SEEING his out-of-sorts Celtic side squander their chance to leapfrog Rangers into first place the Premier League table with three games to go up in the Highlands back in 2011 proved too much for Neil Lennon.

When his men were denied a penalty in the last minute of stoppage time in the league match against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, he turned and kicked over a crate of water bottles next to his technical area in anger. 

Lennon’s volatile reaction to the 3-2 loss proved to be justified – Walter Smith’s team would win all of their remaining games and be crowned Scottish champions for the third season running on the final day. 

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Can Ange Postecoglou’s side avoid a similar sort of blow to their title aspirations when they play Ross County just 15 miles up the road at the Global Energy Stadium in Dingwall on Sunday? Or will the Greek-Australian feel the need to lash out at the end of the 90 minutes?

Celtic are currently six points clear with five matches left – but the 2-1 defeat they suffered at the hands of their city rivals after extra-time in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden on Sunday has planted a small seed of doubt in the minds of their fans.

Callum McGregor and his team mates were far from their brilliant best at the weekend and Reo Hatate has since admitted that he is feeling “emotional and physical fatigue” in an interview with a newspaper in his native Japan.

Ross Tokely, Caledonian Thistle’s all-time record appearance holder who played for Terry Butcher’s team in that match 11 years ago, certainly feels the top flight leaders will need to rediscover their form quickly to avoid a costly draw or even a defeat.

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“Celtic are going for the league and they are ahead,” said the former County defender. “But every team has their own agenda. Ross County have done really well and are looking to finish fourth, the highest position in their history, and get into Europe for the first time.

“They don’t have to worry about relegation. They have got nothing to lose. I am sure they will go out and enjoy themselves. Malky Mackay has done a great job. He has taken players up from down south and got them to gel quickly. He will be wanting to make life as difficult for Celtic as possible.”

The Caledonian Thistle side that Tokely was a member of certainly did that when Celtic travelled north to play in a rearranged Premier League fixture towards the end of the 2010/11 season.

A Charlie Mulgrew own goal early on was quickly cancelled out by Kris Commons. But second-half Grant Munro and Shane Sutherland strikes put the home team 3-1 ahead after little over an hour. An injury-time penalty from Commons was not enough to salvage a point for the visitors. 

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“The day before Terry had released some players, had told them they were finished at the club,” said Tokely.  “To be honest with you, I didn’t think we had much chance. The atmosphere around the club wasn’t great. I didn’t hold out much hope.

“But we put on a really good performance, really troubled Celtic and scored some good goals. The mentality of the players who had been told they were getting let go was ‘I’ll show you’.

“We were a good side that season. We had drawn with Rangers twice, including at Ibrox, and drawn with Celtic at Parkhead. We raised our game, hung on and did Rangers a favour.

“I had a few drinks bought for me by Rangers fans that summer. It didn’t put me up or down to be honest because I don’t support either of the Glasgow clubs. I was just pleased for the boys who had received such terrible news the day before and glad they could go out on a high.”

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Tokely, who has been a co-commentator for the official Caledonian Thistle online streaming service during the 2021/22 campaign, only became aware of the importance of victory for Celtic as the game wore on.

“I didn’t actually realise at the time that we would play a major part in them missing out on the title,” he said. “But I played right back that night and was right next to the dugout at times. Neil was very animated, more than in any other game we had played against them. You could tell the pressure was on him.

“When they fell behind you could feel the pressure from the Celtic fans in the stands as well. You could see the pressure that their manager had on him to win. I am sure it will be the same against County on Sunday.”

Lennon, who was in his first full season as a manager at that time, would put the bitter disappointment firmly behind him by leading Celtic to the Premier League trophy three years in a row.

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Tokely feels the experience that Postecoglou, who has won titles in Australia and Japan in the past, has of title run-ins will prove invaluable to the Parkhead club in the coming weeks and thinks the Rangers cup defeat will also provoke a reaction from his players. 

“I probably prefer Celtic to Rangers and have seen more of their games this season,” he said. “A lot of my friends are Celtic fans and they are all really positive about Ange. I think he has done a terrific job. He has really turned things around.

“They were really down in the dumps when he arrived. The players he has brought in have done well and the players he inherited who had maybe gone a bit stale have got a new lease of life. To be six points clear with five games remaining is testament to him and his coaching staff.

“I like the way Ange speaks. He is very positive, he knows his stuff and he is a winner. The Celtic job isn’t an easy one, but he has come in from a foreign country and taken to it really easily.

“He has fitted in well. He has a way he wants his teams to play and his team have bought into it. I am sure his experience will come to the fore in these final games.”

Tokely added: “Celtic didn’t play as well as they could on Sunday, but the league is more important to them as a football club than the cup. Cups are great to win, but he wants them to secure the title.

“The cup defeat could fire them up. It’s never nice to lose a semi-final. They didn’t play as well as they can and will perhaps feel they let themselves down a bit. They have an opportunity to show their character against Ross County and keep their winning run going.”

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