The last time Chris Sutton was at Rugby Park, he left nursing a grievance that would last all summer long and paid a heavy price for an ill-judged television interview. Yesterday the Celtic player went home with the match ball and words of praise ringing in his ears.
Martin O'Neill described the former Chelsea striker as both "brilliant" and "adaptable" and left a memo for Sven Goran Eriksson to take an overdue look at Sutton on Wednesday in the Champions' League encounter with Anderlecht.
Sutton believes his England career is dead, but a hat-trick from midfield yesterday underlined the value of a man who seems incapable of being subdued. "Chris is playing well enough for England to look at him," said the Celtic manager. "I know Sven will only think of him as a striker, but he's so versatile." It was Sutton's habit of speaking his mind that saw Glenn Hoddle banish him to the international wilderness and his forthright manner was responsible for a five-match ban when Celtic came here in May on the final day of last season.
Sutton scored twice that day only for Celtic to lose the Scottish Premier League title on goal difference - and provoke his televised accusation that Dunfermline (who lost 6-1 at Rangers) had cheated O'Neill's team out of the championship. Ironically, yesterday's scoreline was what Celtic required six months ago.
Since supplanting Rangers at the top after a win at Ibrox, Celtic have looked in formidable form. There was little chance of Kilmarnock halting that momentum once Sutton had opened the scoring after 21 minutes from the penalty spot, after Stilian Petrov tumbled under merest contact with Gary McDonald, coolly sending goalkeeper Francois Dubourdeau the wrong way.
Celtic could have killed the contest by half-time, but Gordon Greer made a vital goal-line clearance after Liam Miller had deftly lobbed Dubourdeau, and Henrik Larsson struck the post after a sublime nutmeg on Sean Hessey.
McDonald almost conjured up an equaliser just after the hour but was denied by Magnus Hedman. Kilmarnock were then carved open in the final 20 minutes as Celtic struck four times.
John Hartson doubled the advantage following a clever routine from the training ground that saw Larsson whip Petrov's free kick out wide to Michael Gray, whose cross was flicked on by Sutton for Hartson to rise at the back post and loop a header over Dubourdeau.
Sutton then sidefooted his second in the 76th minute, after Hartson had robbed Frederic Dindeleux and supplied Larsson with a pass which he clipped across the face of the goal.
Sutton then displayed even better timing to dispossess McDonald in the opposite box with a well-executed slide tackle, before Shaun Maloney made it 4-0 in the 85th minute by rifling in after a glorious diagonal ball from Ross Wallace.
Sutton, not for the first time, had the last word. Larsson was pulled down by Dindeleux in stoppage time and Sutton steered another penalty in with style.
Kilmarnock 0 Celtic 5
Sutton 21 pen, 76, 90 pen, Hartson 70, Maloney 84
Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 12,460
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