The following Friday saw crowds line the Celtic Way as we bade farewell to Tommy Gemmell, applause ringing out and scarves thrown onto the bonnet of the hearse as supporters paid tribute to the scorer of THAT goal in Lisbon, and so many others, over that very special period in our club’s great history.
Two days later, the next Sunday matinee involved a League visit from April Cup semi-final opponents, Rangers. The latest episode in the long-running Ibrox pantomime had seen a club statement advising of the resignation of Mark Warburton and his management team rebuffed immediately by Warburton himself, stating that this was the first he had heard about it! This would join the list of cases to be resolved by litigation somewhere down the line.
In the meantime, Ibrox Under-20 coach Graeme Murty took control of first-team matters on a caretaker basis, whilst the search for a permanent manager progressed. The day before the Parkhead clash, Rangers appointed Pedro Caixinha as their latest boss.
The Portuguese coach had most recently been in charge of Qatari outfit Al-Gharafa, having worked for a number of clubs globally, his spell with Santos Laguna in Mexico the only one to produce any tangible success. Whilst the Scottish media, typically, declared his appointment as the Second Coming, to onlookers such as I, he seemed a strange and largely uninspiring choice. Time would tell. Caixinha would look on from the stand whilst Murty completed his stint in the dugout in front of the watching millions.
Brendan Rodgers made one change to his starting line-up, James Forrest deemed fit enough to replace Gary Mackay-Steven. The game was a feisty affair from the off, with referee Bobby Madden unbelievably lenient as a series of illegal challenges on Celtic players went unpunished, including one on Nir Bitton which saw the Israeli midfielder forced to sit out the second half.
The main man in that first period was Stuart Armstrong, the strong-running Scot now becoming increasingly important to Celtic’s cause, game by game. His early, curling free-kick beat Rangers keeper Wes Foderingham before crashing off the post to safety, however, he would not be denied. With ten minutes of the half remaining, he won possession of the ball at the edge of the visitors’ penalty area, playing a neat one-two with Forrest before slamming home a low drive to give the champions the lead with his 11th goal of the season.
With Callum McGregor on for the injured Bitton, the second half followed much the same pattern, Celtic pressing for that killer second goal but the flow of the game constantly interrupted by free-kicks. Armstrong twice very nearly doubled his tally, his powerful volleys turned away by Foderingham, the blond midfielder then replaced by Leigh Griffiths and Forrest by Patrick Roberts, as Celts went for broke.
The unusually quiet Moussa Dembele exploded into life late in the game, with a twist and turn in the box before seeing his effort pushed wide by the Ibrox keeper. There was a let-off for Celtic, as referee Madden chose to ignore a clear foul on Mikael Lustig by Jason Holt, allowing the Rangers midfielder to curl a shot just wide of the post. Then with just three minutes remaining came the sucker-punch. A rare counter-attack by the visitors saw Emerson Hyndman fire a shot across Craig Gordon, the Celtic keeper producing a superb save then looking on helplessly as the ball landed at the feet of defender Clint Hill in front of the posts, just seconds before the sickening noise from the far end signalled an undeserved equaliser for Rangers.
The drama then continued until the final whistle, as Celtic chased that 23rd successive League win. But it was not to be in a highly controversial ending. First, Madden denied the Bhoys a blatant penalty-kick, as the unlikely Rangers goalscorer, Hill, crashed into Griffiths, just as the Celtic striker prepared to pull the trigger a few yards from the Ibrox goal in the last minute of the 90, an incredible decision. Then Leigh Griffiths saw his injury-time effort scrambled clear, before the referee blew on his whistle for the final time, provoking a cascade of booing from the home support.
The Celtic manager was straight to the point at his after-match interview. “It’s very disappointing that with four officials they don’t see that. It looked a clear penalty. Clint Hill said on the pitch to me afterwards that he got away with that. Clint’s a good guy, an honest fellow. On a difficult pitch, I felt we weren’t as fluent as usual in the first half.”
And Brendan Rodgers’ thoughts on the performance overall? “I thought we took the easy option on the ball. We were passing backwards and sideways instead of forwards. We made a change at half-time and I thought we had much better control in the second half, and we looked like we were going to go on and score more goals.
The boys have been on a brilliant run, but this will help us, in terms of preparation for the Scottish Cup semi-final. We will just re-focus again. We are a strong team, and we will take that into the next games. I don’t think the team are complacent but when you concede like that, it just makes you realise you have to be fully focused and make no mistakes. Sometimes you can make mistakes and get away with it.”
Man-of-the-match Stuart Armstrong was disappointed but philosophical. “It says a lot about our season so far, and how well we have been doing, that coming away with a draw feels like a loss. But we need to remember where we are and how well we are doing. We are still on a good run of form and we need to keep that going. These games are always high-pressure and a bit hectic. We tried to keep our composure, but the pitch is a bit bobbly at the moment and it is not how we want to play. But we produced some good football in parts, and we need to keep our heads. It feels very disappointing to lose a goal so late on, but we will stay very confident for the rest of the campaign.”
An extract from Invincible by Matt Corr. See below for our World Book Day Special Offer and click on the book cover to order.
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— Matt Corr (@Boola_vogue) March 4, 2021