left to rue that for all his side broke well, passed the ball well, and contained and frustrated Celtic, the Dingwall club crucially failed where
Kilmarnock and Inverness succeeded. Adams wasn’t guilty of
gilding the lily when he said his team probably “had the best chances” of the first half. Set against a couple of headers and shots outside of the box from Celtic, the visitors had clear sighting of goal from inside the box.
Paul Quinn could be forgiven for snatching at an effort that found him clear 15 yards from goal, his weak effort gobbled up by a grateful Fraser Forster. But the same could not be said for Alex Cooper with the last action of the opening half. A through ball from Quinn to send him in on the Celtic keeper down the left presented him with a golden opportunity but he choked his shot, and in doing so provided the pivotal moment of the confrontation in a manner Adams must have dreaded.
Inside a minute of the restart Cooper’s weak attempt was shown up by Scott Brown driving in from the right and drilling a low shot in at the far post. From there Celtic never looked back. Seven minutes later, a forging run from Victor Wanyama allowed him to slip the ball out to Lassad on the left. He sent over a curling cross that Hooper glanced beyond Mark Brown. The English striker added his second and took his Celtic career total to 51 in only 76 appearances when a Charlie Mulgrew corner headed into the air by Wanyama found him lurking in the right spot to nod it in.
Celtic’s fourth, with 20 minutes left, amounted to Forrest taking off down the left, cutting inside past his marker and depositing the ball in at the near post.
Hooper then hit the bar after substitute debutant John Herron had sclaffed a shot into his path. But, by then, the 24-year-old, whose discussions over a contract extension seem to have gone on longer than the James Bond franchise, had produced another display to have his manager hoping he might one day hear from his agent Simon Dent. The Celtic manager is hopeful, if that happens, Dent will tell him what he wants to hear about adding a year under improved terms to the 18 months remaining on Hooper’s current deal.
“The sound-bites I’m getting from Gary is that he is delighted and happy to stay here,” said Lennon, who believes the player reached a new peak this week. “It was the best he has looked in training. He looks lean and hungry and I fancied him to score today. His all-round game was top-class and I think he will only get better. He is an intelligent player. There are things you can’t coach and the thing I have liked about him since the day I first saw him is his football intelligence.
“He can drop off into the spaces or play on the shoulder plus he has that natural knack of scoring goals. He scored two headers today which again is another thing he is adding to his game. We are getting a great return of goals with 15 for the season but it’s also his all-round play.”
Ross County’s returns aren’t quite so healthy, meanwhile. They haven’t won in their past nine games but Adams insisted they are not in any “rut” – far from it.
“We have 18 points from 19 games and if we had 20 points that would be a perfect start,” said Adams. “If we do as well as we have in the second half of the season, I’m sure we will get a wee bit more.
“We have only lost seven times in 19 games and don’t have any expectations.
“We have gone from the Second Division to the SPL and are delighted with our progress.”
In bald terms, they aren’t continuing to make any. Celtic, at last, are beginning to live up to their status as the only SPL superpower.