AS WITH manager of the month nominations, perhaps selection in the player of the year category should now be treated as ominous.
Motherwell 3-3 Celtic
By half-time on Saturday, all three of those Celtic players nominated for this season’s award had contributed to the situation where their team found themselves trailing.
One of the beneficiaries was John Sutton, whose current goal tally of 22 means it is reasonable to wonder why he did not feature among the nominees last week. While his reputation was enhanced on Saturday after his point-saving double, the triumvirate of Celtic players who were celebrated last week found the going a bit tougher.
First to provide evidence of this new syndrome was Fraser Forster, who threw out a hopelessly weak hand in an attempt to stop Sutton’s shot from passing beneath him. Efe Ambrose had already been implicated in the crime after misjudging a long ball from Stephen McManus, but he was not nominated last week as one of the season’s outstanding players. Even given Ambrose’s sloppiness, Forster should have snuffed out the danger.
Next to be afflicted by the curse was Kris Commons, who is probably favourite to win the award when it is announced this weekend. Celtic were handed the chance to equalise when Anthony Stokes crumpled to the turf under a challenge from behind by Iain Vigurs. It was an unnecessary penalty to concede from Motherwell’s point of view, but they were buoyed when Commons failed to take the chance to score his 29th goal of a remarkable season. To be fair to the in-form Commons, his effort was hit well enough. Gunnar Nielsen, however, made one of the penalty stops of the season when diving to his left and keeping the ball out with a strong left hand.
Celtic upped the ante in an attempt to get back on level terms but their finishing let them down – both Virgil van Dijk and Beram Kayal saw shots bash back off the large edifice of the roof above the home end of the ground. Van Dijk, the other Celtic player nominated last week, then joined Forster and Commons in the cursed stakes by failing to cope with a ball from Steven Hammell, thus granting Zaine Francis-Angol the chance to poke the ball past Forster to make it 2-0. A crafty chipped effort by Anthony stokes enabled Celtic to start clawing back the deficit before half-time, but it was not enough to save them from a rollicking by manager Neil Lennon, who threw them out of the away dressing room early. The visitors were forced to pass a ball around among themselves while they waited a good few minutes for Motherwell to emerge. “Fashionably late”, according to the Fir Park tannoy announcer.
The second half proved every bit as enjoyable as the opening one and provided the same number of goals. Celtic scored the first two, the equaliser coming after Georgios Samaras flicked in an effort by Stokes. With more than 35 minutes remaining, it felt as though Celtic now had the momentum required to take all three points, and so it was to no-one’s astonishment when they did score next. The identity of the goalscorer was also of little surprise. Before the game Lennon had confirmed that the troubled Leigh Griffiths would play some part of the match. The striker is due to appear at Hampden on Thursday on two SFA charges of singing an offensive song before an Edinburgh derby last month. This might well count as his last action of the season.
Sent on after 65 minutes, you just knew he would play a significant part in the proceedings. Griffiths looked slightly rusty and out of sorts at first, sending one cross into the away end with Stokes having taken up a good position at the far post. However, with five minutes left the ball broke kindly for him – although he still had much to do to steer the ball past Nielsen with a left-foot effort.
Griffiths threw off what Lennon had described as his “chastened” demeanour long enough to race behind the goal and celebrate with the fans, cupping his ear and high-fiving a few individuals as he went. He collected an inevitable booking.
It wasn’t quite the glorious cameo anticipated, however. Sutton’s ability is perhaps overlooked because he goes about his business a lot more quietly than players such as Griffiths. He has been scoring regularly in the top flight for ten years now and deserves to be recognised as a top-quality striker. He struck in the final minute, after a cross by substitute Lionel Ainsworth, to earn Motherwell a point they probably deserved, considering that Kayal had cleared a goal-bound effort from Sutton off the line earlier. Samaras was also fortunate to escape being penalised for what looked like a clumsy handball in the box.
As could be expected, Motherwell manager Stuart McCall was content afterwards with his side having maintained their fight to finish runners-up behind Celtic, an achievement that would surely mean he should be a contender for manager of the year. He did have one semi-serious gripe – the fact Griffiths was able to feature at all. “I knew he would come on and score,” he said. “Nothing against him, because he is a good kid. But I think this ‘fast track’ charge has got slowed down because he is not up [at Hampden] until Thursday. And if he gets banned he will probably miss games against all our rivals. But he might get off, who knows?”