MUCH will be made of Kilmarnock’s determined, deserved, dying-minutes earned draw with the supposedly untouchable Celtic last night. It will be viewed through the prism of Celtic assistant John Collins, bizarrely, furore-causing comments. Or, you might say, statement of the bleedin’ obvious.
Collins, on the coaching team of a club that haven’t lost a league game of note in four years noting that, in contrast with what confronts them in Europe, in Scotland there weren’t players clever enough or quick thinking enough to test Celtic, should hardly have been back page news.
And for all that Kilmarnock, having failed to score in their previous two league games, found two strikes against the Scottish champions to prevent them recording a clean sheet in the Premiership for the first time since April, Celtic remain unbeaten in the league in 14 outings. Whatever tests Scottish football can offer up – and Ronny Deila’s side were stretched to breaking point as they were twice pegged back – they are rarely on a grand or reverberating scale.
Yet, none of this should take away from an evening that surprised and delighted the faithful supporters of the Ayrshire club … and made for a result that would be cheered in all corners of the country. It looked as if all the home side’s efforts against a vulnerable Celtic would count for nothing with only three minutes remaining – only for Greg Kiltie to leave Emilio Izaguirre trailing down the right channel, leading to the Honduran hauling him down. The resultant penalty conversion from Karl Higginbotham might count as clever, quick thinking, nay audacious thinking even. The forward stepped forward, noted Craig Gordon going down to his right and chipped him.
It seemed, till then, it would have been a humdinger of a 25-yard, top-corner blooter from Nir Bitton early in the second period that would settle an engrossing encounter in which Kilmarnock played like men possessed and a Celtic side devoid of such as knock-carrying Scott Brown, Dedryck Boyata and Stuart Armstrong – with the Champions League play-off against Malmo impacting on the line-up – appeared possessed of slackness that Kilmarnock did not punish as they should have done.
The home side passed up two corking first-half chances, while they also had Craig Gordon performing acrobatics late on. Beforehand the mood around Rugby Park was so different. Even on that rarity for this summer, a – gasp – sunny evening, Locke would have been left feeling that it never rains but it pours.
No goals and no points from the club’s opening two games, it emerged pre-match that winger Chris Johnston had sustained a cruciate knee ligament injury that could put him out for the rest of this season. A campaign barely in its infancy.
Locke was also left to lament the loss of Kris Boyd to a rolled ankle but frankly the striker’s scoring record against Celtic is so lamentable that the requirement to do without him could hardly register as a blow for an Ayrshire club that seems to be becoming a punch bag for misfortune.
There seemed something of a crushing inevitability about the fact that the home side couldn’t even see out three minutes on level terms with the champions. Following Collins’ comments, Kilmarnock assistant Lee McCulloch allowed himself to be teased into talking some tommy rot about how the club’s players would be ‘fired’ up to prove to the Celtic assistant they could offer a test. Surely, the loss of six goals without reply in two defeats would be motivation enough to push for points last night?
Celtic appeared to be in the mood to dish out some treatment as they have on recent visits to Rugby Park when a defence-splitting pass from Kris Commons allowed Leigh Griffiths a clear sight of goal that he feasted upon by smacking the ball low past Jamie MacDonald from just inside the penalty box.
Fuelled by their instant breakthrough, Ronny Deila’s side then began to exert total control on proceedings. The hunch then was that the only fireworks the evening were going to provide had come in the form of a series of bangers let off in the stand housing Celtic supporters just before kick-off. Actions that resulted in police moving in to patrol the area.
So little was seen of Kilmarnock in attack across the early stages, Celtic didn’t seem to require a defence to patrol their final third.
Perhaps that is why the exhibited such laxity that Josh Magennis was able to find himself running through without a soul for company in the 35th minute.
As if to illustrate Collins’ point about Celtic mistakes going unpunished, the Irishman then showed all the composure of Gordon Ramsay on crack in ballooning an effort over the bar. One glaring opening passed up became two within seconds when a point-blank header from Lee Ashcroft was blocked by the outstretched arm of Gordon.
It appeared to be one of those moments that turn many games in Celtic’s favour when Scottish opponents are in manfully trying and impressing mood. For a change though, last night’s encounter wasn’t a test case.
For after Thomas Rogic got in on the chance-squandering act by heading against the goal frame then hacking the rebound over from underneath the crossbar, the encounter produced a moment that no league game for Celtic had in 767 minutes: a goal from their opponents.
The fact that Celtic had gone so long since having their goal breached represented the sort of pattern that moved Collins to demonstrate an honesty he has unfairly maligned for.
Yet, if last night was the other side of Scottish football biting back out of wounded pride, then Collins maybe should speak up more often.
Kilmarnock: MacDonald; Westlake, Connolly, Ashcroft (O’Hara 43), Smith; Hamill; Kiltie, McKenzie, Robinson (Splaine 66), Higginbotham; Magennis. Subs not used: Davies, Barbour, O’Hara, Hodge, Hawskaw, McLean.
Celtic: Gordon; Janko, Ambrose, van Dijk, Izaguirre; Johansen, Bitton; Commons (Mackay-Steven 29), Rogic, Forrest (Mulgrew 60); Griffiths. Subs not used: Bailly, Fisher, Henderson, McGregor, Stokes.