Celtic created the better chances in this game, and again looked like a Conference outfit taking the game to Leigh and in some areas, out performing them.
Possibly Leigh's best player was Mario Daniel, who fortunately left the pitch at half time. In the opening minute he turned Parr so well that Parr couldn't help but give away a foul. Celtic didn't look comfortable as they scrambled the ball clear without conviction. It was a warning from the sprightly forward of his intentions.
It is defence where Leigh have a problem. There was little communication at the back, and when Payton (Warren, not Andy!) passed the ball back to Rowe in the Leigh goal, there was insufficient pace on the ball, forcing Rowe out of his box. Mayers chased the ball all the way and leaped in front of the clearance, protecting his face. Unfortunately, the ball struck his hands, and the ref gave a free kick.
In attack, Leigh shouldn't be having problems. Daniel turned Keeling and only a last ditch tackle by the makeshift centreback denied the Railwayman, and when the ball fell kindly for Roscoe Keeling was there again. Lancaster found a small gap in the Celtic defence to thread a ball through for Payton, fortunately for Celtic his shot skimmed just wide of the mark.
Celtic began to get a foothold in the game thanks to the persistence of Ben Smith. He pulled the ball back from an almost certain goal kick to the feet of Mayers. Mayers twisted and shot, with Rowe having to save with his feet. Leigh really struggled to get the ball clear and it eventually came out to Wharton. His first time ball in was met by the head of Parr, who nodded it wide.
Rowe had great difficulty in telling where the white lines of his box were. On numerous occasions he carried the ball out slightly for kicks, and right at the beginning claimed a ball that Smith should have got whilst stood outside his area. He got away with it a second time when he came to claim a ball over the top for Mayers; he jumped to catch the lob, realised he would be carried a long way out of the area and was forced to drop the ball (he caught it originally outside the box). The ball landed for Mayers who wasted no time and lobbed the ball over a crowded box where Lancaster headed it off the line. Roscoe headed the ball just over his own bar, with Parr lurking right beside him to concede a second corner. Parr reached it first this time, but he headed wide.
Celtic were really beginning to dominate a third of the way into the half. Fitzgerald was allowed the time to produce a pinpoint crossfield ball to Smith. Smith's instant lob cut out two defenders, but Mayers could only head wide of the mark. Smith went on his own after Fitzgerald found him a second time, but he half volleyed wide of the mark.
However, with Daniel on the field, Leigh always had the counterattack option on. They used it to great advantage with a pumped ball up field. Daniel turned Keeling far too easily, but the Celtic man recovered well enough to diver the snapped shot for a corner. Leigh's corner routine was odd and pointless. They got another corner moments later when it was Pearce's turn to be made to look cumbersome by the swift Daniel. Only intelligent play and a superbly timed slide challenge in the six-yard box denied the Leigh man an opening goal. The corner was more traditional; Dootson punched only just outside his penalty box, fortunately Rezai's woeful attempt on goal was well over. When Daniel took on Fitzgerald, he managed to draw a foul, despite the lack of any real contact. Payton took the free kick, curling it around the wall and through a crowd of players. Dootson saw it late and made an excellent save, punching the ball around the post.
Not learning from his previous mistakes, Rowe again came for a ball best left or the defence. Smith's lobbed ball to Mayers saw him audaciously try to head the ball over the top of the on-rushing keeper. It almost worked, too, with Rowe looking quite startled. Fortunately his keeping reactions are working, and his arms knew what to do if his head didn't.
The Leigh defence was being asked all kinds of questions by Celtic, and they didn't really have a good answer. Eastwood toyed with his marker before Fitzgerald came up to support. Eastwood dropped the ball to him, Fitzgerald's first time cross was straight onto the head of Mayers, virtually unmarked, simple finish, Celtic were a goal to the good.
Celtic tried to build on their successes. Parr pumped a ball through for Smith to run onto, which he did. Rowe came a long way again to try and get the ball despite always being third favourite to both Smith and Rezai. Smith reached the ball first and tried to instantly put it around Rowe, but it unfortunately hit Rowe and went for a throw.
Celtic finished the half with a corner. Wharton put the ball into the middle of the box and caused mayhem, as the keeper's punch didn't even clear the box. Somehow Leigh hacked it clear.
In the second half Leigh knew that they were going to have to come at Celtic if they were to get anything at all out of this game, though they made what looked to be a strange substitution, taking Daniel off. Apparently, they don't need him as almost from the off, Whitehead raced up the flank, stepped inside German and whipped in a cross for McNiven to sneak in front of Keeling to meet. Dootson tried to reach it, and almost made it, clawing at air instead of ball. The scores were level before the announcer had finished giving out details about the procedure in the event of a draw.
Leigh attempted to capitalise on their newfound goal scoring ability and Whitehead was again trying to race past German, this time German stayed with him, and blocked the cross at the expense of a corner. The corner was well worked, and looked remarkably similar to one that Celtic have tried a couple of times, which explains why Pearce cleared it so easily.
Heald came on to replace the hardworking Bowman and open up the left flank.
Then the moment of controversy, only this time without the expected outcome.
German clumsily bundled over Whitehead, what looked to be just inside the area, but the referee gave it as just outside. Mayers' clearance fell to the amusingly named Tickle, and his shot tickled me clearing the bar by a good thirty feet.
Heald was set off on a run by a well-weighted ball from Mayers that let him run straight at Rowe. The Leigh keeper stood rooted to the spot and Heald lashed the ball past him. It looked destined for the bottom corner but rebounded back off the inside of the post and Leigh hacked it thankfully clear.
Tickle brought Eastwood down as he worked the ball towards the goal. Wharton's free kick was met by the head of Mayers at close range. A fine reaction block by the keeper diverted it around the post. Rickers was the near-post man, heading it back out for a second corner. This time, Rowe's punch clear barely escaped the six-yard box and as Mayers bore down, Rickers again had to punt the ball out for a third corner. Off this one, the referee noticed Keeling stood on somebody's shadow and called a foul.
It could have been anybody's game as the balance of power shifted one way and then the other. Kielty, of all people, shrugged off Pearce and snapped off a shot – the first time I've seen him shoot at goal with any conviction – forcing Dootson into a flighted save to tip the ball over the bar. The corner was wasted.
With time running out Celtic could have snatched it. A cross from Heald was nodded past the defenders to Mayers. Mayers tried to divert it into the small space beyond Rowe but in at the far post, and missed the target by a fraction of an inch. Smith turned his marker and tried a near-post shot moments later, but Rowe was well positioned and collected comfortably.
In the dying seconds of the game, Pearce conceded a corner, and was the first to Payton's deep corner, conceding a second. This time Wharton's clearance was straight back to Payton, but his cross was an easy claim for Dootson.
Celtic showed again what kinds of strides they are making, looking at their most fluid and deadly with Conference opposition. Denham would have been a great asset against this defence who could barely handle Mayers' pace, never mind Denham's.
And you know what – at the seventh attempt, we still haven't beaten Leigh, though this is the first time we've come away from Hilton Park with anything other than a loss.
Thanks to the fact that Rowe had never re-registered upon returning to England from the states, he was ineligible to play, and the replay never materialised. After a hearing, the FA threw Leigh out of the competition.