Celtic welcomed back six old faces today. Firstly, Fitzgerald and Keeling were back from injury, Bowker, Wharton and Foster back from suspension and all in the starting line-up, but also bit-part player from two years ago was back also, for the opposition, Turley.
Celtic started with intent, blowing away Tuesday night's debacle against Lancaster, Fitzgerald providing the opening for Foster to blaze wide in the opening minute. As though mimicking Celtic, Naylor repeated the trick at the other end.
It was ex-Celt Turley who opened the scoring. Naylor appeared to foul his way into the box to go one on one with Dootson, as the defence appealed, Dootson blocked Naylor's shot, as far as Turley who had strolled into the box unopposed. With the defence looking at the blasé ref, it was the simplest of finishes, and he booted it into the net with a lot of feeling.
The response from Celtic was instantaneous. Wharton robbed Riordan at the edge of the box as he dallied, before blasting a terrific strike at Sutcliffe who did very well turning the shot around the post for a corner. He did not do as well when Bullimore's corner came in, weakly punching it as far as Eastwood who took a step backward before rifling it into the top corner of the net.
Aspin scythed Mayers down with a vicious tackle from behind just outside the box (no card), Bullimore's free kick to the back post was headed over by Bowker.
A defensive howler from Keeling, his only one of the afternoon, was enough to give all three points to the visitors. His lax pass to Wharton allowed Naylor to steal in and rob the ball before slotting it past the unprotected Dootson.
Celtic again responded immediately. Foster chasing a no-hope ball and keeping it in. is cross to Eastwood was cut out by Aspin, as far as Kielty. Instead of passing it backwards, Kielty had a shot. Unfortunately, Sutcliffe was unaware of the magnitude of the event and caught it. Eastwood was the next to get a go. A superb ball between the centre backs gave Eastwood something to get his teeth into and he ran at Sutcliffe, who turned the ball around with a stunning stop for a corner. Aspin cleared the corner, but it looked remarkably like Celtic had the desire to win.
Just before half time, Harrogate's luck kicked in. It started with a 'foul' by Bullimore that was clearly not, that allowed Hunter to float a dangerous ball into the box. Dootson flailed at it, and managed to get it clear enough, but Kielty was forced to concede a corner. Riordan got onto the end of the corner and brought a great save from Celtic's number one.
Half time saw Celtic replace Fitzgerald with Clegg. Fitzgerald had been visibly suffering throughout first half, and Wharton took his place. Wharton was to go on and have such a good second half, he won man-of-the-match.
Harrogate started the second half looking to kill Celtic off, Turley getting two chances at doubling their lead. But it was a false dawn, as Celtic stepped up a gear.
Mayers nodded the ball down for Foster who tried the instant looping chip, but Sutcliffe is very tall, and caught it easily.
As Clegg raced with the ball towards the box, there was only Aspin to beat so Aspin pushed Clegg in the face shoving him off the ball thirty yards from goal. He got a yellow card, but that was the last the officials were going to give Celtic. Wharton's free kick was curled low around the wall, and Sutcliffe at full stretch turned it around the post. Everybody started taking positions for a corner: Celtic, Harrogate, the referee, but not the linesman who said it was a goal kick. He steadfastly insisted, and a goal kick was given.
As if to prove that no more decisions would be going Celtic's way, Clegg was penalised for a fair tackle. One footed, from the side, two feet clear of the opponent he took the ball cleanly. McDaid tripped over the ball, earning the free kick. The cross came in from the free kick and Dootson palmed it away, then had to pounce on the lose ball at the feet of Turley.
Despite the rising tide of Black Luck, Celtic battled on, and were clearly the better of the two teams, but Foster let himself down with poor finishing. A one-two with Eastwood put him in the clear, but he snatched at his shot, sending it over the bar.
Harrogate were under the cosh for 45 minutes, but survived thanks to resolute defending, and quick reactions from Sutcliffe. Celtic's passing and movement was excellent, with Clegg and Bullimore at the heart of everything. The two linked up play so well that it looked certain that Mayers would equalise at the end of a sweeping move that left him with the ball at his feet on the six yard line, but Sutcliffe was down ever so fast to smother. Bullimore again unlocked the visiting defence with a superb cross into the box for Kielty running in. Kielty hesitated just a fraction of a second and that was enough for Sturdy to get back and clear for a corner. The corner was cleared, but it ws obvious this was a different Celtic.
Wharton was having a stupendous game at left back, and still managing to get into the centre of the park to provide link up play, however, when Atkins raced away, the referee decided that Wharton had tugged at Atkins and very harshly gave the lad a yellow card, considering that only moments before the only decision from Foster being impeded by Aspin's arm was the most bizarre offside this season, the card was very harsh. It would prove to be even more harsh in the dying moments of the game.
Meanwhile, Celtic were trying to turn their superiority into a goal. Foster again got handed a glorious cross, this time from Eastwood, but this time he headed over the bar. It looked as though two months in midfield had dulled his sense of where the goal was. Foster did reciprocate Eastwood's cross moments later, this time Aspin was there to head for a corner at the last moment. The corner was cleared at the expense of a second corner, and that was cleared into what looked like a break-a-way move. After all the hard work from Celtic, it looked like Harrogate were going to take the game beyond their reach as Smith received the ball at the edge of the area and with a decent half volley blasted straight into Dootson's midriff.
Anything Dootson could do, Sutcliffe could also. Mayers nodded a Bullimore cross down for Kielty. Kielty thought about the shot, but passed further along the line to Foster, who was in a worse position, but tried the shot anyway, straight at Sutcliffe. Still Celtic came, and still the decisions went against them. Clegg drove the ball out of midfield evading lunges that would have felled a lesser player. As the space opened up for him, he unleashed a powerful shot that was half blocked by Aspin. Mayers pounced and it was all Aspin could do to knock it back to Sutcliffe as all three stood within inches of the goal line. Sutcliffe threw himself on the ball. There were loud appeals for the pass back rule to finally be invoked in possibly the clearest execution of it yet, but to no avail.
Kielty won a corner out of nothing that looked destined to be an equaliser for the ideally placed Eastwood, however Pearce of all people didn't hear Eastwood's shout (I did Greg!) and headed over the bar. foster then spurned his third great chance of the night. Mayers found him completely unmarked in the corner of the box. Perhaps he should have come in a little bit, he had the time, but he went for the glory and received the shame of hitting the ball well over the bar.
Foster could feel relieved moments later when Turley did exactly the same thing at the other end. Turley then spurned an even great chance when Dootson raced out to tackle substitute Mitchell who went chasing after a long ball into Celtic's half. Dootson did the tackle but his clearance fell to Turley. With Dootson twenty yards from goal Turley kicked the ball towards the net, and missed by eight yards.
Clegg then received a very harsh yellow card. The ball into the centre of the park meant for Mitchell was intercepted by Clegg. As Mitchell attempted to turn to give chase, he slipped. The referee cannot have been looking because he gave Clegg a yellow card.
As Harrogate took the ball into the corner, Wharton and Pearce went to try and retrieve it. A throw was given, and Wharton was dismissed with a second yellow card. With play as far away from me as it possibly could be I cannot say hand on heart that Wharton did nothing - but if he did something where was the free kick? This came moments after his second half performance had rightly earned him man of the match.
There was no time for any more comebacks, but this was a vastly improved performance from the Bower Boys in their last match before facing Barnet. They are going to have to improve by about the same amount again in order to sneak past the Conference high-flyers.