So much for talk of career-threatening injuries, flashing, sharpened elbows and Motherwell’s supposed rough house tactics. This was a contest that would hinge on barely perceptible contact between Cedric Kipre and Scott Sinclair.
Stephen Robinson mentioned last week that Motherwell’s strengths were Celtic’s weaknesses. It was a slightly cryptic comment that seemed to suggest the Fir Park side were planning to stick to an uncompromising style of play. This approach has seen them damned.
But rightly, neither Robinson nor his players have been in the mood to apologise. Still, Brendan Rodgers’ comments following Motherwell’s semi-final victory over Rangers, when the Celtic manager voiced concerns that some challenges were potentially career-threatening, framed yesterday’s game.
Rodgers’ words may well have had the desired effect on referee Craig Thomson, who duly sent off his fourth Motherwell player of the season [two were later rescinded] just before the hour mark.
Dollops of fortune and a fair wind are required against a team on an unbeaten domestic run stretching back 64 games. Designated home-team status, Motherwell’s advantages certainly did not stretch to being awarded many favours by the referee. Thomson let things go a bit in the opening half, perhaps wishing to give the game every chance to develop into an entertaining, free-flowing spectacle. Influenced by hysteria about Motherwell’s rumbustious style, some feared Celtic might be kicked into submission. So it’s probably worth noting that come half-time, with the game very much still in the balance, the crime count was one Celtic yellow card to Motherwell’s none. Moussa Dembele was the recipient, booked after going in studs up on opposition skipper Carl McHugh.
Dembele was, it’s true, still seething about an earlier challenge from Kipre on the edge of the Motherwell box. It was a full-blooded tackle that could also have been interpreted as slightly high. But the defender was perhaps saved on this occasion by also making contact with the ball.
The tackle divided opinion. It’s possible to wonder whether Thomson was alerted during the half-time interval to having been overly lenient towards Kipre. It was interesting it should be the same Motherwell defender at the centre of the later drama, punished to the nth degree for, well, what exactly? His arm brushed Sinclair’s and the Celtic striker was on the floor.
This was bad enough for Motherwell. But the subsequent red card ruined their chances and destroyed what was building up to be a compelling afternoon’s entertainment.
Kipre was sent off because, presumably, Thomson felt the defender made no genuine attempt to play the ball. It was a decision that sunk the game, making Motherwell’s comeback nigh on impossible whether Dembele put his the penalty away or not. He did, converting powerfully down the middle and with mobile phones shining in the night as the moment was recorded for posterity, anticipating the 1967 light show tribute to come in the 67th minute.
By then the Celtic fans were sure of their fourth successive major honour under Rodgers.
Admirably, the majority of Motherwell fans remained in their seats for the most part – as much out of a desire, it seemed, to jeer Thomson when the referee went up to receive his medal as wanting to applaud their own dejected heroes.
The underdogs had given everything and it seemed somehow apposite that they hit a post with the last kick of the game, Louis Moult, left, crashing a free-kick against Craig Gordon’s upright. The Celtic keeper had denied the same player an equaliser shortly after James Forrest gave Celtic the lead, saving Moult’s goal-bound header.
The keeper was judged to have made the best save in the first 20 seasons of the English Premier League when batting away Bolton player Zac Knight’s header while at Sunderland. His stop yesterday was almost as impressive.
Motherwell were harshly treated by fate as well as Thomson. They seemed more sinned against than sinning. The tips of pencils were licked ready to chart their steadily rising crime count. But in actual fact it was Celtic who backed up Rodgers’ pledge that they would be ready to meet fire with fire.
Jozo Simunovic got his retaliation in early on Ryan Bowman, the player at the centre of an elbows storm in the semi-final against Rangers. The Celtic defender clattered the striker in the opening half while challenging for an aerial ball.
Scott Brown also let Bowman know he was there. The Celtic skipper was in turn flattened by Moult later on. But the champions were clearly up for the fight.
Already one up through a precise, curling finish from James Forrest, they probably would not have needed the helping hand received from Thomson. But he offered one anyway after Kipre’s outstretched arm might just about have caught Sinclair. It surely wasn’t enough to see him collapse to the turf in the manner he did.
Moult was still complaining to the referee following an incident where he claimed Kieran Tierney had tripped him while he was trying to make contact with a cross.
“You’re being a bit optimistic there,” Thomson told him as they ran back together. But then surely dreaming, and hoping against hope, is what cup finals are all about. There was little romance here. Barely an hour into a day they had willed for so long Motherwell’s claret and amber army knew it was over and out.