It really did feel like there was some supreme, fated quality to Celtic’s No.5 Jozo Simunovic producing a McNeill-style jump at the back post to glance in a Callum McGregor cross with 67 minutes showing on the stadium clock. The whole swirl of emotion across the afternoon had centred around the career touchstones of McNeill as Celtic’s captain and galvaniser extraordinaire, who wore the No.5 on his shorts and in 1967 in Lisbon became the first player to hold aloft the European Cup with a British club.
The Celtic players all sported the No.5 on the black armbands they adorned on the day; the centre circle was enveloped by a giant, green-and-white hooped circular covering that had the figure “5” overlaid on it, and the Green Brigade produced a display that had as its focus the famous image of McNeill lifting the big cup under the legend ‘Hail Cesar’, in recognition both of the club’s anthem and the nickname of their iconic former captain and manager.
Simunovic pointed to the skies as he wheeled away in celebration of a goal that means only an extraordinary turnaround could deprive Celtic of an eighth straight title. A 50th championship in all, McNeill has played his part in more of those than any other individual in the club’s history; with nine as a player and four as manager.
For current interim Neil Lennon, with his passing this week, McNeill might have had higher power to affect the club moving to the brink of another – Rangers requiring to win at home to Aberdeen tomorrow to retain any hope of nicking the title on goal difference across the three remaining league fixtures
“It’s amazing when you think about it,” he said, having started the day laying a wreath at the statue of McNeill situated at the entrance to the Celtic way leading up to the stadium. “That was a perfect way to win the game, I suppose, under the circumstances with everything that’s happened this week and today. The big man might have been looking down on us when we needed a goal.”
A Celtic Park, fittingly, full and full of voice as it only tends to be on European nights, sang paeans to McNeill throughout. And, yet, for all this, Kilmarnock produced a cohesiveness and a menace that largely deserted a clumsy and stodgy Celtic. Lennon conceded they are “grinding” their way to the title, but joked he was not to “blame”. They are a team that appears to have hit the wall, physically, and but for the defensive barrier offered by keeper Scott Bain, who produced three top drawer saves - twice denying Chris Burke and thwarting a venomous effort from Alan Power - Steve Clarke’s men could easily have claimed all three points.
Following his rubbling of the reputation of referee Steven McLean last week that has landed him an SFA charge, the Ayrshire manager picked his words a little more carefully when picking apart the unhelpful display of official Willie Collum, who appeared to deny his men a penalty when Scott Brown nudged Stephen O’Donnell in the box only 14 minutes in. “Soft but a penalty,” Clarke said of the incident. “As he goes to play the ball, he gets pushed in the back so it’s a penalty. I think I shouldn’t speak anything else about referees.”
His team “definitely” deserved more from an afternoon when the fates appeared to conspire against them. “The players were terrific, great effort, good application, we just missed that little bit of quality on the finishes. We had the best chance of the first half, good opportunities.” What weighted against them was an overwhelming sense of history wrapped up with the loss of a titan of the Scottish game and that simply appeared as if it had to be served.