Two goals in the space of three second half minutes gave Celtic a deserved win in a game they dominated. Manager Phil Wilson chose to rest several of his first team, as he did in the group stage of the competition but once again the players on duty proved far too good for lower league opposition.
Celtic started brightly with Nigel Evans wriggling free of his marker to fire a shot just over the bar from 20yds and in the 9th minute Kevin Parr, making a welcome return to the side, got on the end of a loose ball on the edge of the Ashton box, but again the ball cleared the bar. Howard and McNeil interchanged passes in the 14th minute but McNeil totally miskicked in front of goal.
Ashton, who had barely crossed the half-way line, then hit Celtic with a breakaway goal. Miller broke clear on the left, squared the ball across goal and Gareth Hamlet converted the simplest of chances from close range.
Celtic attacked from the restart and in the 23rd minute were denied an obvious looking penalty when Howard was brought down after rounding the Ashton full-back, Adams, in the box. After the referee waved play on, an incensed Howard tangled with Adams coming off second best, as Howard landed badly on his arm, dislocating it at the shoulder, keeping the youngster out of action for at least a fortnight. He was replaced by Sullivan, and was carried off by the physiotherapist to applause by the 200 or so fans who had made the short trip.
Steve Jones tried his luck from 25yds, but the ball whistled wide. Five minutes before half-time Sullivan tested Ashton keeper Johnston for the first time in the game with a low drive to the keepers' left from a free kick just outside the area.
Ashton, who had offered little in attack but had defended well, almost doubled their lead in the first minute of the second half when a cross from the left was volleyed over from close range by Illingworth. Despite having plenty of the ball Celtic failed to create any chances until the 57th minute when Sullivan brought the Celts level. Keeper Johnston cleared a back pass only as far as Pickford who headed forward into the box for Sullivan to latch onto, and he coolly slotted the ball past Johnston.
Two minutes later Stalybridge took the lead when Pickford again picked up a clearance and hit a superb strike towards the bottom right corner of the goal. Johnston pulled off a great save but was powerless to stop McNeil pouncing on the rebound to score.
Ashton enjoyed more possession from then on but it was Celtic who looked the more likely to score. Evans volleyed wide from 10yds and late in the game he drilled a low cross across the face of the goal which Sullivan almost converted at the far post. Stalybridge had two late chance to wrap the game up, firstly McNeil drifted past two defenders into the area but clipped his shot over the bar, then Sullivan failed to trouble Johnston with another shot from outside the box.