All’s well that ends well as far as the hosts are concerned. Hibs were denied by a combination of Celtic's resilience and an eccentric performance from referee Steven McLean.
Sheer determination on the part of Hyeongyu Oh saw Celtic edge ahead for the first time in the match with just nine minutes left. Another substitute, Sead Haksabanovic, arrowed in Celtic’s third goal deep into injury time. It was 4.58pm, which gives some indication that this match did not follow the standard Celtic-run-over-the-top of hapless-opposition narrative. McLean finally blew his whistle at one minute past five. He had been at the heart of much of the previous drama, which is rarely a good sign.
It's certainly not something that Hibs manager Lee Johnson greeted with any relish afterwards. He was given a yellow card in the first half for failing to control his backroom staff, one of whom had popped an extra ball out onto the pitch as the visitors started employing some time-killing tactics early on. “Apparently they didn't know who it was so the manager takes responsibility for the technical area so I got booked,” he said. “Whoever it was will be paying two weeks' wages!" It was especially costly for Johnson since it means he is now banned from the dugout for the home game against Motherwell following the international break.
Johnson had plenty else to complain about, though he was primarily irked by the red card to Elie Youan after only 25 minutes. While being reduced to ten might not have harmed Hibs immediately – they took a shock lead through Josh Campbell’s penalty six minutes before half-time, after VAR intervened when Carl Starfelt grabbed hold of Paul Hanlon’s shirt at a throw in – it really did prove the defining moment in the final analysis.
While Hibs frustrated Celtic for as long as they could after Jota had levelled the score shortly after half-time, again from the spot, few teams boasting the full complement of players can expect to keep the champions out for the duration, never mind those left one player short for well over an hour. To add to Hibs’ complaints, McLean played a total of 15 minutes’ injury time. He also gave and then had to withdraw a Celtic penalty award to after Liel Abada hit the turf when straight through on Marshall.
And yet, despite all this, and amid rising concern in the home stands, it seemed possible that Hibs might pull off something of a miracle. Twenty years and a month after making his debut for Celtic in a Scottish Cup tie against St Johnstone, Marshall had looked set to leave his former team looking slightly more anxiously over their shoulder.
There were already signs that the Hibs goalkeeper was in the mood to frustrate Celtic before this match turned utterly bonkers. Few fans traipsing up London Road prior to kick off could have anticipated anything other than a routine home victory. Eight minutes added on at the end of the first half provides some idea of how non-routine it became.
McLean had seemed to make a straightforward home win almost inevitable by issuing a second yellow to Youan for a high boot just 25 minutes in. It was based on the flimsiest evidence. Youan was admittedly already skating on thin ice after being booked for an early challenge on Carl Starfelt but there was very little in the tangle with Cameron Carter-Vickers, who was bending down, on the half-way line. It was a ridiculously harsh decision, particularly given what it ought to have signified – which was a very, very long afternoon for Hibs.
Indeed, it was already looking like it was going to be one. This is where Marshall came in. At a time when the spotlight is on Scotland goalkeepers, Marshall’s performance was a reminder of what’s been lost since he stepped away from the international scene. It’s also worth noting that two options for the No 1 spot in next weekend’s Euro 2024 qualifier against Cyprus conceded seven goals yesterday.
Celtic might and probably should have been two or three goals up before the game turned on its head. The hosts had settled again after losing Reo Hatate to an early hamstring strain. David Turnbull replaced the midfielder. Celtic re-engaged with the task in hand, which was, effectively, a game of beat-the-goalie. The problem was they couldn’t. Not in an extended first half at least. One save was particularly memorable, with Marshall flinging himself across goal to deny Kyogo after the Japanese striker’s inventive effort with his chest. He made another fine block from Jota after the Portuguese winger exchanged passes with Alistair Johnston.
Marshall even came close to stopping Jota’s penalty when Celtic did eventually find a way past the ‘keeper, who was left frustrated after the winger’s effort squirmed underneath him after Hanlon was penalised for man-handling Carter-Vickers at a corner. The floodgates were expected to open but Hibs hung on, by hook or by crook. When Marshall was beaten by Kyogo, CJ Egan-Riley was on hand to clear off the line. It was a rare example of McLean exhibiting good judgment after he allowed play to carry on after Jota had been left in a heap by Marijan Cabraja, who was booked after the ball was dead.
Celtic were not to be denied. Oh, who had come on as part of a triple substitution on the hour mark, stretched every sinew to meet Turnbull’s corner and plant a fine header past Marshall on 81 minutes. He picked up a booking after whipping off his shirt in celebration. Most would have put their shirt on Celtic finding a way and Haksabanovic secured the points deep into injury time with a sweet finish into the corner.
It’s true, they do never stop. But this involved slightly more persistence than normal.