Celtic: Another bloody title

by | May 17, 2022

It encapsulates Celtic’s 2021/22 season that there is disappointment at being unable to entitle this article ‘Celtic – Another Bloody Treble,’ such has been the transformative effect of their Australian manager, Ange Postecoglou.

I’ve never thought ‘manager of the year’ awards should always go to league-title winners. In 2008, I strongly advocated for the award to go to Eddie Howe – Celtic’s first-choice supremo last summer – over Alex Ferguson, after Howe kept Bournemouth in the Football League, despite their 17-point penalty for multiple insolvency issues. But Postecoglou was a powerful candidate, for winning the League and League Cup after such a chaotic start.

HIs appointment, on 10th June, seemed good ‘in the circumstances.’ The Celtic job was only a catch in the way Covid was. Even more so, given that negotiations with Howe ended too late to allow any appointee a proper pre-season. I was certainly pleased that Celtic got someone on my “must be good, I’ve heard of him” list, from when he managed Australia to the 2014 World Cup finals, where they played creditably, and their 2015 Asian Cup victory. Yet at no stage before Christmas, despite Celtic’s League Cup triumph in December, did I put Celtic’s title chances above the 45/55 suggested by one of the Celtic twitterati. Oh me of little faith.

Postecoglou’s Celtic was only half-built when they lost their league opener at Hearts last 31st July. It is easily forgotten that Odsonne Edouard started that evening as a lone striker. Mind you, most Celtic fans had forgotten his display by 1st August. Centre-back Carl Starfelt made his debut. Winger Liel Abada made his league debut, having debuted and scored in Celtic’s sole Champions League tie. While young Japanese mop-top Kyogo Furuhashi was introduced too late to be impactful.

There were encouraging signs from consecutive 6-0 home wins against Dundee and St. Mirren, which put Celtic top. And they stylishly avenged the Hearts loss with a 3-2 home League Cup win, a score which weapons-grade flattered Hearts, despite BBC Radio Scotland pundit Craig Levein’s pitiful insistence that Hearts could have won with the right tactics. One-nil defeat in the first Ibrox Glasgow derby, at the end of August, knocked Celtic off the top. However, “Ange-ball,” as Celtic’s style was called, for want of a MUCH better phrase, was developing.

Kyogo started at Ibrox, alongside Edouard, who joined Crystal Palace three days later. Croatian international right-back Josip Juranovic made his debut, albeit at left-back to accommodate the in-form Anthony Ralston on the right. While centre-back Osaze Uroghide was a sub…you all remember Uroghide, right? RIGHT??

Celtic exited the Champions League to Denmark’s Midtjylland, 3-2 on aggregate after extra-time, in Postecoglou’s first two competitive games. Reaching the Europa League group stage had more of an Ange stamp on it, though, Kyogo scoring three times in the four qualifiers. The third became the winner against AZ Alkmaar after a gob-smacking air-shot from new keeper Joe Hart and Starfelt’s acrobatic own goal, which could have done with being an air-shot. But better times lay ahead for both. And it has been largely forgotten that Celtic won one more group stage point than any other Scottish club.

Celtic lost 1-0 at Livingston, as per recent tradition, on 19th September, leaving them four points and, more eye-catchingly, five places off top spot. So, team rebuilding continued. Two loanees, centre-back Cameron Carter-Vickers and wideman Filipe Neves (Jota), started that defeat, a week after their debuts, Carter-Vickers’ a goalscoring one. However, having lost their first three away league games, and won their first three home ones, they now drew at home to Dundee United.

Postecoglou was unphased. And his standing among Celtic fans surely improved when, for far from the last time, he called out Scotland’s football media. “It’s quite remarkable that, seven games in, people are calling the title,” he noted, as Celtic’s title chances were dismissed. Especially as Dundee United, whose woodwork Celtic hit three times, beat the side for whom the hacks were calling the title. It wasn’t “remarkable” to many Scottish football media observers, though.

For example, abysmal local hack Hugh Keevins said Celtic would “finish third behind Aberdeen,” a ridiculous claim, as Celtic were unutterably sh*te last season but still finished second, by FOURTEEN points…TWENTY-ONE above Keevins’ runners-up-elect. And Celtic’s 2021/22 reached a turning point, not for the first time in recent years, AT Aberdeen, a week after the Livingston defeat, when Jota’s bundled 84th-minute winner earned a scruffy 2-1 victory.

Three October wins later, Celtic were second. two points off the top. And a first-half dismantling of Hibernian was a portent of happier days. Not instantly, mind. On the following Saturday, with top spot available for a day, Celtic were held 0-0 at home by Livingston’s blanket defence, deadline day signing Giorgios Giakoumakis missing a late penalty AND sitter.

Celtic won their next six games, staying four points behind. And the last of the six is already legend, Ralston’s 97th-minute winner giving ten-man Celtic a 2-1 squeak at Ross County, after Starfelt’s 79th-minute dismissal. Celtic won the League Cup the next Sunday. But three days later, Covid-hit St Mirren went six better than their August Celtic Park drubbing, despite Celtic’s 30 shots and 83% possession, a failure highlighted by Covid-hit Celtic’s comfortable 3-1 Boxing Day win at St Johnstone.

Then came the early winter break, due to high Covid infection rates. And Postecoglou masterminded arguably Celtic’s best-ever January transfer window, acquiring London-born, Danish under-21 call-up Matthew Sean O’Riley and Japanese duo Reo Hatate and Daizen Maeda. Maeda scored four minutes after the season restarted, in Celtic’s 2-0 home win over Hibs. And Rangers’ subsequent draw with Aberdeen left Celtic four points behind again. Hatate’s 30-yarder in the 2-1 win at Tynecastle nearly took Hearts’ keeper Craig Gordon’s right hand off. Then five days pivoted things Celtic’s way.

On 29th January, a late leveller at Ross County, gave Celtic the chance to cut the lead at the top to two points. And with the EPL on an international hiatus, BBC Radio 5 Live was at Celtic/Dundee United, to see what the Celtic fuss was about. Alas, Celtic put in a ‘Livingston-esque’ performance. And that lead-reduction chance looked gone after Nir Bitton’s 81st-minute dismissal. Then, on 90 minutes, United’s defence made a mistake, Abada profited. And Celtic could go top again by winning four days later.

They did. Soundly. Roundly. Magnificently. Hatate scored from 20 yards, early and late in the first half. Then Abada nipped in from outer space to add a third. And Celtic were a point clear. Three days beforehand, the execrable Keevins told the Daily Record ‘newspaper’ that the then-champions would “go through the remainder of this season without losing.” On the third day, Keevins was wrong again…almost in accordance with the scriptures.

Celtic went through the league “without losing,” securing the title with a 4-1 home gubbing of third-placed Hearts, thanks, apparently, to seven offside goals with fouls in the build-up. And the sweet smell of Celtic success has had to cover the stench of desperation from certain media.

After Celtic went top in February, midfielder Tom Rogic was asked on Sky Sports “how different a prospect” it was to be “top of the pile” with others “chasing you.” Rogic reminded the interviewer that “we’ve been top of the pile for the past decade.” And BBC Scotland’s Kenny McIntyre called Celtic’s 2-0 win over St Mirren’s blanket defence in March “a hard watch,” in the post-match interview with Postecoglou. “Maybe you were disappointed with the way it went, mate,” Celtic’s boss replied, knowing McIntyre had recently revealed, to no-one’s surprise, who he supported.

And Postecoglou was now on a media roll. In a mid-February interview with Australia’s superbly-Australian-named sport-streaming service, Stan Sport, he reflected on how “strongly” Celtic’s immigrant origins “resonated” with him, his family having emigrated to Australia from Greece when he was four, in 1970. Celtic “was formed to feed poor Irish immigrants,” he said, likening the club to Greek and Croatian clubs in Australia “set up in the same way.” It was clear that he genuinely “got Celtic,” which Celtic fans value hugely, and was substantively more impressive than even double-treble-winning Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers, and his “born into Celtic” schtick.

Two weeks after that interview, Celtic dropped points in a 0-0 draw at Hibernian. But when Radio 5 Live returned to Celtic in March, Ross County were blitzed. And the subsequent 7-0 win over St Johnstone was “Angeball” at its Ange-est. Celtic were thus six points ahead, having won at Ibrox and escaped punishment for the Hibs draw when Motherwell came from two-down to draw at Ibrox, hours later.

But media desperation continued. Keevins said Celtic could “blow this title” if they dropped points at Ross County last month. He could have based this on County’s unbeaten home record since Celtic’s December win there. Instead, he cited Celtic’s “inability to express themselves properly” in “the Highlands,” and a last-day title loss which “still sends shivers down the spine” of Celtic fans. Celtic have won 10 of their last 15 games at County. The title loss was in…2005. You’d call it wishful thinking by Keevins, had there been evidence of any thought.

Well, they didn’t blow it, which sucked for many. Hence Postecoglou being asked if Europa League success elsewhere diminished Celtic’s title triumph. To explain that question’s sheer fcukwittery, imagine Pep Guardiola being asked if Liverpool’s Champions League success would diminish a Manchester City title triumph. You’d learn the Catalan for “WTF sort of question is that?” pretty sharpish. Postecoglou rightly noted that “it adds to our achievements.” And when asked if others’ success showed “how well Scottish teams can do in Europe,” he noted that “there’s a trophy I can show you just down the road here, mate.”

Then Guardian newspaper golf correspondent, Ewan Murray sourly tweeted that Postecoglou’s achievements were not “extraordinary or a miracle,” despite writing last July that if 2021/22 didn’t end with “another championship canter” (let alone a win) for the defending champions, “Postecoglou will have performed an epic turnaround.” As Postecoglou COULD say but would have the grace not to: “Stick to golf…mate.”

Postecoglou’s success has masked Celtic’s off-field operational problems. Yet his biggest impact has been taking over player recruitment policy. Making former CEO Peter Lawwell’s son Mark head of recruitment was viewed as a nepotistic return to executive meddling. Yet Lawwell and Postecoglou have long worked well together. And but for his name, Lawwell’s appointment would be lauded.

Anyway. What a season, the title clinched as it was relinquished, with a draw at Dundee United. And what a final day. Thumping Motherwell six-nothing. A genuinely mutually tearful goodbye between departing legend Rogic and the fans, as he was substituted, after coming half-a-post away from a farewell goal. A note-perfect decision to let he and fellow departee Bitton carry the league trophy onto the pitch for the post-match presentation. Postecoglou’s continuing dignity in victory.

And Postecoglou’s biggest achievement? Getting Celtic fans, since February, singing Carpenters song “Top of the World,” in celebration, lyrics amended to: “We’re on the top of the league, looking down on the Rangers. And the only explanation we can find, is the form that we’ve found since Ange has been around, that has put us at the top of the league.” Another bloody title? Nah. Mate.