THE first game of a league season ought to be about new beginnings, new faces, new narratives. Celtic’s win over Ross County might have been predictable as was the fact that the Scottish champions’ quest to progress to the Champions League play-offs in Azerbaijan on Wednesday swathed the proceedings.
A welcome freshness was provided, though, in the form of a first senior start for Celtic left-back Kieran Tierney. The 18-year-old, who made two substitute appearances for the club last season, will remember Celtic’s 2015 flag day longer than anyone else inside a stadium that has been impressively redecorated.
Assured and aggressive in his 63-minute run-out, it was a day he has craved his entire life – a day that presented itself as a result of injury to Charlie Mulgrew and Emilio Izaguirre’s suspension.
Celtic manager Ronny Deila and his assistant, John Collins, are understood to be genuinely excited about the defender’s potential. What might be factored into that is they have a good ‘un off the field as well as on it.
Lanarkshire-based Tierney joked that his moment had come as “a veteran” after 11 years with his boyhood team. He did not attempt to downplay the significance of Saturday for him or his family.
“All my family would be here anyway, die-hard Celtic fans all of us, so it was brilliant,” he said. “As soon as you support Celtic, it’s what you dream of. Growing up, I supported them all the way through and from the age of seven it’s been what I aimed for.
“You are always hopeful that it will happen, you dream about it, so for it to happen is a dream come true.”
It is a dream that has come to pass after some nightmare moments. “There are months upon months when you might not get picked at all, and that can hurt you, but you just have to keep working hard and hope the manager believes in you,” he said. “You have to have a strong mentality and you need to be willing to work hard.
“I was on the bench here against Ross County in December. It was the first time I’d been on the bench, and the day after I broke my leg in training. I worked hard to come back from that. Today just makes it brilliant.”
Tierney dared to “hope for the best” in assessing his chances of being picked for the Qarabag tie, wherein Celtic will be defending a 1-0 lead, should, of course, the match survive given the alarming reports over the state of the pitch. The expectation is that Deila will plump for the experience of Izaguirre, with Mulgrew unlikely to be fit, but it is becoming apparent the Honduran is a player that the Celtic manager is looking to replace.
Tierney’s honesty on being asked if he could be the answer at left-back was endearing, if not perhaps the best for his hopes. “I’m not sure. I’m only trying my best to play,” he said. “If he [Deila] thinks so, that’s brilliant but I just need to keep working hard. If you do well in training and development games you will get your chance, that’s a guarantee.”
The guarantee is that Celtic will win their fifth consecutive title in the coming year, and will do so with more even performances than the one against Ross County, for whom Jackson Irvine shone after his permanent move to the Highlands in the summer.
The Australian was central to the incident that remained a hot topic long after all other aspects of the encounter – one settled by Leigh Griffiths converting from the penalty spot after he was bumped to the deck by County’s new captain Andrew Davies in the early minutes, before Stefan Johansen battered in from 14 yards after 35 minutes for his third goal in four games.
Almost midway between these two strikes, Irvine was stopped illegally by Craig Gordon, who raced from his box to confront the midfielder who had run in behind the Celtic defence. Gordon escaped with a yellow from Willie Collum despite the fact that only Gordon prevented Irvine having an unobstructed view of an empty net.
It was an obvious goalscoring opportunity, but it seems that many among the Celtic fraternity struggle to grasp the concept. It doesn’t mean that a player will obviously score, only that he has an obvious chance to do so.
Irvine was 22 yards from goal on the left when Gordon broke his stride. Virgil van Dijk was the nearest Celtic player to said goal…21 yards from it in a central area. That hardly means the Dutchman was, at that second, “getting back”, as has been petitioned.
How these circumstances could make anyone think other than Irvine was denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity is utterly bizarre.
Celtic: Gordon; Ambrose, Boyata, van Dijk, Tierney (Janko, 60); Brown, Johansen (Commons 60); Forest, Armstrong, Mackay-Steven; Griffiths (Scepovic 19). Subs not used: Bailly, Bitton, Rogic, McGregor.
Ross County: Fox; Fraser, Boyd, Davies, Foster; Gardyne, Murdoch (De Vita 56), Irvine, McShane (Graham 86), Quinn; Curran (Boyce 70). Subs not used: Bachmann, Robertson, Holden, Franks.