SOME moments matter more than others. That is indisputable. The importance of many are abundantly clear at the time they occur – demolition derby anyone? – but some start to matter more with the added context of what came next.

In the first of The Celtic Way's Moments That Mattered series, we consider an autumn afternoon in Ayrshire when Anthony Stokes inspired a three-goal comeback against Kilmarnock to save Neil Lennon’s job and, ultimately, kick-start the charge to a historic second nine in a row...

Celtic don’t, as a rule, celebrate draws. 

In truth, they didn’t really celebrate this one at the time either. You see, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that the story of Kilmarnock 3-3 Celtic on October 15 2011 can truly be appreciated.

And what a tale it is. There’s a fall, a rise, an arguably unlikely hero and – as with all good Scottish football stories – inarguably poor officiating.

But first, let’s set the scene.

The Hoops travelled to Ayrshire for that autumn lunchtime kick-off in fairly dire straits. Manager Neil Lennon was under mounting pressure after his side lost three of their opening 11 SPL matches, a stretch which included a 4-2 defeat against Rangers and a 2-0 loss at Hearts.

That meant the side pitched up at Rugby Park in third place, 10 points off top spot in their pursuit of a first league title since 2008.

With the need for an immediate response after the Tynecastle loss fresh in his mind, Lennon rang the changes. Out went Victor Wanyama, Mohamed Bangura and Badr El Kaddouri; in their places came Beram Kayal, Joe Ledley and Anthony Stokes.

No reaction was forthcoming. After Stokes had skied a good early chance from a Cha Du-Ri cross, it was Killie who took the initiative.

In the 26th minute, that initiative turned into a 1-0 lead when Paul Heffernan beat Cha to a long ball and teed up Dean Shiels to rifle home from the edge of the box.

Celtic Way: The Celtic bench watch on in disbelief as Kilmarnock go three goals up at Rugby ParkThe Celtic bench watch on in disbelief as Kilmarnock go three goals up at Rugby Park

It rattled Celtic. Collectively, the men in green and white – or, as they were that day, yellow and black – seemed about as nervous as a royal on Newsnight. With over 8,000 people looking on there was nowhere to hide, however. And things were still to get worse. Much worse.

First, Heffernan put the home side 2-0 up after nutmegging Fraser Forster from a drilled Shiels cross. That the 40th-minute goal should have been ruled out for offside simply served to reinforce the sense of fatality seemingly attached to the afternoon.

And anyway, Celtic barely even had time to contemplate the injustice as just a few minutes later it was 3-0. This time, defender Mulgrew was guilty of a woeful backpass and James Fowler nipped in to lob Forster. The captain-for-the-day later called the moments directly after his mistake “probably the worst I’ve felt in a game of football”.

Little wonder, then, that the Celts trudged off the grass at the break to the unwelcome sound of the Killie fans snarling “easy, easy, easy”.

Like the teams that day, let’s pause for a brief intermission here to consider where exactly we are… and remember why this apparent horror show merits an entry in The Celtic Way’s Moments That Mattered series.

Because it may seem strange to pinpoint a draw in October as a pivotal moment in what was, ultimately, a title-winning season.

It kind of is. For sure, there were plenty of notable wins in the league to come after this result – but it seems to be roundly overlooked just how malignant a humbling defeat at Rugby Park would have been for Lennon. In Celtic managerial terms, it looked like Killie were about to play the St Mirren to Lennon’s Tony Mowbray.

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Lennon, a youth coach under Mowbray, had witnessed that particular demise first-hand and resolved to avoid the same fate as his predecessor. Still, it would be wrong to suggest that meant he knew it would all work out in the end. He has since commented he felt he was 45 minutes from the sack.

“I’m thinking to myself ‘if this gets any worse, where do I go? Where do I take this team?’,” Lennon later said of his half-time thoughts.

“But I looked at what we’d achieved the last season [a Scottish Cup win] and I felt we’d improved the squad and that there was a good team in there. I just needed to find it, to eek it out of them.

“So we had a chat at half-time. I didn’t rant or rave but I told them they were embarrassing the club. Sorry, we were embarrassing the club – because I include myself in that – and we’ve got 45 minutes to rectify it.”

Hooper later recalled the tense feeling in the changing room at the half as well – and knowing that it was all on their shoulders after a shocking first 45.

“The gaffer was right to have a go at us,” Hooper said of the team talk. “We didn’t turn up, we couldn’t score, we couldn’t defend. Kilmarnock put the three goals behind us and the gaffer said ‘go out and prove everyone wrong’.” 

In a bid to do so, Lennon looked to his bench. Kayal and Hooper, who had picked up an injury, came off with Wanyama and Bangura sent on in the team’s hour of need.

As it turned out, the hero was already in their midst. Step forward, Anthony Stokes.

Celtic Way:

On an eight-match scoreless streak and with that early miss already blotting his copybook for the day, Stokes still somehow found the nerve to stride forward and demand the ball after 19-year-old James Forrest won a free kick 25 yards from goal.

The Irishman channelled that confidence into his right foot as he walloped an absolute screamer into the net to give the stand-full of Celtic fans behind it a glimmer of hope. Some hit though it was, the ball didn’t actually even go near the corner, it was simply struck with such purpose that the keeper was rendered about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.

There was, it seemed, a steely determination about the number 10 that day. Instead of celebrating he turned and stomped, with that recognisably round-shouldered bearing of his, directly back to the centre circle to restart the match. Three-one, it’s not over yet.

Just three minutes later that urgency paid off. Ki Sung-Yeung took up possession just inside the Killie half. There were six Celtic players ahead of him but only two actively moved to make themselves available: El Kaddouri, who had come on for Cha five minutes beforehand, and Stokes.

In that moment the smarter, more incisive option is probably to try to play in El Kaddouri. Ki chooses Stokes.

The then 23-year-old takes one extra step towards the ball, scanning for the nearest defender while doing so, before controlling it with his right instep and holding off the contact he knows is about to come from the nearest foe.

He takes one more touch and the angle to play in a team-mate is getting more acute by the instant. Stokes has no intention of doing that, though. He’s going for goal.

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Nowadays, it’s what would be termed a low-quality shot attempt. Given the defenders closing in from either side and the distance from goal, the xG value would probably be somewhere in the 0.01 to 0.05 range. But this was before xG was really a thing, certainly in Scotland, and sometimes it’s the unexpected that changes games… and seasons.

This time he does find the corner, the bottom one, thanks to a quite vicious dip and bounce right in front of the goalkeeper. Stokes spends just enough time watching it unfold to see the ball ripple the net before immediately about-turning. Back to the centre circle again. Three-two, game on.

The travelling Celtic support were truly roused now. Vocal as ever, they willed the team to complete the turnaround with a songbook containing a couple of relatively new compositions such as the Prodigal Son for Mulgrew and the popular Wanyama chant.

That they had earlier used their platform to protest against the frankly absurd Offensive Behaviour at Football Act – which was then in stage two of the legislative process and due to be debated at Holyrood a couple of weeks later – was firmly on the backburner for the time being. All efforts were concentrated on infusing some of their spirit into the team's revival, something Forrest remembered feeling even before Stokes’s double.

“We shouldn’t be 3-0 down against any team,” Forrest, who was also in fine fettle in the second half, said afterwards. “But I think when we came back out the fans were still behind us (even though we were) so many points behind [in the title race] and 3-0 down.”

Prayers were answered when, true to his biblical nickname, Mulgrew achieved redemption for his earlier mistake by heading home the equaliser after Daniel Majstorovic flicked on a Ki free-kick to complete the comeback. Three-three.

Lennon had asked the players at half-time to rectify the situation. It may have taken almost another half-hour after the break for the comeback to truly start… but rectify the situation they did. 

Three goals. Seven minutes. A season saved and, ultimately, a historic run of success ignited.

Celtic did not win the game on the day, of course, and Killie even had a chance to do so in the dying embers. But the Hoops did win back the self-respect that had looked so perilously close to slipping from their grasp just 45 minutes beforehand. And they kept their manager in a job. 

Celtic Way: The Celtic players celebrate winning the league at Rugby Park six months after the 3-3 drawThe Celtic players celebrate winning the league at Rugby Park six months after the 3-3 draw

The day’s rather unlikely hero, Stokes would end the campaign with 21 goals in all competitions – including decisive ones against Rennes, Aberdeen, St Johnstone and Inverness – but none would be as historically important as his season-saving double in Ayrshire.

For the run that comeback against Killie sparked would go down as one for the ages. Celtic did not lose again in the league until the end of March – after reeling off a 17-game winning run.

Despite at one stage sitting 15 points behind Rangers due to games in hand – and, famously, prompting former Light Blues striker Nikica Jelavic to publicly suggest the ‘title was in the bag’ – by the time new year rolled round it was Lennon’s side sitting pretty atop the table once again.

They strengthened that position so handily they were, it should not be forgotten, already four points clear at the summit when the Ibrox club was thumped by administration and the accompanying points deduction that brought.

Football loves a quirk of fate and in this story there’s one more: Lennon’s men would return to Kilmarnock almost half a year after this six-goal thriller and be involved in another… this time, however, all six were scored by Celts to officially clinch the title.

It was at Rugby Park that a Stokes-inspired Celtic showed they had the bottle for the fight ahead, and it was at Rugby Park they ultimately had their hands raised in victory. This moment, on October 15 2011, truly mattered.