On being handed a Celtic team-sheet that showed the hosts were far from at full-strength, Dundee might well have sniffed a chance of securing a first win at Parkhead since 2001.
It was still a long shot of course. Celtic haven’t been beaten at home by domestic opposition this year – and that remains the case after Brendan Rodgers’ slightly unfamiliar looking side managed to avoid messing up a sequence of league wins that has now stretched to 11.
Gary Mackay-Steven, pictured, was one of five changes made by Rodgers, coming into the side for only his second start of the season and responding well to the urging of his friend and skipper for the day, Stuart Armstrong.
The pair arrived from Dundee United two years ago in February and while at one stage it seemed as if both were finding the step up to be beyond them, there are signs that Mackay-Steven could follow Armstrong’s lead by becoming a valuable contributor.
He and fellow fringe player Ryan Christie patrolled the flanks against Dundee, Mackay-Steven making way for the returning Scott Sinclair as the home fans were in the midst of their now traditional 67th-minute lights display.
The visitors began their very nearly successful attempt at a comeback shortly afterwards when Marcus Haber cut the deficit to one after goals from Leigh Griffiths, with a trademark free-kick, and Nir Bitton had seemingly put the game beyond Dundee.
But Celtic prevailed after substitute Faissal El Bakhtaoui blazed high over the bar when through on goal with two minutes left and just Craig Gordon to beat.
And now Mackay-Steven, pictured right, hopes to continue playing a part as Celtic continue a packed festive schedule against Partick Thistle tomorrow night. He’s aware of the significance of the approaching day in February when he reaches the second anniversary of signing for Celtic. He has made only 27 league appearances, many of them as substitute, with his progress hampered by injury. The most recent of these ailments, an ankle problem, saw him miss a large part of pre-season training. That’s rarely a recipe for forcing one’s way into the plans of a new manager. There was even talk of Mackay-Steven being sent out on loan, possibly to Ross County, earlier this season.
“I missed pre-season and a large chunk of the season when I wasn’t training so now I’m just fully back and buying into the manager’s ideas of what he wants, and getting my own levels up,” he explained. “Patience is key here. We have a lot of competition in a lot of positions and everyone who steps in can do a job. You just need to be patient and take your chance when it comes.”
There’s inspiration to be had from the incremental steps taken by Armstrong, from bit-part player to mainstay and, temporarily, at least, to captain. “He was patient earlier on in the season and when he got his chance he took it and in the last few games he’s been amazing for us,” noted Mackay-Steven. “He’s chipped in with goals and assists and he’s probably been one of our best players. He’s really kicked on and I’m absolutely delighted for him.”
But the 26-year-old winger knows it’s down to him to ensure he joins Armstrong in Rodgers’ first-team plans on a regular basis. He rejects any notion that the move to Celtic cowed him to the extent he has been unable to reproduce the swashbuckling form that saw him earn a move to Parkhead in the first place.
“You can’t not enjoy playing for a club like this, it’s amazing every day,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to show yourself. I just want to look ahead really and, now I am back fit, I want to write some more chapters and look ahead to a positive future.”
Mackay-Steven certainly seemed to bear the weight of knowing he needed to impress on Saturday very lightly indeed. One run up the right flank, after which he switched play with a cross-field pass, earned an approving outbreak of applause from the home fans.
“It’s hard to deal with if you think like that,” he said, on the subject of players who have suffered from feeling they don’t quite belong on such a grand stage. “But if you look at it as a blessing and appreciate a lot of people would like to be in my position… I certainly see it as a blessing. You are playing at Celtic Park for all the amazing fans here. There’s so many people that follow the club, I look at it like I am the lucky one. So you have to enjoy it and that’s what I try to do.”
Sadly for someone else trying to make their mark at a club, Dundee’s failure to gain a point was due to a miss by El Bakhtaoui likely to haunt him for some time to come.
The substitute need not castigate himself for the way in which he helped fashion the chance, but his finish was woeful. The evident rustiness is perhaps connected to his limited playing time since recovering from injury. “One minute I was on the bench and then the manager put me on,” he reflected, with the suggestion the opportunity had come too soon for him. “We had been pushing Celtic and then the chance came. I won’t miss it next time.”