Given the stresses and strains of his job it, is hard to say whether Neil Lennon ever gets a decent night’s sleep in life, but he would have stood half a chance of some quality slumber after this precious victory, a win that looked decidedly iffy after Celtic had slapsticked their way through the first hour.
The game turned on controversy, namely, the ludicrous red card shown to Caley’s Greg Tansey in the 36th minute for what Stevie O’Reilly, the referee, saw as a swinging elbow in to the head of Georgios Samaras. That was O’Reilly’s perception, the reality, though, was altogether different.
The red card was a nonsense but it was a monumental break for the visitors. It allowed them to recover from a plodding performance and eventually pull away to win courtesy of two more goals from Anthony Stokes, the first a peach of a move culminating with a tap-in, the second a neat volley. Stokes has now scored five goals in his last three games and has 11 in 19 appearances this season.
That the day was won with little or no hassle coming from the travelling supporters was something else that would have had Lennon pleased with his lot.
We turned up with our Mr Spock ears on for this one but, save for the odd half-hearted and short-lived chant – we had a few seconds of IRA glorification after three minutes from a minority of the Celtic support – there was little to get in a lather about. Mercifully.
The backdrop to this game didn’t begin and end with the Green Brigade song book, though. For this was the first time Celtic had visited Inverness since their title prospects were torched here on a midweek night in early May. It just showed the big turnaround in personnel at Caley that only five of the 3-2 team of six months ago started this match and it spoke to the huge injury list the visitors have right now that only three Celtic players started both encounters.
None of the goalscorers of May made it. Kris Commons, who was incapable of getting through a game back then without scoring at least one goal (he scored two on that fateful evening) was on the bench again. Commons in full flight was a hell of a sight, a scorer of goals, a maker of goals, an utter nuisance everywhere he went. Celtic lack that devil now. SPL action has become an almighty chore for them, so Stokes’ recent form has been a godsend.
Given Caley’s position at the bottom of the division, you might have thought that was the ideal place for Celtic to fetch up at, but Caley nearly always represent a thorny problem for Celtic and they did so again here for a long period. They had met 19 times in the league before this one and on 13 occasions there has been only one goal (or no goal at all) between them at the end. The signs were, then, that it was going to be tight.
We can only speculate how tight it might have Tansey not been ordered off so early.
In their patchwork formation, Celtic went with Victor Wanyama at the heart of its defence and he was excellent, a real plus. Not that there were many for Celtic until the decisive red card and Stokes’ subsequent rescue act. The home team were up for it and totally unafraid. Celtic, as is their wont of late, were flat and tentative until they got the comfort of Stokes’s opener. They looked like a side that is still some way off regaining its confidence.
They created little out there. After half an hour, Stokes tried to scramble a shot past by Ryan Esson from close range but Josh Meekings, alert to the danger, got in the way.
And that was about the extent of it for Celtic until they finally scored on the hour-mark, the sum total of their half-decent chances.
Of course, they got an enormous piece of good fortune in the midst of all this when Tansey clashed with Samaras and was sent packing. Celtic took their time to exploit their advantage, but eventually, after some pretty inept stuff and the substitution of Samaras only ten minutes into the new half, they conjured something special that was completely at odds with the garbage that went before.
They were passive and static and inaccurate and largely clueless and then, in a blink, they were precise and clinical. Their goal was a gorgeous thing, a move that bamboozled Caley from the moment Ki Sung Yeung, an effective replacement for Samaras, gave it to Gary Hooper, who gave it to James Forrest, who turned it back brilliantly to Hooper, who squared for Stokes to tap it home. Excellence, at last.
And there was more of it from the Dubliner a little while later when Forrest’s shot spun in the air off a Caley defender and fell to Stokes, who promptly whacked it first-time past Esson. A big day for Celtic, but a head-wrecker for Terry Butcher.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Anthony Stokes (Celtic)
He might have his faults but the boy knows how to score.
The red card shown to Greg Tansey. It changed the entire game.
Referee: S O’Reilly. Attendance: 6,435