It might appear daft and churlish to suggest as much, but the club clinching a first quadruple treble in world football felt like a hollow triumph. There simply is no other way to assess a ridiculously topsy-turvy Scottish Cup final. One where, after taking a seemingly unassailable 2-0 lead into the interval against a Championship team, all the harem-scarem elements of Celtic at their worst during their ruinous run of two wins in 12 games, which had supposedly been flushed from the psyche, returned with a vengeance. It meant they only became the first club to win the competition on four successive occasions after being pegged back in normal time...and then again subsequent to going 3-2 up in extra-time.
In the crucial moment of shoot-out, Leigh Griffiths, Callum McGregor, Mikey Johnston and, with the final clincher, Kristoffer Ajer showed mental strength, of course they did. And, as a result, Celtic ultimately stepped up, and deserve plaudits for doing so. As does Conor Hazard for his penalty saves from Stephen Kingsley and Craig Wighton that turned the final Celtic’s way after Craig Gordon had given Hearts an early advantage in the shoot-out through saving Ryan Christie’s third penalty kick.
However, the very fact the encounter required to be settled in this fashion exposed so many of the shortcomings that make it exceedingly difficult to see how Celtic could further prosper in this monumental season for them. Lennon’s men provided no signs they could put together the long winning run they will need to catch Rangers in their 10-in-a-row chasing title race that sees them 16 points adrift, having played three games fewer than their bitterest rivals.
Frankly, the performance was precisely the sort that brought the violent protests outside Parkhead in the aftermath of the desperate League Cup loss at home to Ross County three weeks ago, and the dismal draw when hosting St Johnstone seven days’ later. Celtic should justly celebrate a remarkable run of 12 straight domestic trophies that will never be achieved again in the Scottish game. Neil Lennon, too, should justly celebrate becoming the first man in this country’s football annals to claim a treble as both a player and manager. It is also important, even if just privately, for Lennon and his players to acknowledge they did so much wrong before getting the right outcome at Hampden.
Hazard’s tale across the entire afternoon proved a redemptive story thanks to his shoot-out saves. In truth, though, the 120 minutes before the denouement were error-strewn for him. He looked no less jittery and free from errors of judgement than the men he displaced in Vasilis Barkas and Scott Bain. Never more so than when coming, and failing to collect a free-kick floated in late on in extra-time that led to Josh Ginnelly claiming Hearts’ third. Lennon will face questions over how Celtic could buckle so dramatically in the second half after appearing to toy with a deep-lying Hearts in an opening period they capped with a brilliant curling 19th minute effort from Ryan Chrstie and an Odsonne Edouard penalty kick awarded for a clear Christophe Berra handball.
As was inevitable, captain Scott Brown returned to take the place of Ismaila Soro, despite the Ivorian impressing as Celtic achieved back-to-back wins for the first time since October in their previous two outings. It was more than any one selection call from Lennon that left Celtic struggling to avoid being overwhelmed by a resurgent Hearts in the second half, though. Confidence visibly drained at the very first signs of trouble Hearts started to get balls into the box from crosses and corners. Shane Duffy - who got under an Andy Halliday cross that set-up Liam Boyce to head in for 2-1 in the 48th minute - and Christopher Jullien, failed to convince.
Celtic’s game management was desperate from then on. They did not defend a corner, which allowed Kingsley to head in - despite Scott Brown hooking it away from behind the line - to make it 2-2 in the 67th minute. Hazard appeared none too clever in a strike that became the first awarded through the use of goalline technology, referee John Beaton signalling for it following a short delay. Hearts seemed the team that would go on and grab the winner in the closing stages of normal time, and would have done so had Ginnelly not proved wasteful with two glaring openings.
It says it all that Lennon deployed six substitutes across the afternoon. One of those delivered when he needed it most. So often that can be said about Griffiths. His importance cannot be under-estimated on the day. He stuck away his shoot-out penalty as first man up for his team having earlier pounced to clip in from close-range when Gordon had saved from him following a Brown header into the mix in the final seconds of the first period of extra-time. Griffiths had only been introduced seven minutes earlier. He might one of the few Celtic players that won’t be a little sheepish when casting his eyes over his winners’ medal in years to come.
Celtic: Hazard; Ajer, Jullien, Duffy (Johnston 91), Taylor (Laxalt 83); Brown (Soro 106), McGregor; Christie, Turnbull (Rogic 68), Elyounoussi (Frimpong 83); Edouard (Griffiths 97). Subs: Barkas, Bitton, Klimala, Soro.
Heart of Midlothian: Gordon; Halkett, Berra, Kingsley; Smith, Halliday (Haring 91), Irving (Frear 119), White (Lee 81); Walker (Ginnelly 47); Naismith; Boyce (Wighton 70). Subs: Stewart, Haring, Roberts, Popescu, Henderson.
Referee: John Beaton