SCORERS: Griffiths 58, Pukki 90
But everything is relative. The length of the table still separates the sides and Celtic have racked up more than five times that many games without defeat on league duty and extending it to the end of the current campaign remains a target.
“That may be a step too far but it’s something that’s really motivating the players and ourselves to try and achieve,” said Celtic manager Neil Lennon. This was actually their 13th consecutive league match without even conceding a goal, a run started at the beginning of December, in a 5-0 win over Motherwell. This one wasn’t anywhere near as emphatic, Hearts making them work all the way to the final whistle for their three points.
“I sit here a very proud manager. We’ve just broken a long-standing record and it’s a long-standing record for a reason. It’s a great feather in the cap for the players and the club.”
The clean sheet saw the English keeper usurp Bobby Clark’s 43-year-old record for top-flight games but there were a couple of hairy moments before the achievement was sealed. When Sam Nicholson’s cross bounced up in the 19th minute, Forster himself jeopardised the record when he fumbled it. But he salvaged the situation, gathering it before the nearest Hearts player, Callum Paterson, could punish him. Then, with 27 minutes gone, Hearts hit on the break, but Paterson’s squared ball was too heavy for Paul McCallum, allowing Stefan Johansen to get in the challenge.
A minute later Charlie Mulgrew almost threw it away when he was closed down by Ryan Stevenson and conceded a corner. Celtic weathered that one and then the one that followed and as the ball was sent upfield and the clock clicked past the 1,155 minute mark, there was a sense of relief as the away fans broke into song, hailing their No.1.
But while they were keeping Hearts out, the Tynecastle side were doing a sterling job of doing the same at the other end.
Recent signing Leigh Griffiths was still searching for his first goal for the Glasgow club and, in front of a Hearts crowd set on antagonising him, he was desperate to find the net. He had to wait until the second half, though, and when it arrived, in the 56th minute, it left both Brad McKay and Danny Wilson looking a little silly. As he latched on to an Anthony Stokes ball forward, he got away from the former then turned the latter inside out as he worked the ball back on to his preferred left foot and lashed it past Jamie MacDonald.
He also got his own back on the Hearts fans who had been taunting him, running past them with a wide grin and his thumb in the air as he charged to celebrate with his manager.
“We could have been a goal or two up at half-time but the goal to break the deadlock was fantastic,” said Lennon. “That will do Leigh the world of good. It’s a big step up in his career and I think you saw the relief and what it meant to him. There was the added incentive of him being a Hibs fan and scoring against Hearts but that’s not the main focus. The main focus is that he has broken his duck for Celtic.”
Gary Locke’s men were not too down-heartened, though, showing the confidence that has been building in recent weeks and they kept pushing for an equaliser.
“Certainly in the second half I thought we put them under a lot of pressure and got a lot of balls into the box but credit to their centre backs and the keeper, they defended well,” said the Hearts boss. “There were a lot of positives and the last time Celtic came here there was no contest but I’ve said all along that the players are improving and we have more than matched the best team in the country.”
But in the end they were angry as yet more refereeing decisions went against them and allowed Celtic to seal things in the final minute. “One foul? There were definitely two and how the referee never saw that, I don’t know but, unfortunately, we lose a late goal.”
It was Amido Balde who dispossessed Jamie Hamill and fellow sub Teemu Pukki who then netted but by then it was almost incidental.
For Hearts the aim is still survival, for Celtic the clean sheets are a bonus but the challenge remains going through the league campaign unbeaten and the next test comes against Aberdeen on Tuesday.