Celtic left in tatters as McDonald's late takeaway gifts title to Rangers

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The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill woke to headlines yesterday that he could have done without. Whether the Celtic manager, or any of his players, will want to wake up at all today is very doubtful.

Martin O'Neill woke to headlines yesterday that he could have done without. Whether the Celtic manager, or any of his players, will want to wake up at all today is very doubtful.

Even reading about the dramatic events that transpired at Fir Park yesterday might not convince the Celtic players of the truth. The defending champions were just two minutes away from wrapping up their fourth Scottish Premier League title in five season under O'Neill.

Then, it all went horribly wrong. Two goals from Motherwell striker Scott McDonald tore the prize out of Celtic's grasp and handed the League to Rangers. An ashen-faced O'Neill could barely believe it.

The Celtic manager refused to comment on reports that he would be stepping down as manager at Parkhead to care for his wife, Geraldine, who has been battling against an illness for the last year. O'Neill waved to the stunned Celtic supporters once this astonishing encounter had finished, but would not say if it was a wave of goodbye.

"I can't talk about my future and I refuse to do so," he said later. "I have gone to those Celtic fans for five years and waved after every game and this was no different."

The speculation is that Gordon Strachan has been lined up by Celtic to take over for a year to allow O'Neill time off to be with his wife. If that is so, then there was a huge irony in McDonald being the man who left O'Neill's dreams in tatters - it was Strachan who released the little Australian striker at Southampton and allowed Terry Butcher, the Motherwell manager, to eventually pick him up.

Celtic, though, could not have believed the havoc that McDonald was about to wreak upon them as they ran down the clock to the last victory they needed to keep their title. Chris Sutton's first-half goal had seemed enough. Indeed, Celtic created so many chances in the second period that Butcher admitted: "They battered us."

Then McDonald intervened. A free-kick from the half-way line was only partially cleared by Celtic and McDonald, with his back to goal, conjured up an overhead kick from 20 yards that flew high past Robert Douglas and into the roof of the net.

Celtic knew that a draw was no good, with Rangers - who had a better goal difference - now leading by that narrow margin. They tried to respond with a goal that would save their title, but instead McDonald punished them with a breakaway in injury-time, cutting inside Stanislav Varga and the watching his shot loop over Douglas with the aid of Jackie McNamara's defection.

"It was worse than 2003," stated O'Neill later, referring to the way his team had lost the title to Rangers on goal difference. "In fact, it possibly eclipses losing the Uefa Cup final to Porto.

"We could have won by six or seven goals but we did not get them. We became nervous and McDonald took advantage with a great goal," O'Neill continued. "The players are crushed. The League is over 38 games and Rangers got there ahead of us, that's all there is to it."

Yet the day, seemed to be going to plan for Celtic when Sutton broke the deadlock after 29 minutes. How fitting it was that it came from O'Neill's first signing five years ago.

Alan Thompson robbed Ritchie Foran on the left touchline and exchanged passes with John Hartson before advancing into the box and thrashing a raking shot that Gordon Marshall parried. Before anyone else could react, Sutton pounced to stab the ball past the Motherwell goalkeeper to an explosion of noise from the Celtic support.

Stephen Craigan almost equalised after the break, but Didier Agathe cleared his header off the line and then Hartson proceeded to squander a succession of chances, as did Craig Bellamy when through with just Marshall to beat, as Celtic tried to find the goal that would kill off Motherwell. Instead, they dying moments served up their own epitaph.

Goals: Sutton (29) 0-1; McDonald (88) 1-1; McDonald (90) 2-1.

Motherwell (4-4-2): G Marshall; Corrigan, Craigan, Kinniburgh, Fitzpatrick (Clarkson, 87); Foran, Fagan, Kerr, Paterson; Hamilton (Britton, 85), McDonald. Substitutes not used: Corr (gk), Higgins, Connolly, Keogh, Smith.

Celtic (4-4-2): Douglas; Agathe, Baldé, Varga, McNamara; Petrov, Lennon, Sutton, Thompson; Hartson (Beattie, 74), Bellamy. Substitutes not used: D Marshall (gk), Valgaeren, Lambert, Laursen, Maloney, McGeady.

Referee: H Dallas.

Booked: Motherwell Craigan, Foran; Celtic Bellamy.

Man of the match: Petrov.

Attendance: 12,944.