No Scottish team has come closer to beating Celtic in the reign of Brendan Rodgers than St Johnstone did yesterday.
A fizzing, fiery frolic of a contest fully deserving of its top of the table billing found the Scottish champions 10 minutes away from a first domestic defeat against a Perth side who had purpose, power and perseverance. Few teams attempt to break Celtic’s rhythm. Against that, no side in Scotland can repel Rodgers’ men when they get up a full head of steam, as they did in exhilarating fashion across the final half hour in order to extend their domestic unbeaten run to 53 games.
The weariness of the home side following their Champions League exertions in Kazakhstan was cast aside. Helped by half-time substitutes Stuart Armstrong and Jonny Hayes, the other pivotal aspect was the proactive nature of Rodgers, in switching to a back three as he brought on what proved to be the game saver, Callum McGregor.
It was a scatty sort of encounter all the way through and St Johnstone striker Steven MacLean was at the centre of most of it. He scored in the 41st minute, missed a glorious headed opportunity to make it 2-0 on the hour, and then seemed to throw an arm in the direction of Kieran Tierney’s face only to receive only a caution.
MacLean didn’t seem to know whether to be delighted or dumped by the afternoon’s events. He could, though, only admire the dizzying onslaught of his opponents, who equalised after McGregor swept in a right-foot effort from the edge of the box. In the final nine minutes, both Sinclair and Mikel Lustig had efforts off the bar, with Hayes also twice going close.
“It was the longest half in the world,” MacLean said. “As the game goes on, you think you are going to hang on. We spoke about being the team to end their invincible record. We were looking good, our shape was good, we got the goal and I had another chance I probably should have scored.
“They threw absolutely everything at us. Brendan changed his shape and it was a curveball. It was green arrows coming at us everywhere. We did well to hang on, but once they got the goal we never folded. It shows the character we have. The back four got blocks on everything.”
MacLean’s goal came about in bizarre fashion with the forward believing he was offside, knocking it in after Celtic players seemed to stop expecting that call.
It didn’t come because, although MacLean looked yards offside, he was played on by Anthony Ralston stationed at the byline. That was where the youngster was when he knocked the ball to Craig Gordon, who then scuffed a kick straight to Liam Craig, allowing him to play it forward to the in-space MacLean.
“I thought I was offside, I’ll be honest. I was just taking the mick. I put in and turned round and they were saying, ‘He’s gave it’. I looked across and thought, ‘The linesman must be steaming’,” said MacLean of assistant Douglas Ross, who happens to be the Tory MP now facing calls to resign, following his comment about “Gypsy travellers”.
MacLean revealed that he joked with the referee when scoring, because he was so sure it wasn’t a legitimate strike.
“Griffiths had one he put in the net after the whistle earlier and Willie Collum never booked him, and I said to Willie ‘You’ll book me if I kick it in the net’, so I put it in thinking that, but he’s gave it. Just as well I put it in.”
However, MacLean had no truck with the notion that Collum may have shown leniency in only giving him a yellow card after 72 minutes when his fist seemed to fly towards the face of Celtic’s left-back after the pair tussled.
“We were just having a bit of crack, it was a coming together and I said to him, ‘I am old enough to be your old man’. I was 35 on Wednesday. We just brushed together. He never said there was contact and I didn’t think there was. If anything, it was minimal. He’s a great player and he was running away from me. I didn’t even think it was a foul, I never touched him. I’m more interested in the [McGregor-Mayweather] fight tonight.”