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Sunday, 14 February 2016 09:14

Celtic spring a cup shock

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SATURDAY 13th FEBRUARY. Celtic Park, cold and drizzly.
Although I've missed the last two Saturdays while on holiday, nothing has changed on my return: football people are still avidly following every weather forecast, desperately hoping the end of the week will be dry enough to allow some games to be played. By all accounts, last Saturday was as wet as any this miserable winter, and it was stormy when I returned, but a dry interlude brings a little hope...

Actually, last weekend's bad weather worked to my advantage, as the postponement of the Cwmbran Celtic v Goytre tie in the Welsh Cup means it's been re-scheduled for today - an obvious choice of game - assuming it's on - with teams from levels 2 and 3 of the pyramid doing battle for the chance to host a Welsh Premier side in the quarter-finals. Overnight rain on Friday night/Saturday morning means a couple of pitch inspections, but positive reports mid-morning are enough for me to head east (there's an added bonus here - I can travel this way without touching Cardiff city centre, which is going to be its usual mess on a rugby Six Nations matchday).

By the time I get to Cwmbran, the rain has stopped, though it's still very cold and dull as I walk down from the bus station to Celtic Park, via the busy Cwmbran Shopping Centre and the less busy Old Cwmbran high street - an incongruous street in the midst of the new-town estates, its run-down, old-fashioned shops presumably appealing to those who find the centre just a bit too exciting.
The pitch at Celtic Park is clearly playable: the goalmouths sanded, but the surface not holding water anywhere. A few early arrivals are here, and the small band of home officials is already busy with matchday duties. As kick off approaches, a reasonable crowd gathers, and would be counted at well over a hundred were it not for the thirty-odd who assemble on the bank outside the ground to watch for free - too mean to pay the very modest £3 entrance fee.

I overhear a bit of Goytre's pre-match preparation out on the field: they know that as a team from one division higher - one of the league's best, in fact - they are in for an uncomfortable afternoon; they're expecting Celtic, as the underdogs, to put them under pressure from the outset. And the analysis is spot-on, as that is precisely how the opening passage of play unfolds. It's fast and furious, no time or space to dwell on the ball. As a result, neither side establishes control in the opening 25 minutes, Goytre mounting a couple of dangerous attacks, but Celtic forcing several corners at the other end.

The opening goal comes out of nothing: a long-range shot by Celtic's Owen Cook takes a heavy deflection. Visiting keeper Thomas has already dived towards his post and is stranded as the ball crosses the line. Goytre re-start the game in determined fashion and threaten to equalise. Within five minutes they think they have - a far post header back from a free-kick, headed in from close-range - but disallowed for pushing. I'm still making a note of this when the there's a cheer from the other end - Celtic have scored again. It's given as an own-goal, so I don't think I missed a goal-of-the-season contender. But at 2-0 down, the First Division side now have a real job on their hands. For the remainder of the half, they work patiently to get a goal back - but Celtic are in no mood to allow them a foothold in the game, and it doesn't come.

In the early second half action, Goytre look determined and dangerous: a couple of close calls suggest Celtic's 2-0 lead could be under pressure, and might not prove enough. A perfect time then, to increase it, which they do from a break down the right - referee Leigh Jones awarding a penalty after the run comes to a messy end inside the box. Lee Challenger blasts the penalty into the net for 3-0.

The value of the third goal is immediately obvious, when Goytre pull two goals back. First a free-kick, the faintest of headed flicks taking the ball past Watkins in the Celtic goal; then a harsh penalty for what looks like an inadvertent handball - the ball blasted from close range against the defender on the post. The kick is saved, but Goytre score in the follow-up. Now it's 3-2, and suddenly a very different game with half an hour still to play.

Goytre have their tails up now and surge forward, putting Watkins's goal under further pressure. Celtic look stunned for a while by the turnaround, but to their credit they continue to battle for every ball, and in the 65th minute the game takes another twist. Celtic have the ball on the right, and it's hefted cross-field to Chris Ham in the left. Outside the area, Ham decides to hit it on the volley, his manoeuvre sending the ball flying high into the far corner of Goytre's net. Everyone applauds - this was most definitely a goal-of-the season contender - Celtic celebrate having a two-goal cushion again.

Goytre's come-back has been halted in its tracks and the next fifteen minutes bring the odd scuffle and some yellow cards but no more goals, though Goytre come close, Sommers hitting the post from one free-kick. But, with less than ten minutes to go, Ham scores a fifth for Celtic from another breakaway attack, only for Goytre to reduce the deficit to two again from a direct free-kick. In the closing stages, a second yellow reduces Celtic to ten men, but it's too late to make a difference, and it's the Welsh League Second Division side who can celebrate a place in the last eight and a home tie with Port Talbot Town.

A great cup tie, eight goals and non-stop, end to end entertainment. Fantastic value, even for those of us who came through the gate and paid our £3.

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