It is beginning to look that nothing Celtic do will result in three points. For the opening 15 minutes of the game, there was consistent pressure from the visitors, pressing Stafford into defending by hoofing the ball up field. Eventually, Sykes managed to find a chink in the stout defensive back line and unleashed a shot that was well saved by Tomlinson.
Tomlinson punted downfield, and Sykes was again involved, this time fouling Edwards just outside the Celtic box. The free kick struck the wall and went out for a corner. Now it was Celtic's turn to defend stoutly, and it required a German off-the-line clearance to stop Rangers grabbing a goal with their first attack. The clearance fell to Pearce, but his shot back in was wide.
Moments later another punt up-field from Tomlinson provided the home side with a route-one goal. Grayson went for the instant lob over Priestley and the well struck ball zipped into the top corner with Priestley helpless. It was a well-taken, goal-scorer's goal and showed what Celtic are lacking.
To add injury to insult, while shepherding a ball out, Whealing was left lying by the touchline and required to be carried off on a stretcher. He was replaced by Ben Smith after five or so minutes of stoppages.
All the Smiths were involved in the next Celtic attack, as Sykes released Steve Smith. Steve Smith went on a power run to the edge of the box, and as he was about to be clattered smashed the ball towards goal. Chris Smith blocked the shot on route to goal with the rebound falling to Ben Smith. It took a very good tackle from Daniel to clear the danger, at the expense of a corner, and the requirement of treatment.
Tomlinson leapt through the crowd, fists flying, and contacting the ball. Steve Smith was left doubled up under the weight of the keeper and was adjudged to have impeded Tomlinson. Celtic are used to such decisions going against them and continued to try and find a way into the back of the net. Hayward dragged the ball back to Wharton who scuffed his shot somewhat which gave Tomlinson opportunity to make a good stop. Wharton got another chance a few minutes later when German's excellent ball to the back post was met by the glancing head of the smallest person in the box, but it zipped just wide.
Hayward was clumsily bundled over by Daniel twenty-five yards from goal, but the free kick was wasted, and as the half began to wane, Stafford counter attacked with another long punt, and Downes taking the ball into the box, and crossing to Grayson who found Priestley in excellent form with a reaction block. And when Grayson got his prodded shot beyond Priestley, he found German on the line, getting the ball clear.
At the end of normal time and the start of stoppage time, Hayward dropped the ball down to the feet of Steve Smith who found Ben Smith with a cross field ball. Ben Smith cut inside and tried to curl the ball into the top corner, but put the ball just over the bar.
The last action of the half was somewhat controversial. Dodd slid the ball through the Celtic defence with Gibson and Heath definitely in offside positions, and Grayson almost certainly in an offside position, Grayson latched onto the ball, with the Celtic defence calling for the flag to be raised. It stayed down, and Grayson then pulled the ball back to Heath, who had most definitely been offside when the move started, and the striker slid the ball into the gaping net nine minutes into first half stoppages.
Celtic didn't even have time to get the ball out of the centre circle before the referee blew for half time ? almost as if he?d been waiting for Stafford to score.
Celtic's heads still didn't drop, and German's cross into the box turned into a shot with the keeper back-pedalling and only just managing to push the ball over the bar at the expense of a corner. Tomlinson was more assured when claiming the corner.
Wharton's frustrations boiled over in a rash, late challenge on Pearce near the half way line, resulting in the games first booking. Keeling sliced his clearance of the free kick and Priestley caught. Remember this: no pass back was given.
Steve Smith went on another power run and cut into the box. His powerful low cross was deflected by a raised elbow off Daniel, allowing Chris Smith the welly it out for a corner. The corner came to Hayward at the back post, and Daniel stopped the ball on the line with a stuck out leg, rebounding the ball back to Hayward, he tried to prod it through, and Tomlinson and Daniel combined to deny the Celtic striker. Celtic were continuing to press, and with Bowker still up from the corner, he was fouled at the edge of the box by Dodd. Whealing's free kick was excellent, and only a top draw flying save from Tomlinson kept it out. Celtic couldn't capitalise on the corner, but got another when Chris Smith put out German's dropping cross into the box, which Daniel cleared.
Somewhat against the run of play, Stafford broke with another long ball opening up the Celtic defence. Pearce's ball in was headed wide by the barely marked Grayson.
Celtic were pressing through, and Hayward had nowhere to go against the tight and powerful defence so kicked the ball out off Pearce for a corner. Again the corner was unable to penetrate Stafford's defence. They have the joint top defence for a reason. However, they couldn't stop Ben Smith as he weaved from the half way line to the edge of the box; however, Tomlinson could stop him, and did so with a good stop.
Connor put a good cross into the box for Sykes running in, but again, Daniel was on hand to put the ball out for a corner. The corner came in and through a crowd Tomlinson went to punch the ball but instead landed a sickening thud of a punch on Keeling that left him unconscious on the floor. Celtic called for the ball to be put out, but Stafford attacked, and it took until Ben Smith won the ball back and went to put it out of play before the referee stopped the game for what was potentially a bad head injury. Ben Smith ran the risk of a yellow card when he asked (impolitely) why the referee had waited for Celtic to regain possession before stopping.
After revival, and a few concussion tests, Keeling was given the all clear to play (but still made to leave the pitch). A bounce up was offered, and Ben Smith offered to kick the ball back to the keeper. Tomlinson indicated he was ready, and Ben Smith kicked it to him from the half way line.
What happened next was a contender for stupid goal of the season. Tomlinson caught the ball easily enough a couple of strides outside the six yard box, but dropped the ball, it rolled between his feet and into the back of the net. Justice for the punch on Keeling was delivered by the hand that had thrown the punch.
Stafford were upset at the goal for just long enough for Celtic to grab the equaliser. Wharton won the ball back in the centre of the park, fed it to Connor at the edge of the box, Connor lifted the ball over his marker into the path of Hayward who stuck out a foot and guided the ball into the back of the net.
Stafford were rattled enough to swap two players, bringing on Phoenix and Talbott for Downes and Edwards.
This didn't stop Celtic's attempts at breaking down the Stafford defence, who had by now regained their unbreakable line. Hayward won a corner out of Pearce, which was cleared back to Wharton and put to the back post where Bowker headed over the bar. Hayward was then fouled by Lovatt by the touchline in such a clumsy way the referee had no choice but to book the Stafford player. Weller's free kick curled well past the upright.
Celtic's points were snatched cruelly away at the end of the game, when Grayson cut inside and put a fast-paced cross to the back post. Gibson met it with a poor header knocking the ball straight down with Priestley scrambling across Gibson punched it into the back of the net with his fist.
Celtic were thunderstruck themselves. How has the well positioned linesman and referee missed the quite blatant handball? The players protested, but the goal stood. Celtic had it all to do again, but a lot less time to do it in. Keeling brought the ball out of defence almost to the box before substitute Phoenix slid in from behind to end the run. Weller's free kick was well struck, but also struck the wall and went for a corner. The corner was prodded towards goal by Hayward and blocked on the line by Chris Smith. The ball came out of the box to Weller who struck a thunderous shot through the crowd. Tomlinson pulled of the save of the match tipping the ball over the bar.
The corner was cleared, but before Stafford could get it away, Keeling was sending a pile-driver of a shot into the box that had the sting taken out of it by an accidental hand (this time) from Daniel.
Remember the sliced clearance that Priestley caught at the start of the half, well, with four minutes of stoppage time played, a Weller sliced clearance was caught by Priestley only for the referee to ?play to the shout? and give a pass-back this time. Grayson was seven yards from goal, and he drilled the shot towards the far post. He missed, though if it had gone in, as an indirect free kick ? it would have just been a goal kick!
Celtic must really be wondering what they have to do to get any points this season. Approach play and the chances excavated from an exceedingly tough defence were excellent, but somehow Celtic cannot score. Hayward is doing exceptionally well, but Denham and Eastwood are needed back, soon, or another striker needs to support Hayward.