I have decided that I must be some kind of self-deluded optimist. At the start of each game, I believe that the team on the field will give 100% and fight for victory, and when it doesn’t happen, I get disappointed. I know that they can do it - I’ve seen it against Southport, Barrow, Hucknall and Alfreton. I am slowly coming to the conclusion that the ‘below-par’ performances may not be the aberrations; the good games are beginning to look like the aberrations.
There has been much chopping and changing in the Celtic team this season due to injury and suspension, with players being asked to play out of position. Yet sometimes the players appear to be asked to play out of position when there is no need. Pryers is a right-back, who played at left-back tonight, whilst Scott is a centre-back playing at right-back, and Fitzgerald who has played much of last season at left-back was at centre-back!
On top of this, there is a loss of confidence running throughout the team that victories in the FA cup seem to be unable to dispel. The start of the season’s red and yellow card spell has translated into a complete ban on tackling, it would appear.
Thus, what transpired on the pitch served to make Lancaster appear world-beaters.
For most of the first half, Celtic were good enough to match Lancaster, as neither side were hitting the target. Lancaster conceded several free kicks around the box as Kilbane wrapped his arms constantly around Mayers and Eastwood depending on who had the ball – and he did this more times than there were fouls given! However, Celtic failed to make anything of any of the free kicks, the closest was the first one which Bullimore curled around the post, with Eastwood’s twist on shot on the last one almost worthy of the name ‘shot’. Neither were Celtic coming any closer from open play. Eastwood controlled a looping ball well, but diverted it wide, before a splendid back heel from Mayers put Pryers in for an excellent cross that revealed how good Welsby was at catching crosses. Mayers put Eastwood in with a diagonal ball and Eastwood tried a cross that became a shot as it whistled narrowly past the upright.
Sloppiness in front of goal was not confined to Celtic. Lancaster were equally profligate. Sullivan got behind Pryers with a quick burst of pace, but his shot went wide. Prince, on the other wing, was much more dangerous than Sullivan, given that he had a centre-back to get past, and not a right back. Scott conceded a corner to him that Pearce headed out for a second corner. This time Fitzgerald cleared, but only as far as the corner taker, whose second attempt at a cross was much more deadly, reaching Jones at the back post. Dootson was excellently positioned, and made the save look comfortable.
Over half an hour in, Eastwood registered a shot on target. He wriggled between Kilbane and Sparrow emerging with the ball and shooting instantly: straight at Welsby.
When Kilbane wrapped his arms around Eastwood for the umpteenth time, it was in the box. Penalty? No: corner. Andy Scott put it out for a second corner with a trademark salmon-like leap. There was a clash of heads in the box that left Fitzgerald on the floor. Play continued for a moment, but as soon as the referee noticed, he called a halt to play, which got him some barracking from the Lancaster players - including audible foul and abusive language directed at the referee who chose to shrug it off.
When play resumed the exposed Scott stood off Prince who chose a perfect cross. Fitzgerald and Pearce were left stationary to watch as Sullivan placed his hands on the floor to do a hand-stand and divert the ball past Dootson with the sole of his boot in what can only be described as a show-boating, but effective, shot.
The second half just got worse and worse for Celtic as Lancaster ran them ragged. Afraid to make any kind of tackle Lancaster were given space, and they made use of it. Only further shooting problems from Lancaster stopped them having a run-away score-line. Sullivan beat Pryers, but had forced himself to wide. He tried the shot anyway, slamming the ball into the side netting.
It was only a matter of time before Lancaster converted one of their chances though, and it originated again, with an ex-Celtic player. Jones looped a ball across the edge of the box to Elderton coming in unmarked. Fitzgerald tried to get across but could not make it in time before Elderton's half volley was rifled into the bottom corner of the net.
Jones almost grabbed one himself immediately after the restart, when he latched onto a lucky rebound, but his shot was right at Dootson, who must have felt like he was the last cowboy at the Alamo. Prince was the next to try his luck with a powerful effort from just outside the box. Dootson saved well with a parry that fell nicely to Sullivan, but the ex-Celtic favourite did his old team a favour by striking the crossbar with his shot.
Occasionally, and I do mean occasionally, there were flashes of what Celtic can do. A passing move that swept the ball around the field eventually culminated with a one-two between Eastwood and Mayers that gave Eastwood the space for a shot. He took the opportunity, but couldn't get the power behind it, and aimed right at Welsby.
Prince had a glorious opportunity to get on the score sheet after all his hard work when he got beyond Fitzgerald to go one-on-one with Dootson. The blaze of glory blinded him, and he shot wide. Sullivan had found the target now, and was trying his luck from all kinds of positions on the field, including a thirty yard shot that Dootson could only parry. Pearce was the first to the ball, and cleared.
Wheatcroft was brought on to replace Scott, and Bowman dropped to right-back, with Celtic switching to 4-3-3. Prince found he no longer had the freedom he'd had before. Wheatcroft's first touch was to receive the ball in the box. He turned away from goal, looking for a pass and found Mayers, the ball was right into Mayers' feet and his shot lacked any kind of power or direction, making an easy stop for Welsby. Wheatcroft's second touch was slightly better, freeing Eastwood to put in a great cross for Mayers at the back post. Welsby couldn't come and claim, so Elderton did his job for him, palming the ball out for a corner. Obviously, no penalty was given, and equally obviously nothing threatening came from the corner.
Sullivan was having a whale of a time, using Dootson as target practice, and it looked likely that only one team on the park would be scoring another goal, especially when Bowman was judged to have impeded Prince with what looked like a fair tackle in which he emerged with the ball. To add insult to injury, Bowman was shown a yellow card! After all that Kilbane had escaped punishment for, this seemed a trifle inconsistent from the official who was probably grateful that he could now join the club of showing cards to Celtic players. Making matters even worse was what followed.
Prince floated the free kick to the back post where Kilbane headed the ball back across the six yard box to Jones who rifled the ball home from close range.
Bowman was obviously incensed with the injustice and carried the ball up-field, dodging tackles and getting to within twenty yards before he fired off a cracking shot that Welsby just managed to tip around the post. Celtic's first shot that had made Welsby work had come after 87 minutes of play and off the back of Bowman's sudden injection of passion.
With the spectators thoroughly soaked through from the drizzling rain, the highlight of the match waited until 90 minutes when one of the floodlights spectacularly failed. Any hopes that the referee would abandon the game vanished as he allowed play to continue so that Bullimore could cross a ball for Mayers to flick gently into Welsby's hands, and the referee blew for full time.
This was the least passionate display by Celtic this season. Perhaps it's down to the injuries, perhaps it's down to the suspensions (or fear of them), or perhaps it's down to a lack of confidence from the players. Whatever it is, the players do not appear to be giving 100% commitment to the cause. This is all that is asked of them. 100% commitment won't win every game - as Hucknall proved - but it would have won this one.