Celtic came into this game on the back of a defeat in the FA Trophy, and though they finished the first half two goals clear, it was by no means one way traffic. Ashton for their part were trying to take full advantage of their height and physical presence, resulting in a lot of heavy tackles on Celtic players, towards which the referee was very lenient.
The pattern was set from the off, when Rush lunged into Eastwood, conceding a free kick. With free kick specialist Potts out of action after a heavy challenge in the Trophy saw him limp off, it was left to Wharton to provide inspiration, but his first free kick was easily cleared by the commanding presence of Riordan. Even the Robin's full backs were weighty and tall, so when Eastwood tried to float a ball for Mayers in the box, Rush was there ahead of him to head to safety. Moments later, it was Denham's turn to be hauled bodily off the ball by Dormer. Wharton's free kick was intercepted this time by Connor, and Rush brought it clear.
Things looked more promising when Eastwood won a corner off Riordan, but he took the corner quickly to Wharton, hoping to catch the defenders napping, however, Wharton's cross into the box was wasted.
About ten minute sin, Ashton's first opening presented itself, when Rowe caught just a glimpse of goal and took it. Pearce charged it down, but the rebound went to Carvey, who didn't hesitate, but blasted it goal bound. Dootson was alert and it was a comfortable catch for the Celtic number one. IT didn't take long for Ashton's next chance, as they battled for every ball. Caldicott conceded a corned intercepting a long throw, but like Celtic before them, Ashton wasted the opportunity the corner presented.
From the goal kick, Denham raced up field. Mayers latching onto Dootson ball, and placing it perfectly into the path of Denham. With defenders closing him down, Denham tried to toe poke it around Connor, but the Ashton central defender reacted quickly to block Denham off. Finally Johnston in the Ashton goal was made to earn his keep, when Eastwood waltzed around both Riordan and Rush to get into the box, but Johnston was well placed, and made the save look simple.
Eastwood was causing all kinds of problems, but he was attempting to walk into the net with the ball, and losing out as defenders swamped him. Nor was his crossing up to its usual standard, with success only coming off one corner when Carty needlessly gave a corner heading out a high ball meant for Mayers that was much to high for the Celtic man. Once again though, the corner was too easily cleared by the big men in the Ashton box.
At the other end, the best chance of the half again fell to Carvey from a clearance off Pearce. His excellent volley was well saved by Dootson, pushing the ball around the post at full stretch. Despite now having the big men in Celtic's box, Ashton's corner was poor, and didn't cause the defence any concern.
Then came the opening the Celtic had been looking for. Failing to get crosses in, Eastwood once again walked through the defence, the ball magically staying at his feet, as Rush was drawn into stopping him, Eastwood spied Bowman completely unmarked in the corner of the box. Eastwood's ball into his path was perfect, and Bowman's shot was instantaneous, bulging the net with it's power.
But if some though that would cause the flood gates to open, they were wrong. Ashton had been no slouches in the run up to the goal, but after it, they stepped up a gear, whilst Celtic trundled on as they had been doing. Ashton's persistence almost paid off immediately, when a wicked cross into the box from Smith just could not be cleared as Ashton shirts piled into the Celtic box, denying every clearance. Eventually, it fell to Rowe at the back post, who headed goal-wards, only to miss by the width of the goal.
Celtic were still getting opportunities as well though - especially Bowman who was having a solid game. His shot off Denham's lay off was blocked by Connor, but only as far as Eastwood. With a huge press of bodies in the box, Eastwood tried to curl it over the top of the lot of them, but also succeeded in putting the ball over the bar.
A worrying spell of intense pressure from Ashton followed that, as German was forced into a saving tackle on Smith at the expense of a corner. The corner was difficult to deal with, and Pearce could only head out for a second corner. Caldicott got hurt in the rough and tumble of the corner and was replaced by Fitzgerald, who's first job was to hoof clear the corner. However, Ashton were right back at Celtic and Morris went one-on-one with Dootson after shrugging off Bowker. The big midfielder surged towards net and Dootson came off his line quickly narrowing the angle. As Dootson was almost upon him, Morris tried to steer it past him, but Dootson got enough on the ball to divert it out for a corner off the foot of the post. The corner eventually fell to Rush, and Bowker intercepted the shot, but it fell out to Carty some distance from goal. He didn't hesitate though, he volleyed the ball with some pace back towards Dootson's net. It was all the Celtic number one could do to tip the ball over his cross bar. From the second corner Royle used his physical size to muscle through a crowd of players and tried to diving header the ball home, but it was well wide.
Having survived Ashton's pressure, Celtic tried to stamp their authority back onto the game. But when Wharton tried to run up field, Dormer cynically hacked him down. The referee blew immediately, and while he wasn't looking Connor hacked Eastwood down. Dormer got booked, and Connor escaped detection. The free kick from Wharton was met by a volley from Denham, but the young striker got his body shape wrong and skied the ball.
Royle was getting more into the game for the Robins, and his sheer size made it impossible for Pearce to get a tackle in, but Royle's cross meant for Rowe was well read by Dootson and Celtic breathed more easily. Dormer, was soon repeating Royle's trick, but he went for goal instead of the better choice pass, and Dootson watched as it sailed harmlessly wide. Smith tried a lobbed cross into the box to the back post where Morris was waiting, Dootson came for the cross but misjudged the height, leaving himself stranded. Morris headed the ball over Dootson, but hit the cross bar, with half a dozen Ashton players bearing into the box from all sides, Bowker took the safe route and headed the loose ball for a corner, which was another poor effort, and easily cleared.
Ashton hadn't finished with Celtic yet. Smith showed Bowman a clean pair of heals and left him in his wake as he raced into the box. As German and Pearce closed in on him, he unleashed a rocket of a shot, but Dootson at full stretch pushed it around the post. Again, the corner was weak, and easily cleared, but it allowed Celtic to run at the opposition defence whilst it was light. Mayers expertly trapped and released the ball to Denham, but Connor upended him from behind with a late challenge.
Wharton took the kick quickly, into the path of Fitzgerald. The Celtic winger didn't hesitate, but swerved a great cross into the box. Mayers nodded it down to Eastwood, who volleyed it past the keeper to grab a goal second before half time.
He almost grabbed his second seconds into the second half, when a poor pass back from Carty left Johnston in a world of trouble. Eastwood raced onto the ball and took it around Johnston. Despite the ball never getting above waist height, the linesman waved for handball.
Ashton, now two goals down, still didn't fold, and were looking for a way back into the game. After the cynical fouls of the first half, they now resorted to cynically falling over at every opportunity. One such 'foul' by Bowman on Rush, thirty yards from goal gave Ashton a great chance, so why did Morris send the free kick along the ground straight into the middle of the wall?
He was to regret it moments later when Eastwood showed his class. He took it around Carvey, he dummied Morris and Connor, he span at the edge of the box to leave Rush looking at an empty spot, and as Johnston came out, Eastwood slid it past him for an exquisite piece of individual finishing.
Denham looked certain to add to Celtic's lead when he got onto a fine Fitzgerald crossfield ball, right into his path. He poked it around Carty and ran after it, only for Carty to haul him backwards one inch from the edge of the box. Many in the ground, including Carty must have expected him to take an early bath, but a yellow card was all that was given. Wharton's free kick cleared the wall, everybody in the box, and the bar.
Still Ashton refused to crumble. Bowker conceded a corner, sliding in onto Morris with a well timed challenge, this was a better corner, but still Celtic managed to get it clear, when German nodded it out of the danger area.
German brought the ball up field, and gave Denham a great ball at the edge of the six yard box. The young striker turned and shot with a fluid motion, but again Johnston was well positioned to block the shot.
Ashton have the excellent record of scoring in every game bar one this season, and it must be down to their persistence. When Bowman ran in front of Morris to take the ball off him when he knocked it too far forward, Morris threw his arms in the air and theatrically won a free kick in a dangerous area. He took the free kick himself, inventively lifting it over the wall to where Rowe was waiting. Rowe coolly volleyed the finish to leave Ashton with only another two to get back onto level terms.
Spurred on by the goal, Smith raced after a hopeless looking punt, just keeping it in and dummying German. His cross was aimed at the head of Rowe, but Bowker intercepted for a corner. Connor was the biggest in the box (and that included Dootson!) but his finishing was poor when he headed past the wrong side of the post.
Denham finally got the goal he deserved as Celtic clawed back the superiority in the game. A simple Mayers touch left Denham one on one with Johnston, he didn't need any touches, he just hit it low and hard into the bottom corner before Johnston could react. Celtic's three goal cushion was restored, and never looked like being lost again.
Eastwood tried to grab his hat-trick, but after Connor lunged and Eastwood danced, leaving Connor lying on his back, he could have passed to either Wharton or Denham who were unmarked, but he went for glory, and saw only sky.
Royle was handed a glorious opportunity, when Smith gave him an excellent ball, but his targeting ability was well off on the day, and for the umpteenth time during the match, he spurned the chance, heading wide.
Denham was such a handful that when he knocked the ball past Morris, Morris lunged in taking Denham's ankles cleanly, and leaving the young striker required attention. Again, Morris had been the last man in the defence before Denham had gone one on one with the keeper, but again the referee bottle the difficult decision, and showed only yellow for a disgraceful tackle. There was to be no punishment as Wharton tried to curl the free kick into the net, but missed by a mile.
For some reason, the lithe and handy Rowe was replaced by another hulking player, Denney. Ashton's team seems comprised of Challender clones (Challender was on the bench). Morris, Connor, Royle, Denney and Dormer all bared more than a passing resemblance in stature and tactics of the unused sub.
Denney's first touch was to try and head down an excellent cross from Smith, however, he headed up instead, clearing the bar from close range.
Denham was again fouled when Rush blocked him off, the free kick was used to lazily pass the ball around the Ashton defenders, before German pumped in a cross that Johnston punched clear.
More controversy from the linesman who had started the half by claiming Eastwood had handled the ball. Eastwood surged into the box and struck a sweet shot that Johnston did well to parry. Denham had followed Eastwood's run on the far side, and was stood behind Eastwood's position on the far side of the six yard box. Denham side footed the rebound home, only to then see the linesman raise his flag. At no point could Denham have been offside. When Eastwood shot, he was behind Eastwood, and when the keeper touched it - no Celtic player could be offside. Yet he was. Go figure.
When Wharton earned a yellow card for being stood on, Ashton got a free kick 40 yards from goal. Morris took it, and again Royle showed his unerring inaccuracy by heading wide.
Ashton finished the game with a couple of chances, Royle's shot from distance was going wide, struck nobody and went out for a corner. Somebody in the mass of Ashton shirts nodded down the corner ball, and Dootson scrambled it clear off the line. Dormer took exception to Dootson's save and pushed him over. Free kick to Celtic.
Bowman trapped Dootson's free kick, and laid it off to Denham. Rush came running through and smacked Bowman across the face with his elbow.
So, no ball, an elbow, right in front of the referee who had a great view of the incident. Surely now, with seconds left on the clock, Ashton would be punished with a red card. Nope. Yellow it was. And again Wharton wasted the free kick, ending the game as he had begun it.
All in all, Ashton's bully boy tactics did not reap them dividends, and Celtic's hard work did. There were some worrying moments, and Ashton never gave up, but in order to progress they have to ditch the lunging tackles, before they have no squad. Why they didn't end the game with 8 men is a mystery.