Celtic travelled to the wild outback of Burscough on a bitterly cold windswept evening looking for the three points, which would increase the pressure on Emley. With Martin Filson completing his suspension and Kevin Parr still injured, Matty Williamson kept his place at the back, with Ian Cooke partnering Matty McNeil up front. The pitch whilst having plenty of grass, was to say the least “undulating” and with a greasy surface, the players were having to tread warily.
Celtic forced the early play without threatening the home goal, and Burscough were pinned back for long periods. Matty McNeil reacted badly to two unpunished fouls, and was booked for a challenge on Hanson, after only 5 minutes. The referee chose to play a unique advantage rule, by stopping play to award free kicks to Burscough, and allowing Burscough fouls to go unpunished despite them gaining the advantage. Celtic seemed to find it difficult to get their game going with the constant stoppages, although some nice touches created half-chances for Cooke who headed over when he may have done better, and a first time cross from Sullivan just evaded the outstretched boot of McNeil. A great move down the right carved the defence apart and a spectacular overhead finish by McNeil just cleared the post, to spoil what would have been the goal of the season. Sullivan saw plenty of the ball, but was well marshalled by Molloy. When he chose to run the ball, he was much more effective, indeed Burscough found the direct approach unsettling, whilst coping easily with the slow build up play, and despite having the smallest team I have seen for years, they also coped well with aerial attacks. The home team produced only one serious shot on goal, when Molyneux struck a 30-yard free kick onto the bar with Ingham beaten by the sheer pace of the shot, after 12 minutes. Their open play completely fizzled out in the last third despite the assistance of the erratic referee Liverpudlian, Mr. Stewart.
Celtic began to up the tempo as the game wore on, and deservedly took the lead on 38 minutes, with a well-worked corner. Bauress played the ball into the front post for Williamson to flick home leaving the keeper well beaten. This seemed to be the cue for the rout, but Celtic were unable to increase their lead and a very relieved home team saw out the half only one behind.
Celtic started the second half on fire, but again failed to threaten the home goal. The referee worked his magic by awarding the home side free kicks for offences only he could see, and Burscough played their part by going down like nine-pins at almost every challenge, with the result that Celtic’s rhythm was completely broken up. We still created chances, the best of which fell to Jones who shot just over from the edge of the box, and a couple of half chances were scrambled away by the home defence. As always happens, Burscough, buoyed by the fact that they had not been beaten out of sight, came more into the game, and bossed the game for a twenty minute spell. The defence showed their mettle and coped admirably with everything thrown at them. Time for the ref to intervene. As Celtic tried to clear their lines, he ignored two blatant fouls, which saw Celtic lose possession and allowed Birch to cross from the left. Although the ball was in the air for some time, Ingham chose to stay on his line as he had two defenders marking McMullen, but he jumped unchallenged to place a firm header into the corner on 68 minutes. The game balanced out with Burscough again relying on the referee for another chance, when he penalised Williamson who headed away cleanly, but as the Burscough forward had declined to jump, the ref awarded a free-kick on the corner of the area. Ingham made a magnificent save from the resultant shot, and then went through a crowd of players to punch clear the corner.
Phil Wilson brought on Scott for the largely ineffective and tiring Cooke, the new balance seeming to spur Celtic on, and they bossed the remaining ten minutes of the game. Evans replaced McNeil and his pace upset the home defence, causing yet more scrambles but with no end result. The referee seemed content to allow Burscough the lion’s share of the free-kicks, and amazingly missed two very strong penalty appeals, one in particular when Evans was clearly pushed off the ball no more than 5 yards away from the referee.
Not a great game, but Burscough are hard to beat at home, with just one defeat back on September 12 and a second in December. A lack lustre performance from the Blue Boys, but none the less a point gained. To play badly and get something is the sign of Champions so Emley should not read anything into this result. They still have to visit Victoria Park, and will not have an easy ride.