NEIL Lennon and Tommy Wright delivered predictably contrasting verdicts on the failed penalty claim which St Johnstone felt cost them a potential share of the spoils against champions Celtic at McDiarmid Park yesterday.
Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk, who scored the only goal of the game after just five minutes, was at the centre of controversy at the other end of the pitch in the second half when St Johnstone striker Stevie May went down under his challenge.
Referee Craig Thomson turned down Saints’ vociferous appeals for a spot-kick, a decision which incensed home manager Wright. “I thought it was a penalty at the time,” said Wright. “I’ve seen it again since and nothing has changed my mind. Anywhere else on the pitch, it’s a free-kick so it should have been a penalty.
“Craig is a good referee and I thought he had a good game, but you always have decisions you feel go against you.”
May himself echoed Wright’s view, saying: “He [Van Dijk] has stuck his arm out across me and stopped me getting to the ball. He saw me coming across and I thought it was a penalty.” But those complaints were given short shrift by Celtic manager Lennon, who was dismissive when told of his former Northern Ireland team-mate Wright’s comments.
“No, it wasn’t a penalty,” said Lennon. “Virgil just stood up and was strong, which is what we had to do at times in the game today.
“I always think St Johnstone are very well organised, they’re physical within the laws of the game and are full of running. We had to earn the right to play today and came away with a fantastic win.”
Celtic have now won 14 and drawn three of their first 17 league games this season, an unbeaten record which sees them a yawning 11 points clear at the top of the table. Lennon’s only source of dissatisfaction yesterday was his team’s failure to build on Van Dijk’s magnificent early goal. “It was closer than it should have been after the first-half,” added Lennon. “I thought we controlled the game on a difficult pitch. But we have to put teams away. At 1-0, you give teams encouragement.
“We’ve never had it easy here in my time as manager, St Johnstone came out for 15 or 20 minutes in the second half and were full of running and desire to get back into the game. But we saw it off and the last 20 minutes we were okay again.
“Alan Mannus made a great save from Kris Commons but in the first-half we should have been two or three up. But we’re learning to see out games and that’s five clean sheets in a row. Defensively, we are looking pretty good. We’d prefer to put teams away earlier but you can’t have everything.”
Lennon lauded Van Dijk for the winning goal which saw the 22-year-old make a spectacular run from the halfway line before netting from inside the penalty area. “It was an unbelievable piece of individual brilliance,” said Lennon. “I’m not expecting him to do that all the time but he’s an exceptional player and he’s certainly made us better. He’s been a good piece of business for us.”