Super Hooper keeps Bhoys in touch

Celtic bossed the first half at St Mirren Park on Sunday but it was

Buddies striker Michael Higdon who came closest to breaking the

deadlock in the 52nd minute when his spectacular volley from 35

yards rebounded off the bar. Both sides then missed decent chances

in an absorbing second half before Hooper stabbed in the late

winner, after Saints failed to deal with substitute Paddy McCourt’s

cut-back, to take the visitors back to within one point of Rangers.

Hoops fans spilled onto the track in celebration and after the

final whistle they were hailed by Neil Lennon, who came onto the

pitch no doubt a relieved man. The Irishman had rung the changes,

one of which was enforced. Efrain Juarez came into midfield for the

suspended Joe Ledley, while defender Thomas Rogne returned from a

one-game ban to replace Jos Hooiveld. Cha Du-Ri also came in for

Georgios Samaras, who dropped out of the squad altogether. St

Mirren were without Paul McGowan due to the terms of his loan deal

from Celtic and Hugh Murray was out with a fractured cheekbone.

Teenager Kenny McLean made his first start at home for the Buddies

with Sean Lynch also finding a place in the starting XI. Celtic

were back at the stadium where a 4-0 defeat in March had ended the

ill-fated tenure of former manager Tony Mowbray. A minute’s silence

in commemoration of Remembrance Sunday was perfectly observed by

both sets of fans. The visitors, inspired by South Korean

midfielder Ki Sung-yueng, looked sharp and purposeful in the

opening stages and St Mirren found themselves pinned back in their

own half. However, despite their dominance of possession, Celtic

were finding it hard to break down the Saints defence. The Paisley

side’s confidence grew gradually but by the halfway point neither

goalkeeper had made a proper save. On the half-hour mark, from a

Shaun Maloney corner, Celtic striker Anthony Stokes headed over the

bar from 12 yards. Three minutes later John Potter was booked for a

hack at Maloney as the Parkhead skipper threatened to burst into

the box following slack play in the Buddies’ rearguard. Maloney’s

free-kick from 25 yards was deflected over by the wall for another

corner which the home side survived. As the tempo dropped a little,

Stokes had a tame effort from distance five minutes from the break

which goalkeeper Craig Samson saved with ease, before Ki fired wide

from a similar distance. It took only a minute for Celtic for force

their first corner of the second half but Wilson took a Maloney

pass at the edge of the box and blasted high over. Saints began to

make inroads and in the 52nd minute an unexpected 35-yard dipping

volley from Higdon beat goalkeeper Fraser Forster only to rebound

off the bar. In the 57th minute, just after Maloney had cleared the

bar with a right-footed drive from the edge of the box, Stokes was

replaced by Daryl Murphy. Moments later Hooper’s close-range header

was saved by Samson down to his right when it looked certain that

the former Scunthorpe striker would score. Niall McGinn replaced

Cha on the hour mark as Celtic tried to step up the pace and

seconds later the Northern Ireland international squared the ball

to Maloney, whose wayward shot from six yards did not even go

behind for a corner. At the other end, Forster brilliantly tipped a

powerful drive from Wardlaw over the bar. Murphy headed into the

side netting at the back post from a McGinn cross from the right

and, as the pressure intensified, the former Derry City winger

forced a decent save from Samson with a powerful drive from the

edge of the box. McCourt replaced Juarez with 15 minutes remaining

but it was fellow Irishman McGinn who had a drive from close-range

well saved by Samson following a wonderful defence-splitting pass

from Ki. Higdon then sent another long-distance drive whistling

past Forster’s right-hand post. The final minutes were tense as

Celtic drove forward and in the second minute of added time Hooper

grabbed a dramatic winner from three yards out to spark wild scenes

of celebration.