Terry Butcher had talked of throwing a spanner into the works, but if Hibs didn’t quite manage to do that, they certainly made the well-oiled machine that is Celtic splutter more than a little.
A cursory glance at the final scoreline would suggest that Neil Lennon’s players had cruised to a comfortable win, of the sort they’ve enjoyed on numerous occasions already this season as record after record has been clocked up, this their 22nd game unbeaten as they bid not only for the Scottish Premiership flag but the title of “Invincibles”.
And a personal record, too, was also extended, Fraser Forster ratcheting up a tenth successive game without conceding a goal, the goalkeeper having now gone an incredible 945 minutes without having to reach into the back of his net – Niall McGinn’s strike for Aberdeen away back on November 23 but a distant memory for the towering Englishman.
The final scoreline, however, doesn’t begin to tell the story of this game or the part Forster had to play in securing the victory which opened the gap between Celtic and second-placed Aberdeen to a yawning 15 points – and with two games in hand for the leaders.
Having denied Hibs’ French winger Abdellah Zoubir twice in as many minutes, Forster somehow threw his huge frame leftwards to touch away a shot from Sam Stanton, one which even Neil Lennon agreed looked a goal all the way. “How he got his hand to it and pushed it away, I don’t know,” admitted the Hoops boss, “It was unbelievable, a fantastic effort and a wonderful save.”
With Celtic leading through an early Kris Commons goal, gifted to him by a defensive mix-up between Michael Nelson and Jordon Forster as the centre backs both went for Emilio Izaguirre’s speculative high ball, Hibs at that point, having overcome a shaky start to the match, would have been well worth an equaliser as they caused Lennon more than a few anxious moments.
“We’re not going to get everything our own way,” he insisted, “And all credit to Hibs although I thought in that spell we were sloppy, a bit ragged and we had to change our shape a bit.”
A pivotal moment it most certainly was, but so too, claimed Hibs manager Terry Butcher, was the decision of referee Craig Thomson – yes, him again – to penalise Nelson for deliberate handball, the resulting free-kick hammered home in style by Virgil van Dijk from fully 30 yards, a shot which, in Lennon’s estimation, would have been difficult to stop even if Hibs goalkeeper Ben Williams had a clone standing on the line beside him.
Thomson’s decision, though, left Butcher, who was later called from the dug-out for a dressing down from the official as his exasperation got the better of him, both bemused and perplexed, recalling how the very same whistler had failed to award Aberdeen a penalty when the ball struck Nelson’s hand at Pittodrie only a couple of weeks ago.
Butcher’s mood wasn’t helped any by what he saw as a clear lack of consistency, also citing the way St Mirren’s Adam Campbell had used his hand to guide the ball away from Sam Stanton the previous weekend with, apparently, Willie Collum, the ref that day, telling his players he’d seen it, but it wasn’t deliberate.
The Easter Road boss said: “The free-kick that was given for handball was bizarre in my opinion. The same referee does not give handball for the same player in the same incident at Aberdeen and then we have a handball by a St Mirren player not once but twice to stop it going through to Sam Stanton in the last minute and it’s not given.
“The referee said he’d cautioned Michael and given the free-kick because he’d stopped the ball going through to an opponent. I don’t understand, I don’t know what the rules are and how the referees interpret it, but we are bitterly disappointed.”
The fact that Georgios Samaras, the “opponent” the ball was heading towards, appeared to be standing in an offside position only added to the sense of injustice, Butcher revealing he hadn’t sought an explanation from Thomson afterwards, adding: “I don’t want to speak to him. If I really say what I felt about the referee’s performance I would be in trouble with Mr Lunny [Vincent, the SFA’s compliance officer] so I am not going there.
“It’s just that, in my opinion, the decision for handball is quite bizarre because I do not know anyone who can control a ball that’s hit at that pace. It wasn’t deliberate, but we have been punished in the harshest possible way.”
Van Dijk’s stunning strike 14 minutes from time left Hibs and their fans deflated, Celtic rubbing salt into their wounds as substitute Teemu Pukki netted a third before Alan Maybury’s rash push into the back of the little Finn presented Commons with the opportunity from the penalty spot to claim his 21st goal in what has become a truly remarkable season for the midfielder.
Disappointed as he was, Butcher was far from despondent, recognising that the scoreline didn’t give a true reflection of the efforts of what, through injury and suspension, was very much a patched-up Hibs side in which Stanton started his first ever game and rightly earned the man-of-the-match plaudits Alex Harris made his first start since the opening day of the season, while both Zoubir and Tom Taiwo were back in action having been on the periphery of things in recent weeks.
Butcher said: “We didn’t deserve that. We had a very quick debrief after the game when I told the players they should walk out with their heads held high because they had had a right go at Celtic especially in the second half.
“We did not deserve a 4-0 defeat. It was not a 4-0 game, but it all hinges on those two incidents – Forster’s save and the free-kick.
“It was a team which hadn’t played before in many aspects so it was remarkable what they did. The young players were excellent. They had a bit of energy about them and in the wide areas we had a bit of pace and trickery. We made their goalkeeper work harder than they did our’s which, I know, is a bit contradictory given they have scored four goals.
“It was sickening to lose 4-0 and the boys cannot believe that they did, but the second goal was the key moment. It was a great strike, but it gives Celtic the licence to go for it, which they did.
“It was very harsh on my players, but I thought we were good, the shape was good, we frustrated Celtic, made them work hard for their victory and I honestly believe there were a lot more positives than negatives for us.”