WITH the seconds ticking down on the clock at Parkhead on Saturday and Celtic battling to protect their narrow lead over Ross County, the inevitable happened.

The visitors broke upfield and created a scoring chance for their striker Jordan White in a dangerous position on the edge of their hosts’ area.

The substitute struck his shot first time and got his attempt on target.

Fortunately for Celtic, Joe Hart produced a save which ultimately ensured they triumphed 1-0 and restored their five point cushion over Rangers at the top of the cinch Premiership. 

White’s injury-time effort may have lacked power. Still, Hart was, as has so often been the case during the past two-and-a-half years, in the right place at the right time. His clean sheet proved crucial at the weekend. Contributing to the victory pleased him greatly.

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“There’s often games in this league where I’ve not got much to do and that was another of them,” he said. “Focus, intensity and being part of how we play allow me to be ready for the few moments when I’m required. It’s part of the job as a goalkeeper, especially when you are the dominant team.”

It is strange that a player who is so important to the Scottish champions is still unclear about his future. Will he be kept on after his contract expires in the summer? Will he be thanked for his service and let go? He remains none the wiser.

At 36, the former England internationalist is nearing the end of his distinguished career. Celtic recruitment staff would be in dereliction of their duties if they were not scouring Europe to find a replacement who can fill the position long-term.

Surely, though, retaining such an experienced and respected member of the first team squad for at least another season makes sense. Allowing Craig Gordon to depart back in 2020 did not work out well.

The Herald: Hart would like to stay and he will continue, as he has done since he first turned professional 20 years ago, to give his all in training and in games in the coming months in in the hope that it earns him an extension. 

Asked about his personal situation, he said: “I don’t think it’s too important at the moment if I’m honest. We have far more important things to focus on.

“From the moment I came up here, I’ve always said I’m just looking forward to playing football and not really thinking about that side of it. I’m contracted to this amazing club and I love turning up every day and doing my best.

“I don’t think I’ve ever not done that. Every single day I’ve loved it, every opportunity that’s come my way - Shrewsbury, Blackpool, Tranmere, Manchester City, Birmingham, going to play abroad with Torino. What a life, what an amazing opportunity for someone who loves playing football.

“I can’t speak for anyone else, but I still love getting up every day and looking forward. Nothing has changed. I live in the present like I did when I was 16, 15, 14. It’s about the next opportunity, the next training session, the next time I get to appear in this stadium.

“That’s not because I’m getting older. You could have asked the same thing of me 20 years ago and got the same answer. I can only say I love being part of this team. The manager has been great to me, the goalkeeping coach, the lads. I love being round them and turning out every single day.”

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Asked how long he feels he can continue performing at the highest level, he said: “Who knows? That’s out of my hands isn’t it? That’s just how that works.

“One thing I can leave in my hands is I can look after myself, work hard and physically be ready to train. I can push myself every single day. I can’t see that changing whether people want me as a professional footballer or not. It’s how I like to live my life.”

Hart is far more concerned with helping Celtic to get back to their best after the winter break and retain the Premiership and Scottish Cup trophies. He acknowledged that he and his team mates had not been particularly good against County. But he was encouraged by the fact his team mates refused to panic and kept playing football at the weekend.

“We’d obviously have liked to score more goals and played a little bit more fluid but it wasn’t to be,” he said.  Ultimately, on a day where we were not over satisfied, we have still won three points. We keep pushing.

“It is what it is. We keep calm, keep together. We are a team who stick together. We are not arm throwers and I love that about us. The last two managers have strongly addressed situations like that. Everyone is trying to score and do the right thing. We have guys who are putting all the effort in and sometimes it’s just not meant to be. 

“Nobody is getting on each other’s back. Everyone knows each other’s intentions. Life is not perfect, football is not perfect, but we are putting ourselves in the best position. It’s half a compliment for everyone to be so frustrated when we have won.”

The tension inside the stadium as Callum McGregor and his fellow Celtic outfield players struggled to add to the goal Alistair Johnston scored in the first minute was palpable on Saturday and there were boos at the final whistle. Hart, though, was unperturbed. 

The Herald: Celtic goalkeeper Joe Hart, left, enjoys a laugh with manager Brendan Rodgers during training at

“I’ve been lucky not to know how it feels to be a fan,” he said. “Obviously I can feel it on the park and have been part of many emotional situations. But as players we just keep our focus, keep playing. One of the beautiful things about being in the team for the last three years is you wouldn’t actually know the scoreline because all we do is try to score goals. It’s not as easy as that and that was proven again.

“We’re obviously not going to hit the rhythm we were necessarily in previously. But we are a professional outfit, not a bunch of slobs who took a few days off and suddenly we’re playing football again. Not at all. We take our jobs seriously and no fitness lost. We just want to play together and see where we go.”