There was just a hint through the week that Celtic might not be completely up for this game and maybe it was Mikael Lustig’s lunatic dancing aboard the plane to Tenerife, without a policeman’s hat this time.
Or it might have been the champions celebrating their latest title by the pool with a rendition of the techno hit Zombie Nation with its poetic refrain: “Zombie, zombie, zombie, zombie nation”. Or perhaps it was captain Scott Brown grabbing the microphone in a nightclub to murder the Queen classic Don’t Stop Me Now.
Well, a trip to Tynecastle was bound to bring them back to thudding reality and proceedings began with the Hearts faithful booing their own team - for forming a guard-of-honour for the seven-in-a-row men. Seconds in, when Mikael Lustig wound up for the first throw, a cup and its contents flew past his ear and he possibly wished he still had that hat. Then in the 18th minute the marauding, clattering Kyle Lafferty fired the home side into the lead.
But Celtic weren’t playing in flip-flops and rubbing sunscreen on each other’s backs. Goals from Dedryck Boyata, Moussa Dembele and Scott Sinclair won them the match and ended Hearts unbeaten record at their redeveloped home.
Celtic in Gorgie is normally a notable fixture in the calendar and often a fiery one, but this latest clash had been pushed down the agenda by Steven Gerrard’s appointment as Rangers manager and Sir Alex Ferguson’s brain hemorrhage, never mind that the title had been clinched and Hearts were only battling with themselves for sixth spot.
It hadn’t been downrated in Jambo eyes, though. Having ruined the run of Celtic’s Invincibles here earlier in the season, and by four goals to nil, this was a chance to stick something unpleasant in the championship bubbly.
The first outbreak of niggle in the warm spring sunshine came with a clash involving Scott Brown and Steven Naismith, the latter appearing to leave in a boot. But first in referee Bobby Madden’s book was Lafferty for going studs-up on Tom Rogic.
Bizarrely the floodlights blazed. Hearts fired in long throws and longer balls in a bid for the breakthrough. They thought they’d got it when John Souttar forced a corner over the line only for Madden to blow for a block on goalkeeper Scott Bain which wasn’t altogether apparent. A maroon-clad fan threw the ball in Calum McGregor’s face - the midfielder deputising for Kieran Tierney at left-back - all part of the fabled Tynecastle “atmosphere”. It was tousy and fast - at least when the players could dig the ball out of the long grass, which brought complaints from Celtic afterwards. And then came the opener: yet another howitzer from deep, a flick from Lewis Moore, Brown conveniently being barged by Naismith and Lafferty fairly bulleting the ball through Bain.
But the lead lasted just three minutes. Olivier Ntcham angled a free-kick to the back post where Boyata was lurking. Lafferty wasn’t as sharp with his defensive duties and the Belgian was able to steer his header high into the opposite corner of the net.
Dembele was given sight of goal but Jon McLaughlin was speedily off his line. At the other end Souttar couldn’t quite stretch for a cross flicked on by Christophe Berra. Then Souttar was short with a back-pass, Dembele attempted a lob, but the ball bounced onto the bar and over.
Unsurprisingly, the match programme went big on a moment from that 4-0 game rated by many Jambos the highlight of a disappointing season: Harry Cochrane’s goal. “The moment,” it declared under a blown-up photo, while the 17-year-old, recalling the strike for the umpteenth time, called the biggest highlight of his tender life. But the prospect had to bide his time and by the time he came off the bench Hearts were behind.
After Moore had lost the ball wide on the right, Rogic produced the pass of the afternoon: outside of the right foot with a subtle fade. Dembele killed the ball instantly, prodding past McLaughlin to the delight of the away support who’d been singing “Champions again” non-stop.
Rodgers withdrew Odsonne Edouard who was injured and Dembele as a precaution and this was Berra’s opportunity to assume centre-forward duties. Mind you, with Fortress Tynie’s reputation to save, he would have done this anyway.
But Hearts couldn’t quite get Cochrane on the ball, couldn’t quite contrive the craft to find an equaliser. The nearest things came at the other end although Celtic’s shooting became quite casual as the afternoon grew hotter. Maybe they thought they were back in Tenerife.
And then, deep into stoppage time, substitute Stuart Armstrong spied a gap in the tiring Hearts defence and crossed for fellow replacement Sinclair to add the third.