WHEN Celtic wish to do so, they can really turn on the style.
This display didn’t augur well for Hibernian, particularly since it featured, at its heart, a powerful performance from the fit-again Scott Brown.
It now looks certain that the Easter Road side will face their former midfielder in the Scottish Cup final in just under a fortnight’s time. Brown’s return is timely, as well as potentially game-changing. Kevin Thomson will look forward to being re-acquainted with his friend on the football field, but on the form Brown showed on Saturday, he will be hard to pin down at Hampden, as will several of his teammates.
Although he has not been sidelined for as nearly as long, James Forrest also made his return to the first-team on Saturday and contributed a goal, in a personal performance described as “exceptional” by manager Neil Lennon, who looked on proudly as Brown lifted the Scottish Premier League trophy, before handing his own championship medal to a delighted young Celtic supporter in the crowd.
Brown was given the man of the match award, despite only having played for an hour. By this time Celtic had drawn three goals ahead and Lennon could afford to be careful with his captain. It was scarcely believable that he had not started a first-team match since the 3-0 home defeat to Juventus in the Champions League.
Brown is not one of those players who needs to get games under his belt in order to reach his optimum performance level. Looking fit and lean, he controlled the play, and gave Hibs something else to think about. Worryingly for Pat Fenlon’s side, Celtic look to be getting stronger as the season ends, thanks partly to the clearing up of injury worries. Forrest later suggested that Brown’s comeback could prove particularly significant.
“Scott’s the captain and when he plays everyone gets a lift from it,” he said. “He is always the fittest in the team and he could easily have played for 90 minutes, which is a bonus for us.”
Brown stepped back into the fray and impressed from the opening minute, when he had a hand in Celtic’s opening goal. In a more literal sense, so too did Gary Hooper, although the currently beleaguered referee Alan Muir allowed play to continue, as did the near-side assistant referee, Craig Young. It was not impressive refereeing.
Joe Ledley duly scored with Celtic’s first shot on goal. There were, though, some understandable grumbles from St Johnstone, since Hooper had clearly handled when bringing the ball down as Celtic launched their first real attack. “When you play the Old Firm away you want to keep it tight for the first 15 minutes, so conceding so early put our game plan right out of the window,” was the reasonable point made by St Johnstone skipper Dave Mackay afterwards. Fortunately, with Inverness Caledonian Thistle losing later in the day to Dundee United, the defeat has not proved fatal for St Johnstone’s European ambitions, with one more game, against Motherwell, to come. “It’s one consolation,” said Mackay, of the Inverness result.
Muir has not had a good week. At the eye of the storm when Peter Pawlett dived to win the penalty that relegated Dundee, the referee was again at fault here when he decided against blowing for a foul. It’s possible that so wounded had he been by last week’s experience at Dens Park, he resolved to be more circumspect this time around. Sadly for him, since a goal again resulted, his poor decision-making was once again rendered significant.
However, it is difficult to make an argument that claims St Johnstone were hard done by here. When substitute Nigel Hasselbaink finally drew a save from Fraser Forster, deep into the second-half, Celtic were already well on the way to victory after further strikes from Charlie Mulgrew, who scored with a whipped-in free kick that Anthony Stokes claimed he glanced into the net with his head, and Forrest, who drilled into the corner of the net from a tight angle. An own-goal from Frazer Wright completed a perfect day for the champions.
For all that they have been unimpressive at times recently, this was the fourth occasion in their last eight games that Celtic have scored four goals, and it could easily have been more.
Forrest stressed that retaining the title was still an achievement to treasure, despite the absence of Rangers. “Maybe everyone thought that we were going to win the league, but we still had to do it and it still means the same to us,” he said. He also seemed to have few worries with regards to Lennon’s future, which has become such an issue following David Moyes’s departure from Everton. Lennon addressed the crowd at the end, and made no reference to his own position, other than to assure fans he will see them at the cup final. “He said on Friday that this is where he wants to be, and he wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t true,” said Forrest.
Forrest himself was the subject of praise from Lennon afterwards. “I just think he is a fantastic player, he gives us an extra dimension,” said the manager. “His close control when under pressure is fantastic, although Stokesy is giving him a bit of stick for the one he blazed over the bar.”
It didn’t matter in the final analysis as Celtic celebrated another championship, something that Lennon, in his programme notes, stressed has always been the “top priority”.