A feud that has simmered for six days between Neil Lennon and the referee, Iain Brines, boiled over yesterday as the Celtic captain was sent off in a dramatic climax that overshadowed everything at Parkhead yesterday. Brines was the fourth official last Sunday in the Old Firm game when he and Lennon had an angry exchange after a penalty was denied.
Here, Brines was the man in charge - albeit loosely - and when Lennon finally earned a spot-kick which sparked accusations of diving from Falkirk, the Celtic captain was given a red card after clashing with Anthony Stokes in the mêlée that erupted. The fact that Kenny Miller missed the kick was almost incidental.
It was Thomas Gravesen who yet again found the net for Celtic to put them 16 points clear in the title race. Falkirk came to Parkhead buoyed by their own recent form which has seen them inflict defeat upon both Rangers and Celtic in the past two months, the latter coming on this ground as they knocked Celtic out of the CIS Cup on penalties.
The fluent football of John Hughes' team was evident in the early stages and Stokes ought to have given the visitors the lead after 11 minutes when Darren Barr's knock-down from Alan Gow's corner landed at the feet of Stokes, but the SPL's top scorer scooped his shot over the bar.
The champions were eager to return to winning ways after drawing the Old Firm derby, and Maciej Zurawski almost found a way through in the 19th minute but the Falkirk goalkeeper, Scott Higgins, acrobatically parried. However, five minutes later Celtic went ahead. Gravesen scored a searing volley at Ibrox six days earlier, but the Dane eclipsed that with a venomous right-foot shot from the edge of the box that flew past Higgins after a fine Celtic move.
Gravesen came close to doubling his and Celtic's haul just before the half-hour when Stephen McManus knocked down Lee Naylor's throw-in for the Dane to draw another fine save from Higgins. Aiden McGeady's trickery and pace were at the core of Celtic's passage of control, and one sublime drag-back sold a dummy to the entire Falkirk defence only for his chip to float narrowly over the bar. However, Celtic were indebted to their keeper, Artur Boruc, for preserving their lead when he pushed Patrick Cregg's raking shot away just before the interval. The contest in the second half was a frenetic exchange of attacks. However, the visitors contained far more menace, and but for the excellence of Boruc, Stokes would have scored with a fine curling shot in the 65th minute before his colleague Gow's clever lob hit the bar.
The real drama was contained in stoppage time when Lennon's run into the box drew a foul from Kenny Milne. Lennon and Stokes came head to head, which earned Stokes only a yellow card. Gordon Strachan came on to the pitch to remonstrate with Brines and, not surprisingly after the four-minute delay, Miller struck the base of the post.