The ease with which Celtic swatted aside Kilmarnock to seal their place in the last eight of the Betfred Cup served as yet one more of example of the anointed status of manager Brendan Rodgers. It also proved another occasion to marvel at the irresistible rise of Kieran Tierney.
The 45th win of the Irish manager’s 49-game unbeaten domestic run was hardly unexpected. Nor was it a surprise that Leigh Griffiths was the man to do the early damage, or that the team he appeared in should be much changed from the side which dismantled Hearts in the Premiership opener on Saturday.
However, what couldn’t be predicted about last night was that Celtic would prove so imperious while fielding no fewer than five teenagers – three of whom formed their back four.
Or that Tierney, at 20, would prove not just the old head, but would also be the captain and claim an astonishing goal.
In being given the armband, the possibility of his becoming Celtic’s youngest captain in a competitive game was raised.
It was an honour he didn’t half embroider with an almighty hit from fully 35 yards to make it 4-0 with 25 minutes remaining. An effort that took off like a jet plane to practically leave a trail as it nestled in the top right hand corner of Jamie MacDonald’s net. It was a pearler on a night full of highlights for Rodgers’ men.
It is sure to have been extra-special to Tierney, who didn’t even occupy his regular left-back berth. Instead, the Scotland international partnered Kristoffer Ajer in the centre of defence. With 19-year-old Calvin Miller on the right of the backline and 18-year-old Anthony Ralston on the opposite flank the average age of home defence was 19.5 years. Surely some sort of club record?
In the early stages it looked like another would be set as Kilmarnock failed to make it over the halfway line for the opening quarter of an hour. It wasn’t that Celtic were doing anything exceptional, though 19-year-old winger Kundai Benyu – a summer signing from Ipswich Town – scampered down the left in lively fashion and a fifth teenager, Eboue Kouassi, looked eager in central midfield.
What was unmistakeable, though, was the supine nature of Lee McCulloch’s men. They didn’t look like a fellow Premiership side of Celtic’s but lower division cannon fodder. Yet, in their ranks they have a clutch of experienced performers in defenders Gordon Greer and Kirk Broadfoot and attacking players Chris Burke and Lee Erwin.
Greer and Broadfoot were defenders at the other end of the spectrum from those of Celtic and they had a night in complete contrast. The Rugby Park side were up against it from the 13th minute when Jonny Hayes burrowed into the visitors’ box and appeared to be impeded by Jordan Jones. Referee Alan Muir was willing to give the KIlmarnock man the benefit of the doubt but standside assistant Frank Connor flagged and a spot kick was belatedly given. An award that Griffiths slotted away without thinking.
The Scotland striker did likewise when Tierney chipped a ball forward that Griffiths controlled on his chest before setting off and stubbing a shot wide of MacDonald from the edge of the area. It was sublime finishing and made it 3-0 on the half hour, Ralston having doubled Celtic’s advantage a little earlier when he powered his sturdy frame into the air to meet an outswinging Griffiths corner and bullet a header high into the net.
Celtic’s young team did not have it all their own way, though. Kouassi was lost to an awkward fall as the interval neared and Miller did not have as many opportunities to make a splash, while Benyu was replaced to loud applause by Callum McGregor with 20 minutes remaining.
That ovation sounded like one man clapping compared to the acclaim given to Tierney for his strike that could not have been hit any sweeter.
He knew it as he took off to celebrate, turning to the main stand and thumping hand to the Celtic crest on his shirt as has become his trademark expression of his bond with his boyhood club.
Tierney may now have become the £25 million player at Celtic and one coveted even more than the injured Moussa Dembele. Last season, Stuart Armstrong was the third Celtic player talked about as a future incomer to the English top flight. His contract situation seems to have left him unsettled but last night he too enjoyed a scoring moment, neatly turning in a Ralston cross to complete a five-goal rout for an unstoppable home side.