Stricken with injuries and lacking confidence Celtic capitulated late on against a strong Harrogate side that doubled their away wins this season with their victory against Celtic. Three penalties were waved away, and Celtic failed to test the dodgy-looking Pettinger enough.
Harrogate came out of the blocks at full speed looking to hit Celtic early on. Morris managed to get a cross through the box that came to nothing, but moments later the powerful Marc Smith brought a ball down well from a midfield-bypassing punt forcing Whealing into blocking the shot at the expense of a corner. The corner was comfortably cleared, and when Holland threw himself to the floor in the box despite Connor neatly pulling out of the tackle, the referee booked him.
A lax pass was latched onto by Dunning who threaded the ball past the defence, Bowker tried to call Holland offside, but Morris wasn’t offside and he picked up the ball to charge into the box, one-on-one with Priestley. Priestley made a good initial save, but Holland rushed in a tapped in the rebound.
Harrogate had got the early goal that they were looking for. Celtic had to do something, and do something fast, but Harrogate were not content with their one goal lead, remembering too well the recent reversal the last time the two sides met in the Trophy. Marc Smith tried to charge his way through the back line, and was stopped by Connor at the expense of a corner. The corner was a tricky one to deal with and it pinged around until it fell to Philpot who headed over the bar. Harrogate soon forced their way to the edge of the box again through the strength of Holland. The on-loan striker had his back to goal and lobbed it over his head, aiming presumably to put the ball into the danger area. Instead, it evaded everybody and rebounded off the inside of the post and German cleared.
Slowly Celtic gained a foothold, and pushed forward. During a promising move, German’s powerful ball in was blocked by the hand of Barnard, and though there was no free kick, Barnard was punished as the power of the ball made him punch himself in the head, laying him out, and as Celtic tried to get the ball back into the box, the referee stopped the game. Celtic continued to have the better of the play, and Caldecott’s ball in was trapped well by Hayward inside the box, but his shot was wayward and over the bar after doing all of the hard work.
However, Hayward got another chance sooner than he thought. German’s whipped in cross was nodded down by Sykes to Hayward, and Celtic’s clinical finisher despatched the goal with a well taken volley that exposed Pettinger for the poor keeper he was on the night.
Harrogate realised they had a game on their hands, and Barnard pumped the ball a long way into the box, the huge frame of Marc Smith his target. Smith was between Connor and Keeling, but still received the ball turned and shot, over the bar.
Celtic were still dominating the game down the flanks, and Caldecott put a fast paced low cross through the six yard box aiming for Sykes. Philpot got across well to block. Some good, quick play between Steve Smith and Caldecott resulted in Smith receiving the ball just outside the box and taking a shot that whistled just over the bar. Hayward then dropped the ball off to German who lobbed the ball into the box. Pettinger caught easily enough, but took a step back into his net, just not far enough to give Celtic the lead.
Connor conceded a dubious free kick some thirty-five yards from goal, and Keeling comfortably cleared. Harrogate were getting back into the game as the half ran down, and Shepherd’s ball into the box was punched clear by Priestley as far as Marc Smith who smashed it back towards goal, hitting the side netting. Marc Smith then found some space just outside the box and had a terrific shot that Priestley pushed around the post for a corner. The corner was a wicked near post effort that Morris tried to nod in. Priestley made a superb save, but it still required a goal-line clearance from German to keep the scores level at the half time whistle.
The second half started with Celtic attempting to hit Harrogate whilst they were still organising. Steve Smith’s run was brought to an untimely end by a slicing foul from Haran. Whealing took the dead-centre free kick from just outside the box and failed to hit the target. However Celtic came straight back at Harrogate, and Wharton danced around Barnard to bring the ball along the touchline. His low cross in was put out for a corner by Sturdy sliding in and using his hands to ensure Wharton couldn’t keep the ball in. No penalty as the offence was out of sight of the officials. The corner was cleared by Shepherd, but only as far as Smith who lobbed the ball back into the danger area where Bowker and Pettinger both went up for the ball. Pettinger dropped the ball and prevented Bowker from latching onto it by wrapping his big gloves around Bowker’s neck, throttling him. Again nothing was given despite what would be classed as GBH away from a pitch.
Wharton clumsily bundled over Holland and the free kick was floated into the box for Holland to put his head on. It needed another great save from Priestley to keep Celtic in the game. Marc Smith got on the loose ball, but completely miss-hit it. A German pass-back to Priestley resulted in a poor clearance from the Celtic number one. It fell to Marc Smith who blasted it straight back in, and into the midriff of Priestley.
For the second time in the half, a Steve Smith power run was ended unceremoniously by Haran with a two footed challenge from behind after Smith had beat him for pace. This time Wharton took the free kick curling it over the wall and narrowly over the bar. German took advantage of the back-pedalling Harrogate defence to advance on goal. His switch of play to Whealing advancing wrong footed the visitors and Whealing tried his luck from thirty-five yards. Black had got across though, and blocked.
Celtic’s third waved away penalty came when Hayward broke through the defensive line up to race one-on-one with Pettinger, as he was cuing up his shot at the edge of the six-yard box, with Pettinger clearly out of position, Barnard slid in from behind clearly taking Hayward’s standing foot from under him and sending Hayward flying. Instead of a penalty, the referee booked Hayward for diving. The question the referee has to ask himself is: Why on Earth would he dive when he had a great chance of giving Celtic the lead with a shot?
With only fifteen minutes remaining, that decision changed the face of the game.
Harrogate took the reprieve and made use of it. Shepherd raced down the flanks and put in a cross that bounced off Connor for a corner. The cheaply conceded corners are always the most dangerous, and Marc Smith was on the near post and allowed to nod it past the helpless Priestley.
It was a cruel blow and it obviously affected the moral of the Celtic players. There was a further blow moments later when Caldecott pulled up short clearing a routine ball and had to be stretchered from the field. With Caldecott off the field, the balance of Celtic deteriorated, and Holland took advantage of this to work some space and shoot from distance. Priestley was in the right place, and made a comfortable save. Substitute Hunter carried the ball quite a distance before shooting on entering the box, but put his shot over the bar. Hunter was putting himself about a bit, and tangled with Wharton. The free kick went Harrogate’s way, and they took it short, with Hunter the recipient blasting it towards goal. Priestley saved well, claiming at the second attempt.
Celtic got a chance to even the score as Hayward twisted his way to the edge of the box until Black slid in and upended him. Wharton again took the free kick, putting the ball narrowly over the bar with Pettinger stranded. Wharton then got the chance of the match to end the game in a draw. Calcutt had come on for Caldecott, and his cross to the back post evaded the whole of the Harrogate defence, and Wharton was unmarked, with a gaping net in front of him. All he needed to do was chest it into the net, nod it into the net or turn around and use his backside to put it into the net, but somehow his connection was extremely poor and the ball sailed over the bar from less than a yard away.
Celtic were forced to rue that miss as Harrogate made it game, set and match when Hunter ran the ball down the touchline and pulled it back to the edge of the six-yard box between the out-flung arm of Priestley and the Celtic defence coming back allowing Holland to complete his brace and put Harrogate top of the Nationwide North.
For long periods Celtic more than matched their high-flying hosts, as they had against Worcester. But, and it’s a big but, they could not test the Harrogate keeper who never looked to be in command of his box. It looked like if Celtic could have got the ball on target, they would have run out comfortable winners. This is Celtic’s failing at the moment. They cannot convert chances into goals. Hayward’s trying and he is getting the goals again, with 9 goals in all competitions now, and 6 goals in the last 10 games. However, he needs help. Quick.