With the severe injury to Dootson, Sykes started this game in goals. And to be fair, he did very well, though he did not have that much to do, with the team defending well in front of him. Leek, in contrast, now had a fully fit team to choose from.
Leek looked like they had read the script at the start when Eyre latched onto a lax clearance and raced through on goal, but he struck the ball while still running and sent it wildly wide.
At the other end, Wharton worked some space just outside the box, but his finishing was no better, clearing the bar. That would set a pattern for Celtic’s finishing throughout the match.
A free kick for the hosts from the half way line was pumped towards the penalty spot by Hawthorne, where Whittaker was prowling. The prolific striker struck a powerful header and Sykes got his first test tipping the ball over the bar. Sykes did even better off the free kick getting a powerful fist on the ball to send it well away from danger.
The defence let Sykes down somewhat, moments later when a simple ball from Whittaker through the defence allowed Clegg to break through the defence. Sykes hugged his post a little and Clegg pulled his cross through the six-yard box where Crowe had not been picked up and he could side-foot home to give Leek the lead.
The whole Celtic team were guilty of giving the ball away to cheaply throughout the game, and this was shown when a lax pass went to Crowe allowing him to race down the wing and flash a cross through the six-yard box where Whittaker was arriving – fortunately for Celtic, he missed his header.
Celtic were struggling, though Smith made some space and got into the box. His initial shot was blocked by Eyre, but he got a second chance, and the cross was blocked by Eyre, and his third attempt was cleared. Celtic won it back, but again gave it away too cheaply, and Clegg ran straight through the centre of the park before Whealing slid through him earning a yellow card and a free kick in a dangerous position. Sykes watched the free kick sail well wide.
Wharton injected some hope into the visiting fans with a jinking run that ended with a corner off Hawthorne. The ball into the box was a difficult one for the home defence to deal with, but they did eventually struggle it clear. Hayward soon brought the ball back, and carved himself a glorious opportunity turning away from his marker and into the box. Cartwright in the home goals slipped as he came to narrow the angle, and Hayward curled it past him, only to see Woolliscroft come sliding across and diverting the shot over the bar with a last second block. The corner was played short and eventually came to Hayward. Hayward dummied Eyre superbly to get a low cross through the six yard box, but it was just too pacy for Eastwood and Whealing couldn’t keep it in.
Celtic had been enjoying the balance of play for quarter of an hour, but then another lax pass allowed Eyre to race down the wing and loop a cross into the box. Whittaker got his head on the ball, but headed straight into Sykes’ midriff.
Celtic pulled their back act together as the half went into the final minutes, and Eastwood held off two defenders before sliding the ball into the path of Whealing. Whealing’s low cross was just too fast for Hayward sliding in at the back post. It was Whealing again moments later whose pinpoint pass landed right onto the boot of Hayward who diverted towards the bottom corner producing an excellent save out of Cartwright who got down well.
Cartwright again kept the slender lead for the hosts at the death of the half. Smith was tripped after fooling Eyre with a beautiful dummy, just outside the box. Whealing’s free kick was inch perfect for Keeling, who headed the ball powerfully towards the top corner, and Cartwright athletically tipped the ball over the bar. The corner eventually came to Hayward – he had more time than he realised and his lashed shot zipped over the bar.
At the start of the second half, Hayward slid the ball through to Eastwood who immediately lifted it over the defence for Hayward who had continued his run, but Hayward’s header was wide.
Leek too, were looking for the goal to kill Celtic off, and Caldecott got away with murder after fouling Clegg thirty-yards from goal. Sykes came through a press of bodies to claim the free-kick only to get wrestled to the ground by the Leek attack. Celtic had lost the fluidity that they had ended the first half with, but it showed itself in patches. Caldecott and Smith worked the left flank together before sliding the ball through to Wharton who pulled the ball back to Hayward. It was a good turn from the Celtic striker, but the shot lacked pace and Cartwright could just scoop it up. It was another easy catch moments later when Eastwood worked some space from a throw to shoot from an acute angle. Cartwright was well positioned and caught easily.
Evidence of the wholesale defending came after Clegg easily won the ball in the middle of the park and feeding the ball to Whittaker. The Leek striker produced a punching save from Sykes and suddenly it seemed that every Leek player bar Cartwright was having a pop at goal. Sykes blocked one, but it took blocks in the box and goal line clearances from German and Keeling to keep Leek’s advantage down to one goal.
Celtic again gave the ball away moments later, and Crowe advanced on the Celtic goal. The defence stood off him allowing him to get closer and closer, until he was in the box at an acute angle and he drove a shot across the face of Sykes and goal and in off the far post to double the Leek advantage.
Wragg made a change, and brought Steve Smith on for the last fifteen minutes, and Celtic’s newest recruit showed immediately why he should have been in the starting eleven. He wrestled the ball from Brown and raced through the Leek defence like they weren’t there. It took a very brave save from Cartwright to deny Smith a goal with his first attempt, smothering at his feet and conceding a corner. Celtic couldn’t keep the pressure on as the corner sailed straight out again.
Steve Smith again won the ball back in the middle and worked some space from at least forty-yards. Cartwright leapt to try and reach the curling shot, but he wouldn’t have made it and was relieved to see the ball rebound off the post.
More industry from the substitute saw him lay the ball off through the defence for Hayward to run onto. Cartwright advanced, the defence closed him down, but vintage Hayward saw him lift the ball over them all and lob it into the back of the net to halve the deficit.
Despite being ex-team mates, Wharton and Clegg earned themselves yellow cards after a foul by Wharton on Clegg resulted in a bit of afters between the pair. Leek couldn’t retain possession as the game went into the final minutes though as Celtic finished strongly.
Hayward lobbed the ball over the defence and Steve Smith obliged by racing past a stationary Haddrell to latch onto it. Cartwright hesitated and Smith blasted the ball towards the far post, and it skimmed only an inch the wrong side of the post. Not to be outdone, Celtic’s other Smith burst through a crowd to latch onto Eastwood’s lobbed cross with a powerful header that skimmed the crossbar and stuck in the netting on the top of the goal.
And that was it. Celtic ended both halves the stronger, but giving the ball away so cheaply was their undoing as it invited too much pressure on a defence that had to help out the rookie keeper. The two Leek goals took advantage of Celtic’s injury situation, with the uncertainty caused at the back.
In terms of chances carved, Celtic were the better team, but in terms of retaining possession and applying pressure, Leek were head and shoulders above Celtic and Celtic need to learn lessons from it.