Celtic’s pantomime performance but Conor Hazard the star of the show

It was there on a plate. The final hurdle of Celtic’s monumental four-year dominance of Scottish Competitions was finally in sight. All the tension, deliriousness, ecstasy and pride that had built up over end of the 2010’s would have almost paled insignificant, had their special day ended up being ruined by their Edinburgher neighbours. A world record was in touching distance, and only a monumental slip up – similar to that of Steven Gerrard’s at Liverpool – would prevent Celtic from lifting their fourth treble in a row.

It couldn’t have been much easier to complete the feat as they were pitted against a Hearts side who were, despite their championship dominance this year, a side very much in turmoil. Yes, Celtic weren’t in great spirits, but given the gulf in quality between the two and Celtic’s previous two games, this was to be a day that would be etched into the minds of Bhoys’ fans forever. With no-one in attendance, it somewhat took the gloss off the special occasion, but BBC One Scotland was the platform and Celtic fans gleefully waited to aboard.

Proceedings couldn’t have started off much better; with Lennon fielding a pretty much full-strength XI, there were barely any nervousness as the Bhoys’ took to the Hampden field. Conor Hazard was given the green light to don his gloves, David Turnbull lined up behind Odsonne Edouard for some much needed creativity and Scott Brown started what seemed like his 100th career final – a man who had been here for thirteen years, he wasn’t going to let the opportunity squirm from his hands.

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The game seemed like an absolute walk in the park in the early knockings, and when Aidy White inadvertently headed the ball into the path of Ryan Christie, the Invernesian made no mistake, curling a superb shot past a hapless Craig Gordon to send Celtic fans to dreamland. Finally, after over a year of twiddling their thumbs in patience since the League Cup win against theRangers at Hampden, they had one hand on the Scottish Cup and subsequent history.

Things looked much rosier on the half hour mark when the experienced Christophe Berra handled in the box; the foul provided the goal-draught ridden Edouard a chance to score his first goal on Glaswegian soil since the start of August – and he did so with aplomb, leaving the egg on the face of Gordon as he dinked the ball down the middle to, what many thought, hand Celtic the title.

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But, if you are a follower of Celtic – especially this season – you’d have know not to boast of a win too early, and that was exactly the case here.

Such a strong performance in the first half turned into absolute calamity in the second – nerves were jangling, and some of the Bhoys’ genuinely looked like their had forgotten their profession in the changing rooms at half time. Liam Boyce was the man to give the Jambo’s a lifeline immediately after the interval; some exceptional Jimmy Johnstone-esque footwork took him past a static Kristoffer Ajer, and the ball eventually found former Ger Andy Halliday, who put the ball on a tee for Boyce to head home and reduce the deficit. From here, everything went pear-shaped; Celtic players legs turned to jelly, extremely untypical of the determined, relentless title-winning sides we have seen in seasons gone by.

Josh Ginnelly came on for the Jambo’s and the former Burnley man proved to be absolutely electrifying and ultimately the catalyst for Hearts’ turnaround – and this was typified on the three-quarter mark, with the winger delivering a looping ball to the back post. Admittedly, it was flapped at by Conor Hazard for Stephen Kingsley to head home; and although a fifteen second delay loomed on before the goal was confirmed by goal-line technology, Hearts were back in the game from absolutely nothing. Having been cruising to history at the half hour mark, Neil Lennon’s men looked feeble, weak and quite frankly uninterested. Was this illustrious piece of decoration going to ebb away from them in the most unforgiving of circumstances?

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The game continued to be hard fought, and after failing to capitalize on their two goal-lead, Celtic were inexplicably trudging back to the dressing rooms to dust themselves down and set off for extra-time. How shambolic could this game potentially become?

Eventually, Leigh Griffiths was the man to install the hope back into the Parkhead faithful; after a goalmouth scramble, Griff – who perhaps played with that slight bit more bite as a former Hibee – was the man on hand to fire the Hoops’ back into the lead, after he had replaced Odsonne Edouard shortly after the start of extra time. Surely now, with just fifteen minutes left, Celtic couldn’t fumble yet another lead? I think we all know the answer.

Akin to a pantomime, the answer was simple: Oh yes they could.

A deep free kick from Hearts should have been dealt with by Celtic. But, with Hazard’s inexperience also comes rash decisions – and the Northern Irishman elected to try and punch the ball clear, missing it by a country mile and eventually the ball was nodded across the box for the ever-lively Ginnelly to tuck home. Could Celtic just stop, for once, being Celtic?

After two hours of football, four years of work, eleven trophies down and one to go, it was to be decided by spot-kicks. Having already been put through an emotional mangle via spot-kicks with Scotland this year, the majority of Celtic fans had prepared for this.

Griff and Cal Mac both scored their respective penalties, as did Naismith, Lee and Smith, which took the usually reliable Ryan Christie up to the fore to make it 3-3.

You’d be forgiven for letting a few tears out here; many including myself would’ve put their houses on Christie scoring and the Scotsman was denied by ex-Hoop Gordon. Of all the people to stop the glory, why did it have to be him?

However, we forgot to count on one person. Experience usually matters in games like this, but when it comes to split-second intuitiveness, anyone can prevail victorious. And if Tom Wopat and John Schneider are the usual Dukes of Hazzard, then they need to take a step aside for tonight, because he had our own in Conor.

The young man hadn’t had the best of games, it has to be said, and was one of the reasons the game had panned out this far; but wrote himself into folklore with a couple of superb saves. The first came via a brillaint save from Stephen Kingsley; the former Swansea left-back looked nervous as he made the famous walk to the penalty spot, yet he hit a strong penalty towards the bottom corner – which was no hard task for Hazard, who delightfully dived to his right to deny the Scotsman from scoring again.

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Mikey Johnstone restored parity with a cool finish, before Hazard wrote his name into Celtic folklore by producing yet another save; this time the other half of the net as Craig Wighton spooned his penalty with no real conviction. After being considered as third-choice keeper at the start of the campaign, Hazard would have had to delve as deep as possible into his wildest of dreams to have imagined a scenario in which he would be as vital to a Celtic side as anyone just three months later.

His heroics left Kristoffer Ajer – yet another hugely reliable player – to send Celtic fans into elation. The chance to make history, to win a fortieth Scottish Cup, to pride themselves all honed down to one spot kick – and Mr Reliable Ajer made no mistake, blasting his penalty down the middle to create literal history.
The winning feeling was so surreal. Having had victory snatched away from them twice, with defeat also seemingly within touching distance following Christie’s mishap, Celtic fans had to pinch themselves to finally rid of the nightmare and show that they had come victorious out of the other side.

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With Broony having wound up the opposition at the end – namely the brat that is theRangers’ ex-player Andy Halliday – before hoisting the famous 12th trophy in a row as high as ever, this was the sign Celtic fans needed to prove it had happened. Their captain, stalwart and serial title-winner had been the calming presence of the side, and with youthful hero Hazard etching Celtic’s name onto the trophy, it had the all the hallmarks that a classic cup final needed to stick in the minds of Bhoys’ fans for eternity – which it most certainly will.

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