There was a unity of purpose about Celtic on and off the pitch on Saturday that has been rarely evident this season. A crowd that appeared genuinely in the region of the 49,009 figure that the club quoted had a real appetite for the contest that an aggressive and adept Hearts created. It patently transmitted itself to the home players. Ingredients that produced a hugely satisfying afternoon’s football.
Perhaps a first Saturday game in the east end of Glasgow for six weeks sharpened the senses. Maybe the prize for the win was responsible for doing so. Whatever, Celtic can move to within touching distance of a fifth straight title if they re-establish a seven-point lead over challengers Aberdeen away to Dundee tomorrow night because of the energising effect their environment had on them at the weekend.
Jamie Walker’s brilliant strike put them a goal down after five minutes. Hearts then outpassed and outplayed them for half an hour, yet crucially the home punters didn’t develop an instant downer on their team. Heck, there were even Green Brigade chants in support of Deila by the end. Mercifully, such cordiality didn’t prove the cue for the Ronny Roar.
On-loan Manchester City winger Patrick Roberts understandably claimed the attention for his exquisite double that turned the encounter around. Others, such as Gary Mackay-Steven, the scorer of the 15th-minute equaliser, looked at one with the tasks entrusted them by Deila. At times this season Celtic’s ever-changing line-up has seemed full of players at war with themselves over the demands of manager and club.
“It was a great game to be involved in,” Mackay-Steven said. “The fans were amazing today, it was a big crowd and they gave us a lift before the game even kicked off.
“Hearts started well and were knocking the ball about really well and showed they’re a good team but I think we showed good character coming back from 1-0 down to get the win.
“We were good in all areas, we were disciplined and made some chances and worked their goalkeeper a lot so it was a pleasing day collectively. We didn’t let our heads drop when Hearts scored their goal and overall we deserved to win.
“Sometimes to win titles you’ve got to bite and scratch and there was an element of that today. You saw a lot of tackles flying in and that’s just players giving their all. It was pleasing to be involved and we showed our title credentials.
“Big games like this are where you have to show what you’re all about and after going behind early we could have sat down and let them run over the top of us – but we certainly didn’t do that. We wanted to prove a point and show why we are champions and why we want to win it again.
“There’s been talk from a lot of people we’re not going to win the title and how people are running us close. But us, as players in the dressing room, we know what we have to do and we’re confident going into every game that we’ll win it.”
Mackay-Steven has been showing burgeoning credentials to be a game-changing performer in recent months. His hit from the edge of the box to bring his team back on terms was classy and clinical. The sensitive sort has this season sometimes seemed a little inhibited by the unforgiving nature of playing for Celtic, but his strike on Saturday was his sixth in his past ten appearances for the club – following 25 outings in the campaign that didn’t produce a single goal.
Even with the encounter bruising, Mackay-Steven continued to graft and get involved – though not in the football throwback of a gang fight that followed Juwon Oshaniwa flying in to batter heads with Tom Rogic. The Australian was forced off shortly afterwards with concussion, while his Nigerian adversary was forced off with a red card in the closing stages, having been booked by overworked referee Bobby Madden for his reckless challenge on Rogic. “It was not a nice clash of heads,” Mackay-Steven said. “Thankfully Tom’s ok but he’s dazed and certainly has an egg on his head after taking such a hefty bang.”
No one made a bigger bang on Saturday than Roberts, whose Messi-like dink over Neil Alexander to make it 2-1 ten minutes before the interval brought the £11m player a first goal in senior football. His second followed shortly afterwards with his defence-slicing, shimmying run setting him up to curl the ball in from an angle at the far post.
“It’s just his second start and he took his goals really well and was a threat all the time,” said Mackay-Steven. “So it’s pleasing for him and for us as a team because we need performances like that in the run-in. His first goal was a lovely finish. There was a defender closing him down so it was really all he could do and it nestled in the corner. He’s always a threat cutting in on his left foot and has a low centre of gravity.”