A SERENE Easter Sunday started for Celtic with their third guard of honour in-a-row, but it ended in controversy amid chaotic scenes in the Highlands, as they were denied victory by a piece of blatant cheating before their captain lost his head and very nearly lost his place in next weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Rangers. An appeal, which at best can be described as tactical, will save him from that fate.
Frustrations were at boiling point as Alex Schalk conned a late penalty out of referee Don Robertson that let Liam Boyce draw Ross County level at two goals apiece. A skirmish between Scott Brown and Boyce earlier in the game was clearly still on the Celtic skipper’s mind as he then thundered into a needless, and frankly stupid, challenge on the goalscorer that deserved the punishment meted out by Robertson.
It had all seemed to be going so well for the champions as Kieran Tierney got the ball rolling before the break with his second of the season, but the defender’s joy had been replaced by anger by the end of the afternoon. Tierney knows from bitter experience what it feels like to be on the end of such a decision.
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“I knew straight it away it was a dive,” Tierney said. “It was the same kind of thing with Jamie Walker when we played Hearts in the first game of the season. But this incident was more obvious.
“I think Walker was banned for it but it’s obviously not up to me. It should be the same rule for every player. It’s not a nice part of the game, you can expect contact but you’re not going to go down if there’s no contact. It’s as simple as that.
“If it’s a striker’s prerogative to do that then everyone would be falling about. Whenever you get close to people in games you need to stay on your feet but if someone gets too close then, fair enough “I couldn’t believe it when the referee gave the penalty, everyone was so surprised.”
Michael Gardyne’s equaliser for Ross County all seemed so long ago, the midfielder hitting back early in the second half with what remarkably was his first of the campaign. Celtic had appeared to dispel whatever mild concern that had caused them as Patrick Roberts climbed off the bench to put them back in front, before they lost the lead late on through Schalk’s comical dive and then lost the plot as it all kicked off.
The game had been regarded as a chance to run through their lines for Celtic ahead of next weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Rangers, so it was something of a surprise to see them line up in an unfamiliar formation with three at the back and James Forrest and Callum McGregor serving as wing-backs.
The new set-up didn’t seem to knock the champions out of their stride, but apart from one scramble in the County area where Moussa Dembele and Forrest wasted opportunities to convert, there was little goalmouth action to speak of.
Just when it looked as though the game would limp languidly towards the break, though, Tierney pierced the Highland tranquility with a fierce strike that might have ended up in Inverness had it not been for the intervention of the net.
The ball was fed along the edge of the County area, where Tom Rogic eventually laid it into the path of the young defender. He took a touch, looked up, then unleashed a daisy-cutter that flew beyond Scott Fox before he had even moved.
The passive County approach was replaced in the second half by a higher press, and suddenly it was game on. Brendan Rodgers responded by hooking Rogic and Dembele, with Cristian Gamboa and Leigh Griffiths brought into the fray.
Roberts was also soon with us with Forrest making way, and it was he who would make the biggest impact, weaving into the box on the right before opening up his body and curling the ball beyond Fox. But then came the late drama as referee Robertson was duped into awarding County one of the most ridiculous spot-kicks you are likely to see, which Boyce converted.