The Irishman talked with incredible warmth about Hamilton keeper Ryan Fulton, a player he had on the books at Liverpool. The honeyed words after a day with real sting for the 22-year-old were akin to offering up an “oh, you really needn’t have” on receiving a present the giver ought to be embarrassed over.
This was the case for poor Fulton as Celtic produced a functional victory that allowed them to stretch their lead at the top of the Premiership to three points ahead of playing their game in hand on Wednesday, when they will entertain St Johnstone.
Rodgers made much of the Hamilton keeper’s saves early on - a couple of them fine reflex blocks - as the home side struggled to really pull the Lanarkshire club out of shape despite incessant pressing. However, Martin Canning was left to rue that his team’s thwarting of Celtic for almost the entire first half ended up counting for nothing because of two Fulton fumbles that could not be excused.
Rodgers drew a veil over the first of these, generously, but there ought to have been no danger for the relegation-threatened Hamilton when Callum McGregor swung in a low drive from the edge of the area. Fulton was right behind it, and then he wasn’t, the Celtic midfielder acknowledging there had been a touch before the ball took on the properties of a giant jellied eel in the gloves of the keeper as it slid out of his hands before squirting through his legs. In the 78th minute, Fulton was even more at fault as a nothing chip into the box from Michael Lustig out on the right popped out of his hands and bounced into the path of the following-up Ryan Christie, who kneed the ball in from a couple of yards.
The clincher came only four minutes after Kristoffer Ajer had been required to use his giraffe-like limbs to slide in and nick the ball from the toe of Steven Boyd just as forward had found himself free in on Scott Bain, who was preferred to Craig Gordon for a third successive game.
“That would have made it 1-1 with 15 to 20 minutes to go. They go straight up the park, we make a mistake and it’s 2-0, game done,” Canning said bitterly. “‘Who would be a goalkeeper? I thought Ryan made five or six real good saves in the game. Unfortunately for him the couple of mistakes he made he got punished for.”
Rodgers had no interest in piling on the misery to former charge Fulton. “He kept the score down,” he said. “ He was maybe even unlucky with the second one as well because the pitch is a wee bit bobbly and it just popped up in front of him.”
There were uneven elements to Celtic’s third home successive without conceding a goal in the past eight days - and their eighth in 11 home league games. None would be entitled to concern the Celtic manager, who started Timothy Weah in place of fellow loanee Oliver Burke up front. The US international couldn’t extended his scoring streak to three consecutive outings in his first full appearance, failing to capitalise on a one-on-one with Fulton in the early stages.
The player who did find the net for a third straight match was Scott Sinclair. He did so by burying a downward header from a Lustig cross to tie-up the scoring two minutes from normal time. The strike took his tally to eight goals in seven games and 13 in all for the season. The potency appears to be returning to the play of a performers whose belief seemed blunted in the early stages of the campaign.
“You see in his body language, the aggression in his game. He made a great run in the first half only for Ryan to make a brilliant save,” said Rodgers. “I’ve known him for years though, and while he doesn’t always play well, his consistency has been excellent these last few months and he’ll always score you a goal. You see his confidence is at a high level just now.”
Neither the confidence nor the staying power of fellow scoring McGregor has ever been in question. Yesterday was his 47th outing of the season, with the midfielder appearing in every available game for club and country. Rodgers accepted the point will come wherein he has to rest the 25-year-old, but that it might not come soon.
McGregor’s appetite for the game means he isn’t counting down the days till that occurs. “You want to keep playing. If there comes a time when your legs are going to fall off, then you take a wee breather,” he said. “I feel good, like I’m getting fitter. We’ve just had that wee break in Dubai as well, so you’re coming back fresh. I just want to keep playing and trying to help the team win. It’s a good achievement, when you sit back and look at it from maybe where you have come from to now [when] you are a big part of the team.”