In the end, soaked to the skin, Ange Postecoglou headed into sections of the Celtic bracket, pulled down the hood of his jacket for perhaps the first time that evening, and performed his fist routine with flying colors.
We’ve seen him all season, but it seemed like there was an ounce more passion in his celebration this time around, a little more meaning in his body language.
It wasn’t just the fact that his team had just played another final – although that was reason enough to celebrate – it was the way they did it.
It was a battle under conditions as repugnant as some of the things some Celtic fans sang about at various times throughout the night, a victory forged in a storm against an opponent who pushed them all the way.
Watching your team have to fight for victory brings a certain satisfaction. Seeing them avoid being awarded a penalty with three minutes to go with their lead still at one must have been a relief too.
Even the endless rain in Hampden couldn’t put out Derek McInnes’ fire following that penalty call which pitted them against each other when Giorgos Giakoumakis slammed into Joe Wright’s back, knocking the Kilmarnock man to the ground.
Killie appealed, strongly. Willie Collum ruled, oddly. No penalty, no VAR, no end to McInnes’ frustration. He said his piece in stride as he had the right. It was hard not to feel for him.
Killie’s role in all of this was unexpected. No one saw a contest coming. Even with the weather as it was – the ducks would have quacked for cover – you couldn’t see that the conditions were level enough to reduce the chasm between these sides.
McInnes’ side are 38 points behind Celtic in the Premiership, conceding seven goals and scoring none in two league games against Postecoglou’s men this season. They started with Kyle Lafferty who hadn’t played since mid-October for a ban on the back of a bigoted comment. Lafferty lasted 45 minutes.
A good beating was Killie’s people’s worst fear. Would they have been satisfied with a saving loss beforehand? A 1-0 or a 2-1? A performance to rely on even if there was no final to expect at the end? When you are where they are in the league then maybe.
It is this state of mind that McInnes denounced in the preamble. We could hear the intensity of McInnes, a clue to the motivation of his players.
He talked about Killie being written off, about no one on earth giving them a chance, about everyone thinking they might be at the end of a hideout.
He did not send his team to fight their way to extra time or penalties, but to play, to bring the game to Celtic, like an underdog in a prize fight meeting a favorite in the middle of the ring and trading blow for kick. .
Danny Armstrong has been a star for Killie this season, a player with a devil and little fear in his game. He took this semi-final with relish. Alexandro Bernabei was nervous in his presence.
The unease sometimes spread to Carl Starfelt. In those first few minutes, Killie had chances but didn’t take them. Joe Hart perfectly saved from Rory McKenzie. McInnes turned away from the field in anguish. You can’t pass up chances like this against Celtic. McInnes knew the meaning.
Celtic scoring with pretty much their first attack was a classic Celtic thing to do, a dope rope in the rain. Daizen Maeda had it, but knew little about it.
Lafferty couldn’t believe his bad luck when his clearance came from the impressive Japan international – a player who returned from the World Cup in top form – and nestled in his own net.
At that point, you might have expected Celtic to drive a stake through Killie’s collective heart, but none of that. Postecoglou’s side had two goals ruled out, both correctly. They had other chances that they missed.
There had never been a sense that Killie was done until Giakoumakis’ goal was scored, a testament to their own character that day. The penalty shout that preceded the strike that made it 2-0 was the thing McInnes focused on more than anything else later.
He will be sorry that this team did not return to Hampden for the final, but the attitude, the chances created, the problems they caused Celtic would have given him enormous enthusiasm.
He has a relegation fight on his hands. If his players can dig in for the next three or four months like they did for 90 minutes here, that’s a fight he’ll win.
He has to rationalize it that way. He does not have a choice. Postecoglou does not have to do such a thing. It was a difficult night. His team underperformed and were pushed to the limit.
They survived the fear of a big penalty call. Some of his best players fell short. None of this matters. None of that.
A place in the final is all that matters. The bottom line. Celtic want a treble this season. Despite the rain and wind and Killie’s challenge, they’re still a little closer to that.