Unstoppable, ruthless, exceptional. Just a few of the descriptions applied to Celtic in the wake of their crushing 5-0 defeat of Hibs, the worst experienced on their home turf by the Easter Road outfit since the summer of 1985.
But while Neil Lennon, his players and their fans party, the victory firing the champions elect 17 points ahead of Rangers, their performance provoked Hibs star David Wotherspoon, who today admitted he and his team-mates had contributed in no small way to their own downfall.
Buoyed by successive clean sheets and signs that, at long last, the first rays of optimism were shining on Leith, Pat Fenlon’s side had gone into the match quietly confident, perhaps not of winning, but at least of replicating the draw they’d earned at Celtic Park before the Hoops embarked on a winning streak which now amounts to an astonishing 18 matches.
Their dreams, however, looked wildly misplaced when, within 20 minutes, Anthony Stokes continued his rich vein of form against his old club as he rose unopposed to power home Charlie Mulgrew’s corner before strike partner Gary Hooper took advantage of his team-mate’s astute pass for Hibs goalkeeper Graham Stack to be beaten for a second time.
Even so, a glimmer of hope remained – but only if Hibs could get the next goal. At least that was the focus of the half-time team talk but in a manner eerily reminiscent of the Scottish Communities League Cup tie between the teams earlier in the season when the scoreline was tied at 1-1 at the interval, the Capital outfit simply collapsed in the face of a Celtic barrage.
Now, as then, the Hoops claimed a goal almost immediately on the restart, Mulgrew firing a superb free-kick beyond the stranded Stack who was beaten again by Hooper and then by Ki Sung Yueng before being spared the embarrassment of losing a sixth as Joe Ledley’s header crashed back off the crossbar.
A stunning win for Celtic it might have been, but more pertinent to Wotherspoon and his team-mates was the fact that their advantage over basement outfit Dunfermline in the battle to avoid relegation had, over the course of the weekend, been cut to a mere four goals.
The Scotland Under-21 midfield star, though, insisted there was no time to dwell on Sunday’s debacle with a crunch match against Motherwell – a replay of the encounter at Fir Park abandoned at the beginning of December due to floodlight failure with Hibs leading through a Garry O’Connor strike – now little more than 24 hours away. He said: “Being beaten 5-0 at home was a bit of a doing but we have to clear our heads and move on. We went into the Celtic match with a game plan but we didn’t quite stick to it. I don’t think they created too many chances first half but we found ourselves two down in 20 minutes and trying to fight back from there.
“We said at half-time we had to go back out, get on the front foot and that if we could get one back we’d be on their tails. Instead, they get a free-kick right away, score from it and at 3-0 we had a mountain to climb. It was a bit like the League Cup game, we lost our heads a bit and didn’t keep our discipline.”
Although it was of little consequence, Wotherspoon claimed Ki’s strike simply highlighted how luck always seemed to go with a team at the top of the table and desert those at the foot, the Korean running into the path of Kris Commons’ wayward shot to deflect the ball beyond Stack.
He said: “I think that shows what happens when you are at your respective ends of the league. I think the shot was going so wide it was probably looking like being a throw in only for it to hit Ki without him really knowing anything about it. That just about summed up our day.”
Celtic, of course, had arrived at Easter Road knowing the title was all but theirs after Rangers had been deducted ten points in the wake of last week’s drama as the Ibrox club collapsed into administration amid claim and counter-claim regarding their financial position.
The Hoops fans were there to celebrate, creating a somewhat surreal atmosphere as they gloried in the demise of their arch-rivals. But, insisted Wotherspoon, those events had played no part in Hibs’ disappointment. He said: “What happened didn’t come in to it, they are at the other end of the table while we have been focusing on ourselves. We sensed Celtic were really up for it, wanting a party, but we wanted to upset that. We’d looked as if we were picking up a bit of organisation, the new players coming in have added a bit of freshness, but unfortunately lost two silly goals early on.”
Asked if he thought, as some suggested, that Celtic would simply have been unplayable regardless of the opposition on Sunday, Wotherspoon claimed otherwise. “No, I don’t think so,” he said, “We lost our discipline a bit in the second half and they were able to start spraying their passes about.
“But other than that I don’t think they were outstanding, I think we could have dealt with it instead we couldn’t get out of our own half or to keep control of the ball.”
Now Hibs return to Lanarkshire wondering just what might have been over the intervening weeks had that Friday night game at the beginning of December, one which would officially have been Fenlon’s first in charge, not been abandoned.
The 3-0 drubbing of Hearts handed out by Stuart McCall’s men made it four successive wins at home for the Steelmen who have, like Hibs, clinched a place in the last eight of the William Hill Scottish Cup while in the league their focus is now very much on catching second-placed Rangers. It makes it a daunting prospect but, on a night in which fellow strugglers Dunfermline make the possibly more testing trip to Celtic Park, Wotherspoon insisted every effort must be made to ensure Hibs emerge with their advantage over the Pars enhanced.
Agreeing four goals is too narrow a margin, Wotherspoon said: “Hopefully Celtic can replicate Sunday’s performance again tomorrow. But we aren’t talking about goal difference, it’s points we are after. Undoubtedly people will be looking for Dunfermline’s result following our game but we have to focus on ourselves.
“Motherwell have been going well but we’ve picked up decent results there in the past so it is a case of getting our heads back up, our minds on tomorrow night and hopefully we can prove a point after what has happened.”