SELDOM has such an underwhelming performance meant so much to a Celtic manager. On an afternoon when all the plaudits belonged to East Kilbride, the unthinkable was avoided by Ronny Deila.
What would have been the biggest shock in Scottish Cup history never appeared even remotely likely as Celtic dominated from start to finish against their Lowland League opponents.
But neither did the Scottish champions ever look capable of running up the cricket score many had predicted or anticipated. Their often laboured football saw them have to settle for two goals from set-pieces, Leigh Griffiths claiming his 29th of the season in the first half before Colin Kazim-Richards grabbed his first for the club shortly after the break.
East Kilbride’s team of joiners, PE teachers, kitchen fitters, bank workers and law students were heroes to a man in terms of their defensive diligence and work ethic throughout.
Victory over fifth-tier opponents cannot mask the difficulties currently being faced by Deila after the defeats by Ross County and Aberdeen in Celtic’s previous two outings.
“It would have been very hard if we had lost this one today,” he said with a masterful touch of understatement afterwards. “You never know in football, but it would have been the biggest surprise for a lot of years. But it didn’t happen and I’m very happy for that. So it was a crucial victory. But I was quite comfortable during the match. I will of course give a lot of credit to East Kilbride. They fought really hard and tried to play football as well, which was positive.
“We controlled the game very well but we could have created more. We were not accurate enough and the surface was difficult for us. There were also some new players and new relationships in the team.
“We wanted to score more goals and we had our chances. Normally, we should have scored even more. But no-one will remember that if we win the cup.”
Celtic’s display certainly did little to quell the increasingly mutinous mood among their support in the wake of recent setbacks. There were even jeers from some of them, both at half-time and full-time. A “Sack the Board” banner was unfurled by a section of the Celtic fans just before kick-off, indicating that their discontent extends beyond the work being done by Deila and his coaching staff.
The East Kilbride support, who were going to savour and enjoy this day regardless of the scoreline, produced a light-hearted message of their own for Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell and his fellow directors, displaying a banner which read “Sorry Celtic, Billy Ogilvie is not for sale”.
East Kilbride manager Ogilvie’s game plan was straightforward and unapologetically designed with damage limitation in mind. His 4-5-1 formation duly succeeded in restricting the fluency and incisiveness of Celtic as an attacking force. For all of their possession, Celtic seldom cut the East Kilbride defence open. Instead, they were at their most dangerous in that opening period from set-pieces.
Before Griffiths scored in the 20th minute, Celtic had already come close twice from Gary Mackay-Steven corners from the right. Charlie Mulgrew headed narrowly wide from the first, then Erik Sviatchenko was denied by a fine Matthew McGinley save from the second.
But McGinley was beaten when Celtic enjoyed the break of the ball from Mackay-Steven’s next corner. Dedryck Boyata’s header appeared to strike Griffiths on a hand before the ball was blocked on the line by defender Scott Stevenson, possibly also a handball, before Celtic’s top scorer bundled home from a yard out.
McGinley saved well from James Forrest and Mackay-Steven, while the biggest cheer of the first half came right on the interval when East Kilbride forced their first and only corner of the day.
Celtic doubled their lead five minutes into the second half, another Mackay-Steven corner causing the problems. When Griffiths’ overhead kick was cleared off the line by Stevenson, Kazim-Richards stabbed home the rebound.
It resembled an attack versus defence training routine for much of the afternoon but Celtic could not add to their tally. At the other end, Logan Bailly’s sole save of the match came in the 72nd minute when he comfortably held a shot from Jack Smith who had admirably filled the thankless lone striker role for East Kilbride.
“I’ve told my players this is probably the proudest moment I’ve ever had in football,” said Ogilvie. “The discipline to keep to our plan was great. When you make Celtic have to score their goals from set-pieces, you must be doing something right. That’s how good we were closing them down in open play.”
No-one typified East Kilbride’s attitude more than their skipper Barry Russell, a childhood Celtic fan who was outstanding in central defence and left the stadium clutching Scott Brown’s jersey and wearing a broad grin. “We have put this club on the map,” said Russell. “You should never be happy with a defeat, but what a performance we put in. Especially with people talking beforehand about Celtic scoring double figures against us. Everyone in our dressing room can hold their head high.”