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Celtic 3 Dundee United 1: Day of emotion as matters of life and death coalesce

AMID the sea of flags, the countless huddles and the huge white letters spelling out the word 'Champions', there were so many poignant reminders inside Celtic Park of why a spirit of celebration and gratitude should be a focus of our lives far more often than just once or twice a year.

Celtic are crowned champions but the human condition proves to be the afternoon's main focus. Picture: SNS
Celtic are crowned champions but the human condition proves to be the afternoon's main focus. Picture: SNS

Stiliyan Petrov and John Hartson were given rousing receptions as they strode into the arena, sharp-suited and looking a million dollars, to present the SPFL Premiership trophy and the accompanying medals to Neil Lennon and his squad following a 3-1 win over Dundee United.

Both men of the Martin O'Neill era graced that same pitch with aplomb during their playing days, but they have had greater battles to face in the shape of leukaemia and cancer. To watch them applaud the Class of 2014 from the sidelines, sharing jokes and memories as the confetti and fireworks exploded into the afternoon sky, was something quite beautiful.

One can only guess where the deeply touching subtext of this occasion took them, not to mention their families, spiritually and emotionally, in the earlier part of the day.

Both sets of players wore black armbands and a rousing chorus of You'll Never Walk Alone filled the stadium before kick-off in honour of Oscar Knox, a five-year-old boy from Country Antrim, who had spent the best part of three years under the shadow of neuroblastoma. He was buried in the Northern Irish town of Glengormley yesterday morning.

At the beginning of the season, he had taken to the field with Celtic captain Scott Brown as the mascot for the Champions League qualifying tie with the Belfast club Cliftonville. His image from that match was displayed upon the screens behind either goal when the match reached the five-minute mark and the applause from all four stands was universal, respectful and dreadfully, dreadfully sad.

The match, in so many respects, was comparatively unimportant. Celtic could not reach the 100-point mark, while United's place in the table was not going to change.

They, of course, have the matter of the William Hill Scottish Cup final to deal with. Their manager, Jackie McNamara, left Andy Robertson, Nadir Ciftci, Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong on the substitutes' bench and he seemed relatively sanguine about sliding to defeat.

Anthony Stokes and Georgios Samaras had put the home side in a commanding position before Kris Commons wrapped it up after an own goal by Filip Twardzik, in the first team for the first time since September 2012. In truth, the game was entertaining enough, but took considerable time to warm up. Leigh Griffiths forced Radoslaw Cierzniak into the first real save on 22 minutes and showed a rather uncharacteristic lack of conviction just after the half-hour when scampering into the right of the area to connect with a well-weighted pass from Charlie Mulgrew.

Griffiths' rather half-hearted effort was pawed wide at the near post by Cierzniak, before the striker had a goal disallowed for offside early in the second half after fine control and a sharp shot from a sclaffed effort by Stefan Johansen. Commons forced a fine save from Cierzniak before Stokes scored Celtic's 100th goal of the campaign and his 21st of the season in all competitions with 65 minutes on the clock. Commons crossed into the area from the left, Samaras failed to connect and Stokes appeared at the back post with a downward header.

Armstrong was given a late outing for United ahead of Saturday's return to the east end of Glasgow. With 20 minutes to go, he produced a typically strong run from midfield and released a low shot that Fraser Forster did well to divert round his right-hand post.

However, the day was to end with Samaras saying his goodbyes in the nicest way possible - on the field, at least. He won a penalty - going past the goalkeeper to be brought down by Gavin Gunning, somewhat fortunate to receive a yellow card rather than a red. The Greek sent Cierzniak the wrong way from the 12-yard mark and kept his celebrations suitably low-key, preferring to applaud the supporters rather than turn cartwheels. His after-match comments offered an insight on his thinking.

United gained a consolation goal 12 minutes from the end when Mackay-Steven, on for Ryan Gauld, put in a low cross from the right that struck left-back Twardzik's standing leg and spun beyond Forster.

Yet Commons was on hand to steady the ship. Keith Watson slipped around 25 yards out from his own goal with eight minutes remaining, Stokes played a short pass through to the midfielder and he dinked his 32nd goal of the campaign past Cierzniak.

At that stage, Samaras was still struggling to steady himself as he looked around the ground. Tears had flowed following his goal. Unashamedly so. His emotions would never be far below the surface at the end of six good years at the club as the children of the players danced around the pitch with innocent exuberance.

Happiness, heartbreak, courage, triumph and farewells. All these combine to make our time on this planet. In the course of one afternoon inside a football stadium, we were given reason to reflect on each of them, and much more.

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