IN the wake of this gobsmacking victory for the SPL’s bottom team – their first in 13 league games – over the insipid champions, Neil Lennon trained his guns on his players and, by God, he did not miss them.
Scorers: St Johnstone - Tade (18), Vine (80); Celtic - Commons (4)
Bookings: St Johnstone - Anderson, Cregg, Millar, Craig; Celtic - Izaguirre, Commons, Wanyama
Without question, St Johnstone deserved their win, apparently climbing from their collective sickbed to achieve it after their dressing room was laid low by a virus midweek, but it was the reaction of the Celtic manager ahead of their Champions League opener against Benfica on Wednesday that dominated the aftermath.
Lennon went through his players for a short-cut, with good reason. They took the lead and then lost it, before surrendering all points late in the game. They were awful in possession and half of them looked like they didn’t want to be here. St Johnstone, on the other hand, went about their work with a zeal that Celtic couldn’t live with, the excellent Gregory Tade drawing them level before a wonderful curling shot from the journeyman’s journeyman, the impressive Rowan Vine, won it for Steve Lomas’ side.
“This was needless, unnecessary and unacceptable,” said Lennon who had Scott Brown back in his team and Miku making a quiet debut. “We let the game drift away. We could have been playing anybody today and we would have been beaten. We played like strangers. A lot of them had half an eye on Wednesday night and I’m going to have to rethink my team for the Benfica match now. There was no attitude out there. We’ve conceded one goal in four Champions League qualifiers and seven in five SPL games. I said to them ‘You’ll have no bother motivating yourselves for Wednesday night, but I want to see it here’.
“The players have had good publicity but the game can bite you quickly and it bit them today. They’re back to earth with a crunch. Kris Commons, Kelvin Wilson and Mikael Lustig were the only exceptions. Those were the only three near their best. They’ve got to stop listening to their own hype. It means nothing to me. I’ll change the team just like that if I have to. We were tepid. There was a softness about us.”
For all that, Celtic almost levelled it late on, but it would have been an injustice. In the closing seconds, Tony Watt got himself on the end of a long downfield ball from Lustig and veered in on the St Johnstone goal. On a day when many of Lomas’ players delivered big performances they needed one more significant act to get the job done and they got it from their goalkeeper, Alan Mannus, who beat away Watt’s effort.
History repeated itself here. Last season, St Johnstone were winless in the SPL before beating Celtic. This season, same story. This victory simply dropped out of the sky, in part because of St Johnstone’s tremendous doggedness and also because of Celtic’s lack of fight. It’s a bit of a recurring theme in the SPL. The champions have already dropped seven points. Clearly they are easing-up in domestic competition. Clearly their manager is utterly fuming at them.
After Celtic took a fourth-minute lead through a Commons shot, you wouldn’t have given tuppence for the home team’s chances but back they came. Tade was a beast up front and brought them back into it after Vine found him 18 yards out. Celtic’s defence was unconscious. Tade simply turned and hit it into the corner of Fraser Forster’s goal.
Lomas will sit you down for hours telling you about the bad breaks his team have had in their awful winless run but their luck turned in a fairly spectacular way midway through the first half when Steven Anderson took out Commons in the box and avoided both a penalty and a red card. Terrible decision from referee Euan Norris.
The act of escapology seemed to lift St Johnstone. Peter Pawlett was always influential on the right-hand side and almost scored just before the break. Just after, Watt replaced Miku. On the touchline, Lennon managed to conceal his anger at the way his team were plodding along but inside, clearly, he was fuming.
Lucky to survive a penalty claim in the first half, Saints had a shout for one of their own midway through the second half when Pawlett was barged by Charlie Mulgrew. Once again, Norris didn’t give it. Once again, Norris was wrong.
Throughout that second half there was only one team forcing the issue, one team digging in and trying to win. And it was St Johnstone. The decisive moment came when Nigel Hasselbaink robbed Mulgrew, who had a bit of a nightmare, and found Vine, the striker then whipping his shot past Forster for a winner that was celebrated as if it was a Cup final winner. Legend has it Vine is a Rangers fan, but he stayed coy on that one.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Mackay, Wright, Anderson, Miller, Cregg, Davidson, Craig, Pawlett, Tade, Vine. Subs: Tuffey, Millar, Hasselbaink, MacLean, Caddis, Scobbie, Kane.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig, Wilson, Mulgrew, Izaguirre, Forrest, Wanyama, Brown, Commons, Hooper, Miku. Subs: Zaluska, Nouioui, Rogne, Watt, Ibrahim, McGregor, Fraser.