Celtic and Cedric Kipre just haven’t mixed this season. The Motherwell defender is entitled to think that someone on high doesn’t like him when he is up against the Scottish champions. Not a deity, mind, but rather a man in black by the name of Craig Thomson.
The 21-year-old smiled but remained wisely silent when it was put to him the other day that he must be delighted Kevin Clancy will referee Saturday’s Scottish Cup final against Brendan Rodgers’ side. The occasion presents the Paris-born Ivory Coast under-23 international with the opportunity to expunge bitter memories from this season’s Betfred Cup final at Hampden against Celtic. And also the anguish caused when the two teams fought out a scoreless draw in the league at Fir Park in March.
On both occasions, Thomson drew his red card to banish Kipre, and drew the ire of the player and his club over the perceived injustice of these decisions. In the case of the league dismissal, which came early on after he tangled with Scott Brown, the mistake was acknowledged when the punishment was subsequently downgraded to a yellow card.
There could be no recompense for the central defender after he was sent off an hour into November’s League Cup final, however. His offence that afternoon involved catching Scott Sinclair’s arm with his arm as the winger sped into the box. The resultant penalty conversion meant a 2-0 deficit from which Stephen Robinson’s 10-man side were never going to recover. It took Kipre a long time to do so.
“I’ve learned a lot from that day,” said the man formerly on the books of Paris Saint-Germain and Leicester City. “I’ve learned that when a player’s in the box you have to be careful! I don’t want the same feeling as I had that day again.
“You sit in the dressing room and think about loads of stuff when you get in there. You’re angry, but most of all you feel alone. It was a hard time. I was sad, angry, there were loads of emotions coming out. Did I kick or throw anything? Yeah, lots of things…
“It took a while for those feelings to leave me. It’s a final, it was on my mind for a few weeks afterwards. But now it’s gone, I have to move forward to this one. If I was still on the pitch, if it was still 11 v 11 in that game, it would have been different. It’s hard enough against Celtic with 11 but when it’s 10 v 11 it’s even harder. We played well in the game so we have to do the same thing.”
Kipre says he didn’t feel cursed when he suffered the same fate against Celtic, when Thomson officiated five months later. “I just thought it wasn’t fair, but you cannot keep thinking back to these things,” he said. “At least I felt vindicated when it was taken back. At least I wasn’t the only one who didn’t think it was a red.”
An aggressive performer whose robust approach makes him a perfect fit for a team that puts the accent on the physical, his early exits from Celtic games are no cause to think about how he tackles his tasks, he says, so much as how he reacts to moments. It was a shove of his foot at Brown, who had pushed him, and the Celtic captain’s theatrical reaction, that provided the grounds for Thomson to make an erroneous interpretation. “I don’t think I’ll change my style of play but the last red card was a bit silly, so that’s one thing I won’t be doing again,” Kipre said. “I’ll think more. I’m a young player, I make mistakes, but I have to learn from them and not make the same mistakes twice.”
Kipre has learned from the most fantastical of football fairy tales that great upsets – such as a Motherwell win on Saturday would represent – can happen. He was at Leicester for their Premier League winning season in 2015-16 and sees a camaraderie and confidence in the Fir Park ranks akin to that which allowed the Midlands club to achieve the seemingly impossible.
“I’ve played at clubs that people didn’t believe in before – Leicester did an amazing thing that season,” he adds. “Hopefully we can do the same. I like being the underdog, it gives me extra motivation to prove we can do it. We’ve made it to two finals when people didn’t think we would get there but now we want to lift the cup. I was there the day Leicester won the league. It was an amazing day at the end of an amazing season.
“Even the atmosphere around the training ground, it was a fantastic thing to be a part of. I never played in the first team but being around them, it was special. I haven’t spoken to the guys about it but I’ve lived it – I think anything is possible.”
He felt that, too, of a man he will face on Saturday, having played alongside Moussa Dembele for PSG’s under-14 side. “He just kept scoring goals when we played, same as he does now,” he said. “He’d score four and five every game, everyone knew he’d be a top striker, even when he was that age. Obviously he’s at Celtic now, who are a top club, but I’m sure he will still improve.” And when it comes to playing against Celtic, Kipre’s own personal fortunes can surely only improve.