Hampden got dressed for the occasion. It seems to enjoy such late season showpieces. The debate over the stadium’s suitability for such games is rendered redundant when the stands heave with people and the sun shines, as was the case on Saturday and for last year’s World Cup qualifier between Scotland and England.
Flags had been draped over the perimeter fence and the pitch was immaculate. All it needed was a game befitting the creation of these Celtic immortals.
It was never that sadly. But it was better than the English cup final, though that’s a low bar these days. It was better, probably, than November’s League Cup final, when Motherwell were hit with a quick-fire double from Celtic shortly after half-time and had defender Cedric Kipre sent off with over 30 minutes left.
Brendan Rodgers’ side struck twice a lot earlier on Saturday. But with Motherwell keeping the full complement of players on the pitch, against the odds some would say as some full-blooded tackles flew in, it meant there remained the possibility, however slim, that Stephen Robinson’s side could mount a comeback.
Substitute Gael Bigirimana caused the bar to shudder with a fierce free-kick with ten minutes left. Had Motherwell got the luck that seems to desert them against Celtic it might – might – have become very interesting.
The floodlights blazed despite bright sunshine and the truth was glaringly obvious from very near the start: Motherwell lacked the required quality to overcome a Celtic side with the scent of history in their nostrils. Scott Brown’s rallying cry from the depths of the huddle seemed more shot through with intensity than ever. Footage would later emerge of him imploring his team-mates: “No matter what, we win this f*cking game!”
No matter the suffocating sense of history and the expectation bearing down on them. No matter Motherwell’s own intentions to win only their third ever Scottish Cup.
No matter this was Celtic’s 61st game of a strength-sapping season that had begun in Belfast against Linfield a whole ten months earlier. No matter the sun that split the heavens and the heat no player needs at the end of a long, hard campaign.
It was a world away from the dark, brooding clouds and dramatic lightning of a year earlier, when Celtic completed the first treble in this back-to-back sequence with a win over Aberdeen.
The old saw about the underdogs needing to perform to the best of their abilities in order to prevail while also hoping the favourites have an off day was demonstrated here. Motherwell never got going while Celtic had found their rhythm in the opening minutes. A shock never looked likely.
The champions’ star players were on form; Moussa Dembele was a constant menace for the Motherwell back line while Brown did the simple things well and also launched some probing, ambitious passes forward. Kieran Tierney, meanwhile, was clearly identified as a danger man and drew a series of fouls and Callum McGregor exposed the negligence that was his absence from player of the year nomination lists.
McGregor put Celtic on their way after just 11 minutes with a neat finish into the corner with his so-called ‘wrong’ right foot after intercepting an attempted clearing header from Tom Aldred. The diving Trevor Carson was left with no chance.
Frenchman Olivier Ntcham doubled Celtic’s lead 14 minutes later after Dembele’s neat lay-off into his compatriot’s path. The finish was again unerringly accurate.
If Tom Rogic had shown such precision when handed an opportunity after the ball broke to him just outside the six-yard box ten minutes before half-time it could have been the signal for a potential rout. But his weak effort rolled into Carson’s hands and Motherwell survived to half-time without further punishment bar the bookings picked up by Richard Tait and Liam Grimshaw for fouls on a seemingly targeted Tierney.
It meant Motherwell retained some meagre hope of retrieving the situation in the second half. They certainly began this rescue mission in the right spirit following the break. Curtis Main’s shot on the turn brought the best out of Craig Gordon.
The goalkeeper seems to enjoy playing in the goal opposite where the Celtic fans traditionally sit at Hampden. He pulled off a miracle, flying save in the League Cup final to deny Louis Moult a headed goal. He also frustrated Alfredo Morelos at the same end during Celtic’s semi-final victory over Rangers.
Motherwell, with skipper Carl McHugh replaced early on in the half by Bigirimana, had certainly upped the ante. Bigirimana was a chief reason for their brighter performance. A seemingly goal-bound effort from the midfielder was deflected wide by Dedryck Boyata.
Then came the moment that will haunt Motherwell fans. Chris Cadden fell to the ground after being impeded by Boyata as he burst through on goal. The offence was just outside the area, so no penalty. With Tierney on hand to potentially clear the danger it was deemed not to be an obvious goalscoring chance by referee Kevin Clancy, so no red card either.
But the free-kick was still nearly of worth to Motherwell. Bigirimana managed to get his effort up and over the wall, which was positioned towards the other side of the goal by Gordon, but could not direct it into the top corner. The ball smashed off the bar and rebounded back into play.
With Celtic now on the cusp of history, the banners came out... “Celtic Stands With All Palestinians. End Genocide. End Zionism”.
More relevantly Bertie Auld was handed an ovation from the Celtic fans from his perch in the south stand. It’s true these current heroes might lack the romance of the Lisbon Lions. However, like the team of 1967, they are navigating unchartered territory.
Even those opting to withhold admiration on account of the financial gulf between Celtic and their domestic opponents cannot deny Rodgers’ all-conquering side a large measure of greatness.