Celtic 1 St Mirren 0: Referee with a wink is no friend of The Buddies

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The Independent Football

Beware the billing of football matches. This was supposed to be an afternoon when Celtic unfurled the flag of Scottish Premier League champions for the third consecutive opening day – the honours on this occasion being done by Tommy Burns' widow, Rosemary – then strolled past the challenge of St Mirren to collect three points as Gordon Strachan's team set off to make it four in a row.

Most of this happened, but it was not as billed in that Celtic did anything but stroll. Instead, they were reliant on a dubious penalty awarded by the referee, Eddie Smith, whose decision infuriated the St Mirren manager, Gus McPherson, almost as much as the fact that Smith then winked at the visitors' bench.

This revelation from McPherson afterwards led to him being asked the inevitable: "Do you think that the referee is a winker?" McPherson guffawed but his previous comments showed he thought the incident no laughing matter. At the end of a week when Scottish referees had threatened strike action for higher pay, the look on McPherson's face said that he thought a deduction would be more appropriate.

His mood was not aided by the memory of the fixture last season at Love Street when Smith gave Celtic a late free-kick and Shunsuke Nakamura scored the only goal from it. And rather more serious was McPherson's claim that at a meeting of referees at St Andrews, certain SPL managers' faces were projected on to a screen and his was one of them. "I don't know the context but I think it is a dangerous thing to do," McPherson said. "Worrying." McPherson's gripe about the penalty also had more than one strand.

When Will Haining and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink contested a floated, high pass from Lee Naylor, Hesselink was offside, McPherson argued. As play moved on, both defender and forward raised hands and, on the edge of the visitors' box, contact was made. But it was 50-50 contact and Smith had an unobstructed view. As the challenge developed Hesselink manoeuvred himself in front of Haining and hit a shot that slid wide. The experienced Dutchman then fell to ground. There were shouts for a penalty, as one would expect, but had Smith signalled no foul then Celtic's sense of injustice would not have been great.

It would certainly not have equalled St Mirren's when Smith instantly pointed to the spot and showed the disbelieving Haining a red card. Barry Robson's penalty just squirmed under Mark Howard and over the line. It was the 62nd minute and Celtic were one up against 10 men. St Mirren battled on but Celtic had three charmless points. Strachan did not pretend it was anything else. Though he did think the penalty award correct and fair, he said of the performance: "We're not proud of it. We seemed low-key through the whole game. We had four good players and that's not enough. We have now had four opening games since I've been here and this was the least effective and enjoyable." Asked whether the pre-match ceremonials, there was the on-pitch introduction of new signing Marc Crosas from Barcelona to add to Rosemary Burns' presence, had inhibited his side, Strachan replied: "You'd think the atmosphere would inspire them. We'll see in the next couple of weeks if this was a one-off." As he prepared to exit Strachan threw in a rueful crack about his players being unable to pass the ball accurately over 10 or 15 yards and you could understand his frustration.

From kick-off, particularly in midfield, Celtic were sluggish, when they were not static. It was not much better behind them or in front. There was not a lack of movement but an absence of it.

Admittedly, the visitors, with a lonely striker in Billy Mehmet and nine hard-working colleagues behind the ball, provided a well-organised test. But Celtic should be accustomed to that. In the centre of the pitch, Paul Hartley and Scott Brown were conservative in their passing and on the flanks, Robson and the talked-up Aiden McGeady were subdued. There were 57,000 at Celtic Park but the silent mediocrity was the most striking characteristic of the first 45 minutes.

The second was a minor improvement, thanks to Mehmet initially. For once not foraging in isolation, he found a companion in Stephen O'Donnell and the two produced a one-two that had Celtic's centre-halves staring as Mehmet stroked the ball goalwards. Artur Boruc was at full stretch to get fingertips on the ball and deflected it on to a post. The rebound was not kind to St Mirren. Nor, for the rest of the half, was the referee. Few will wish to recall this game, but the debate will surely rumble on.

Goal: Robson pen (62) 1-0.

Celtic (4-4-2) Boruc; Hinkel, Caldwell, McManus, Naylor (Wilson, 73); Robson (Caddis, 79), Hartley, S Brown, McGeady; Vennegoor of Hesselink, McDonald (Samaras, 75). Substitutes not used: M Brown (gk), Donati, O'Dea, McGowan.

St Mirren (4-1-4-1) Howard; Ross, Potter, Haining, Miranda; Murray; O'Donnell (Wyness, 81), Brady (Tonet, 61), McGinn, Brighton (McAusland, 61); Mehmet. Substitutes not used: Smith (gk), Hamilton, Barron, McCay.

Referee: E Smith.

Booked: Celtic Vennegoor of Hesselink.

Sent off: Haining (61).

Man of the match: O'Donnell.

Attendance: 57,441.