Celtic 2 - 1 Hearts: Johnston and Dembele star as champions sign off with win
The old songs were sung at Parkhead this afternoon as Celtic celebrated an eighth successive title and 50th league flag in total. But fans left the stadium pondering the future as represented by Dembele with just as much relish.
Just 16 and three months old – he was born in the same year as Seville – and roughly the same height as a corner flag, he has already been much vaunted and was called back from an England Under-17 camp to appear here as a half-time substitute for Oli Burke.
Scotland still hold out some hope of convincing him to play for them and it’s clear why. Wearing the No 77 shirt, his cameo was a privilege to witness.
When in the 67th minute Celtic were awarded a free-kick just two yards outside the box, it looked for all the world as if Dembele would take it. The supporters urged this to happen. The minute seemed a happy portent too – particularly on an afternoon when we also celebrated the life of Stevie Chalmers.
But Celtic sought to catch Hearts unaware and Dembele dummied in order for Scott Sinclair to try his luck. His moderate effort was deflected behind. Celtic Park booed its disapproval.
Dembele did not need to be spoon fed an opportunity to score. He created his own chances.
One, thrillingly, came when drifting in from the right touchline, beating at least two Hearts opponents before he shot narrowly wide. Another time he came closer still with Zdenek Zlamal reacting well to save a powerful angled drive at his near post.
This meeting of next weekend’s Scottish Cup finalists could be summed up by Dembele’s opposite man, Aaron Hickey, being only a few months older than him.
If there’s one conclusion to be taken from the afternoon it’s that few conclusions could be drawn. Neither side could be said to have shown their hand for fear of sustaining injuries. Sadly, there isn’t any way to eradicate the chances of such misfortune befalling those involved in a physical game, however little is at stake.
Hearts suffered a deflating start in that they lost the opening goal to the impressive 20-year-old Mikey Johnston inside two minutes and then saw Olly Lee limp off after 12. There’s no doubting which of these blows left Craig Levein more distressed. Lee, who was replaced by Ryan Edwards, is now a major doubt for Saturday’s cup final.
A No 8 Celtic shirt hung from outside the door at east end hostelry The Saracen Head denoting an eighth league title – “two to go” was the refrain outside Parkhead. It also referenced Paul McStay, who is the face of this championship. The legendary midfielder presented the trophy to the squad, including Leigh Griffiths, at the end.
The game really did feel like an afterthought. Being the first at home since Lisbon Lion Chalmers’ death, there was a loud minute’s applause as befitting the player who scored Celtic’s, perhaps Scottish football’s, most significant goal.
There was also a presentation for Hearts defender Aaron Hughes, who has announced his decision to quit the game at the age of 39 after a glorious career. Neil Lennon, his former Northern Ireland international team-mate, and Craig Levein presented him with a commemorative quaich to mark over 650 appearances for several clubs, including Hearts, Newcastle United and Aston Villa. He came on for John Souttar in the second half and was given the armband.
Relations between Celtic and Hearts have not always been cordial in the stands, but both clubs displayed great sportsmanship towards each other to the extent Hearts decided to hand Celtic a one-goal start as well as a guard of honour. The Tannoy man’s thanks for a “fitting and respectful tribute” could also be interpreted as a pointed reference to Rangers’ failure to pay the same respects at Ibrox last weekend.
Perhaps one concern on Steven Gerrard’s part was the potential for the reverential air cast by such a tribute to creep into the team’s subsequent play. If so, Hearts proved his point. Even though they took kick-off, they were a goal down inside two minutes – 84 seconds to be exact. Hearts stood off Johnston as he bore down on goal and, a quick one-two with Ewan Henderson later, he had put his side in front with an angled shot that beat Zlamal at his near post.
Hearts’ teenagers had barely had time to draw breath as they contemplated performing on such a grand stage. Not many Hearts players can say they made their full debut in front of 60,000. Hickey now can. The 16-year-old was joined in the side by Connor Smith and Andy Irving, 17 and 19-years-old respectively.
They acquitted themselves well, Hickey especially. While cup final squad places might be beyond them, there were others playing with this incentive in mind. Craig Wighton is one. It has not really happened for him so far at Hearts but he helped spook former Dundee team-mate Scott Bain by closing him down after 18 minutes. Sean Clare took possession after Bain’s poor kick and transferred the ball to Jake Mulraney, whose composed finish into the top corner was exceptional.
Zlamal brilliantly tipped a shot from Johnston past the post shortly after half-time but the striker was not to be denied. He struck the winner after 84 minutes with a low drive from 20 yards that hit Zlamal’s right and then left post before nestling in the side-netting.