Celtic need only a handful of points to secure Conference North football next season, but nobody expected three of those points to come from the Southport game. An injury to loan keeper McCarthy gave Jean-Paul Ndjebayi his big chance in a Celtic shirt. In previous matches, Celtic have not won with a debutant keeper, and with Ndjebayi (JP) becoming Celtic's sixth keeper this season, against a team we have not beaten away for many seasons, a point was hoped for.
As expected, Southport attacked from the off, playing with the sun at their backs, and Keeling had to be on hand to block Leadbetter's cross at the expense of a corner. The whole team was probably aware of the keeper-curse and pitched in to steady JP, thus when the corner came in, Caldecott was on hand to clear off the line.
The game was open, with the hosts affording Celtic a degree of freedom to play football not seen for many a game, and Celtic made them pay. A sweeping move brought the ball up the field, and Eastwood got the final touch, bringing down a cross and threading it instantly between two defenders for Hayward to latch onto. Hayward's predatory instincts didn't fail him, one touch to confuse the keeper, and the second touch to slot it into the net.
The travelling support were not too hopeful about the outcome, even with this goal, as in the previous three matches, they had taken an early lead only to fail to hold onto it. This looked especially likely when Wharton clumsily bundled over Price within free kick range. The free kick was whipped at some pace around the wall and had JP beaten, but it struck the post and Eastwood scrambled it clear.
This close call wasn't enough warning though, and Bowker fouled Daly at about the same range. JP came through a crowd to punch the ball clear, but with Parr also heading it clear, there was no clean contact from either of them, and it landed sweetly onto Leadbetter's swinging right foot to zip into an empty net.
Celtic tried the instant comeback, with Caldecott allowed to carry the ball all the way up the line and into the box. He'd done all the hard work, riding several challenges along the way, but the sun must have got into his eyes, because he gave the ball to Davis for a simple clearance.
Celtic's back line were playing out of their skins and supporting one another the likes of which had not been seen for many games. Whether it was the knowledge that JP was nervous, or something else, it did the trick. Robinson turned Bowker well in the centre of the park, and raced towards goal with Baker in support. Bowker caught Robinson as the pair entered the box, but Robinson pulled it back to Baker. Keeling had not been idle though and raced across the front of Baker, sliding in and dispossessing the home player with a superb last second tackle.
However, a moment of madness from the captain handed Southport the lead. From the corner, JP palmed the corner away from Robinson, and Parr, whose hand was well above his head also palmed the ball, though to nobody in particular. It was a definite penalty, and Parr looked to be auditioning for the position of seventh keeper of the season. JP guessed the way that Baker would go, but failed to get quite far enough across to keep it out. As if the penalty and goal were not punishment enough, Parr was also shown a yellow card – quite why is a mystery.
Daly turned Keeling near the corner flag, and Keeling touched him enough to bring Daly crashing to the ground, where he was awarded a free kick, and Keeling got a yellow card despite the challenge being innocuous. The free kick was meant for Robinson, but Parr was there challenging as well, and gave JP enough room to collect.
Dickinson was alert as Celtic tried to get a goal back. From a foul on Caldecott by Leadbetter on the halfway line, German floated a free kick for Eastwood at the near post, but Dickinson read it well, and cut it out. Monk got on the end of a free kick (given for a nothing challenge by Pickford on Bonsall in the middle of the park). But his header was straight at Dickinson and lacked the power to make the Sandgrounder keeper sweat. Hayward did make the keeper sweat moments later when Wharton found him with a threaded ball. Hayward turned off Jones and swiped a shot toward the bottom corner, and Dickinson did well to get down and claim.
Celtic came really close when Stone fouled Hayward near the corner flag. The free kick from Wharton was floated to the penalty spot where Bowker met it with a crashing header that struck the crossbar and went out.
As the half ran out, German and Bonsall interchanged, but German's shot when it came from outside the area was over the bar.
Celtic came out of the dressing room fired up, and in the opening minute, Hayward robbed Davis near the corner flag and dragged the ball back up the touchline where Wharton was arriving. One on one with Dickinson and from a very narrow angle, Wharton found enough space to slot the ball past the home keeper and into the back of the net to restore parity.
Southport won a corner when Baker's long cross into the box was pushed out for a corner when JP lost his footing trying to catch the ball. Parr was on hand to head the corner clear. Southport soon brought it back though, and Daly tried his luck from distance, but put his shot wide.
The game was flowing quickly with both teams battling hard, but Celtic possibly the harder. Monk carried the ball to the touchline, and nipped around Byrne only to run into the solid wall of Davis, who intercepted the cross and put it out for a throw. German's throw found Bonsall in enough space to pick out Eastwood advancing into the box, and skim a low cross through the box for Eastwood to side foot into the net well beyond Dickinson's reach.
Leadbetter got frustrated at German's shepherding of the ball into touch, and shoved him in the back for no good reason. The referee awarded him a yellow card. From the free kick, Hayward received the ball and put it into the path of Monk. Monk still had a lot to do, but his shot was weak and straight at Dickinson. Leadbetter was soon taken off, before he got sent off, with Mulvaney replacing him.
Daly carried the ball into the box, and rode his luck as challenges fell favourably for him, however, his luck ran out when he took the shot, for it was wide. Bowker then conceded a corner as Southport pressed for an equaliser, but Bonsall was first to the ball, heading it well out of the box.
However, Celtic were not trying to sit on their one goal advantage. Wharton raced into the box, and only a good last-ditch tackle from Baker prevented the Celtic man from doubling his tally. Dickinson got enough of a palm onto the corner to put it just behind Bowker, so that his header went wide. Dickinson did even better when Bonsall found himself half a yard of space just outside the box, and sent in a thunderous shot that took a wicked deflection, but the home keeper reacted well and made a good save. Dickinson was having a good game, and when Eastwood's chipped cross was destined for the head of Monk, he plucked it out of the Celtic winger's hair. It was Monk's last action as Denham was brought on to replace him to a great cheer from the travelling fans.
Wharton tried to imitate Leadbetter, with considerably less success. Hayward took advantage of a mix up between Davis and Dickinson to try and nick the ball, but it was cleared as far as Wharton. With the two Southport players still arguing at the edge of the box, Wharton's speculative effort nearly hit the corner flag.
Celtic were looking the stronger side in the second half, and deserved their goal advantage with the way they pressed in on Southport's back line. Davis fouled Eastwood thirty-five yards from goal, and he took the free kick himself, curling it around the wall and into Dickinson's waiting arms. Pickford brought down Denham as he tried to race past him, German's quick free kick was curled for Eastwood, but Dickinson wasn't to be caught out, and plucked the ball from the air. Dickinson would have had no chance when Wharton floated in a free kick for a foul by Pickford on Hayward, but fortunately for him, Parr's glancing header was just wide.
Despite the protection the Celtic team were affording JP, he was called into action when Mulvaney's cross found Price some distance from net, and the Southport midfielder fired off a wicked curling shot that JP reacted to well, palming it from one hand into the other. Bowker then conceded a free kick when jumping for a header with Daly. However, he was on hand to provide a double interception in the box as the ball was fired in not once but twice in quick succession. Wharton fouled Pickford forty yards out, and Keeling headed it clear, only to see it knocked straight back in. JP punched clear, only for it to fall to Mulvaney, who's shot was blocked by Bowker for a corner. It was a back to the wall defending job. Robinson headed the corner over the bar.
Celtic should then have added some breathing space in the result when Eastwood put the ball into the back of the net. He got to the edge of the six yard box, and lobbed the keeper, only to see that the linesman had raised his flag against Denham, who was stood on the far side of the penalty box, and could not be considered to be interfering with play in anybody's eyes. He couldn't have reached the ball had it missed, and it was doubtful if Dickinson even knew he was there.
As the game wound to a conclusion, Southport upped the tempo and forced Celtic into some desperate defending. Mortimer's cross in was plucked off the head of Robinson by JP, and as Southport battered the box with crosses and shots, it was a case of scrambling the ball clear, but never completely effectively by the Celtic defence, until German finally got a good contact on the ball and hoofed it to safety. It wasn't for long, as Davis moved into a central attacker role. It was his head that got onto Mortimer's cross, but it was straight at JP.
As the game went into stoppage time, the officials again conspired to deny Celtic any breathing space. Price quite blatantly brought down Wharton inside the box, but the referee wasn't interested, despite Wharton being clean through and one-on-one with Dickinson.
Fortunately it wasn't required as Celtic turned to holding the ball in the corner, and given the odds for the game, it was a remarkable result, though given the passion that Celtic put into the game, it was deserved.
Celtic probably only need one more point for safety now out of their remaining four games. With Marine at home on Wednesday, hopefully this can be achieved then, but with Marine battling for an automatic promotion place as much as Celtic, there's no denying it will be a tough game.