Regret mixed with anger hung across Fir Park like a thick November’s mist yesterday as the post-mortem continued following Sunday’s Betfred Cup final. Scotland’s steel town was having its credentials tested for resilience in the face of despair.
Failure to win against Celtic is something anyone can take. After all, it’s now 65 games since a Scottish team felt what it’s like to beat them. They’re all getting used to falling short against Brendan Rodgers’ all-conquering side.
But the manner of the champions’ victory on Sunday left a bad taste in the mouth, one that lingered on yesterday.
Carl McHugh was certainly still adamant about one thing. The penalty kick so controversially earned by Scott Sinclair just before the hour mark was the moment that cost Motherwell the match – and the rare chance for glory. It was no use telling anyone associated with the club that at least there are another two games against Celtic to come this week.
Even victories in each of those league assignments, the first of which is tomorrow night at Fir Park, won’t make up for the heartache at seeing a cup final slip from their grasp. After all, when will Motherwell contest such an occasion again?
They have reached only three finals since lifting the Scottish Cup in 1991, all of them lost, two heavily. But there’s being well beaten and there’s a sense of being robbed of an opportunity to compete.
It’s very likely Celtic would have triumphed without any help from Craig Thomson, the referee who judged Cedric Kipre to have impeded Sinclair before then red carding the 20-year-old defender. They were, after all, 1-0 up at the time. But the double-blow of being a player down while also trailing by two goals meant Motherwell knew little could be salvaged from the day except self-respect. With as many as 30 minutes left to play the claret and amber ribbons could be safely packed away for another time. “Obviously the second goal kills the game,” said McHugh. “It’s hard enough playing a team like that when you have 11 men. At 10 you are just trying to hang in. Two goals down and ten men is tough. You saw it yourself, it changes the game.
“It’s very harsh. At the time I was around it and I don’t think Cedric has touched him. It’s so disappointing in such a big game that we’ve worked so hard to get this far. So for it to be settled like that is so, so disheartening.
“At the minute that’s no consolation and in a way it makes it worse. We had our plan and we felt it was going according to it. We felt we needed to be that wee bit better and even when we went 1-0 down I still felt we were right in it. It’s so hard it’s a decision like that which has ultimately cost us it.”
It’s certainly no consolation for McHugh to hear Sinclair has form for going down very easily in the same competition this season. The striker went to ground with little discernible contact in a quarter-final tie against Dundee in September while seeking to evade defender Jack Hendry.
This incident was little commented upon at the time as Celtic went on to win 4-0. But it was another crucial moment in the game as Sinclair then picked himself up and scored Celtic’s opener from the spot. John Beaton was the referee that evening. Thomson, meanwhile, was still feeling the heat yesterday.
As skipper, McHugh expected Thomson to at least enter into a discussion with him about such a significant moment. He wouldn’t.
“I tried to speak to him but he didn’t really want to engage,” said McHugh. “Look, he’s made a decision and thinks it’s a penalty. I was around it and the boys that were around him were adamant Cedric hadn’t touched him.
“It’s so important for us and in such a big game,” he added. “For something like that to ultimately decide the game and kill it is so disheartening for us. It’s still hard to take at the minute for me. It’s really, really hard to take it.”
The incident occurred at the so-called Celtic end of the ground, with Motherwell supporters heavily out-numbered in any case. McHugh did not want to say whether Thomson was influenced by the sheer numbers appealing for a penalty. But he noted that Motherwell’s own shouts for one were ignored after Louis Moult was sent sprawling in the box following an earlier clash with Kieran Tierney. Just over 12,000 Motherwell supporters don’t make as much noise as nearly 40,000 Celtic followers.
“It’s hard for me to say,” said McHugh, as he struggled to find the right words. “It’s so disappointing I can’t really… he’s made the decision. I don’t know about the supporters or whatever but we didn’t get the penalty we should have. It’s just so hard to take.”