Seldom, if ever, has an opposition goalkeeper been as surplus to requirements when facing Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic side as Jamie MacDonald was on Saturday.
“I was useless,” observed the Kilmarnock No 1 before quickly seeking to clarify his less than flattering description of his own contribution, which was effectively limited to a 90th minute save to keep out a free-kick by Olivier Ntcham.
“Well, not useless, but you know what I mean,” added MacDonald. “I wasn’t really used, I wasn’t really called upon. I had a comfortable save from the free-kick at the end which was probably Celtic’s only real shot on target.”
MacDonald had plenty of time to stand back and admire the work of his team-mates as Kilmarnock enjoyed their first victory over Celtic at Rugby Park since 2010, courtesy of the outstanding Youssouf Mulumbu’s goal midway through the second half.
It was the collective effort of Killie which really caught the eye, however, as their tactical discipline summed up the impressive strides they have made since Steve Clarke’s appointment as manager in October.
“That is one of the best defensive performances from a team that I have ever been involved in, especially against a team like Celtic,” said MacDonald. “The boys in front of me today were outstanding, from the two up front, to the midfield, which I thought we dominated. Celtic had the ball for large periods of the game, but when it got to the 50-50s we won most of them. It was just an outstanding performance from the boys.
“The gaffer had worked on it all week. Our game plan was not to sit too deep, because you can sometimes draw pressure on yourself, but make sure we were tight, compact and didn’t give Celtic space. It worked to a T. You could see the energy about the place. We are all fit and we all gave our all. That is what you need on days like those when you play Celtic. Everybody needs to be 100 per cent and that was definitely the case.”
It was Kilmarnock’s fifth victory in their last eight Premiership fixtures, taking them back into the top six. The start of the campaign, in which they failed to win any of their opening eight league games, now feels like a distant memory for MacDonald.
“It doesn’t feel like it is the same season,” said the former Hearts keeper. “Just the mood about the place, everything is so different. Our league campaign started very poorly, it was only three points from the first eight games.
“Then last weekend we were leaving Pittodrie really disappointed about having lost 3-1 to Aberdeen, which says a lot about how far we have come and the expectations we now have. We were looking to make amends against Celtic and we have done that. This league is so tight that we are still looking to get away from the bottom end first and foremost but that win is a big win and hopefully gives us confidence going forward.”
Celtic’s second domestic defeat under Rodgers reduced their lead at the top of the Premiership to eight points and included defenders Dedryck Boyata and Kristoffer Ajer limping off in the first half to join an already lengthy list of injured players for the champions.
Regardless of their distaste for an artificial playing surface which manager Rodgers described as “dreadful”, the Celtic camp accepted that it was their own failings on the day which were the biggest factor in the result.
“From start to finish, we weren’t good enough,” said winger James Forrest, pictured. “We got what we deserved and we just need to show a bit of character now to come back from this. We started actually all right, for the first ten minutes, but then the couple of defenders going off maybe changed the way the game was going.
“But we don’t have any excuses. The better team won. I can’t remember a game before when we’ve only had one shot on target. Kilmarnock sat back and we never created much. We had a lot of attacking players on the pitch but, all round, we weren’t good enough.
“We have played on this pitch a few times before and we’ve won. So we know what it’s like and we’re not going to blame the pitch. It is difficult to play on but you can say it is the same for both teams. The Kilmarnock pitch is a bit better than Hamilton’s.”
Forrest hopes Celtic can deliver a response to Saturday’s loss similar to their reaction following their first domestic setback under Rodgers, the 4-0 defeat by Hearts at Tynecastle in December.
“It needs to be the same again, because we have the next round of the Scottish Cup coming up next and then the Europa League tie against Zenit St Petersburg this month as well,” he added.
“So we know we have to turn it around quickly again. We actually created more chances in that defeat against Hearts than we did against Kilmarnock. So we know, as a team, it wasn’t good enough and we have to rectify it.”