It is an evening I’ll never forget. I even remember the scorer, Kim Connett, and have a clear-ish picture of the glancing header he netted, despite having no real reason to remember either…or the rest of the season, other than Ks reaching their highest Premier Division position since 1973. They clinched that the same day Celtic ‘stole’ the Scottish Premier League title (Hearts led the league from mid-December until losing 2-0 at Dundee on that final day while Celtic beat St. Mirren 5-0 to finish top on goal difference).
Celtic were in larcenous mood again on Sunday, beating Rangers 1-0 in a Scottish League Cup final which resembled that Worthing game. Sunday’s victory was all-the-more remarkable because Celtic were not only out-everything’d for 92 minutes but also outnumbered for the final 33, after 18-year-old right-back Jeremie Frimpong saw red for flattening Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos as the Colombian was about to shoot.
Morelos missed the penalty, after the normal spot-kicker James Tavernier ceded the role, reportedly so Morelos could “win” the game and increase his potential transfer value to Rangers, as their finances require. Thus, Celtic’s win could only have been funnier if centre-back Christopher Jullien was offside when he side-footed home Ryan Christie’s 60th-minute free-ki…wait, what? Oh, my sides…
Celtic’s best bits were off-field. Jullien’s sliding goal celebration, ending with a graceful, “how did he do that?” 180-degree swivel, which looked especially classy after Scott Brown nearly did himself a mischief sliding to celebrate his late winner against Hamilton four days earlier. And the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the now-19-year-old Frimpong’s BBC post-match interview, where he surely instigated a terrace song with his “oh my days” mantra.
The Scottish season’s narrative is how Rangers are “back” and how wonderful it is to have a title race and an ‘Old Firm’ cup final again. As I’ve noted before, a ‘real’ Scottish title race must include Rangers. And, apparently, cup finals aren’t real unless they are ‘Old Firm’ finals. Aberdeen being Celtic’s main challengers just didn’t wash with Scotland’s football media. The terrific Hibernian/Rangers (2016) and Celtic/Aberdeen (2017) cup finals were lesser occasions for their lack of Old Firmness. And the Rangers are ‘back’ narrative apparently included them winning on Sunday. Whoops.
This is the best-ever new Rangers side (as it should be, the overspending that’s built it). And they proved that as conclusively on Sunday as they could have done without winning. They were ‘back’ last December, of course, when there was a title race again in Scotland after they beat Celtic 1-0 at home to go into the Scottish Premiership’s mid-winter break behind Celtic on goal difference, having played one game more. But the second half of last season screwed THAT narrative.
Rangers’ dominance on Sunday naturally altered perspectives. But it was still disconcerting that so much was said about a final being “lost.” Neutral observers might have wondered if anyone actually ‘won’ it, let alone clinched their tenth consecutive Scottish trophy in the process. BT Sport’s match commentator, Rory Hamilton, even greeted the final whistle with “It’s not your time yet, Rangers.”
Such focus on the losers happens in international match commentaries when national broadcasters have non-neutral audiences. “England are out of the World Cup,” John Motson calmly intoned when Chris Waddle skied THAT penalty in 1990. But it would have been odd if Kenneth Wolstenholme had said it was “all over for West Germany” when “some people were on the pitch” at Wembley in 1966. And even in 1973’s one-sided FA Cup Final, David Coleman preferred “Sunderland have won the Cup from the second division” to “It’s not your time, Leeds.”
On Sunday, Tom English’s BBC website match report focussed so heavily on “seizing the final by the throat” with “aggression,” “energy” “desire” and “intelligence” as Celtic “crumbled” that even I was disappointed in Rangers when I subsequently saw the game. And after paragraphs of such gush, English declared nonsensically that “to say Rangers were dominant in the opening half would be the understatement of the season.”
English was also able to focus, possibly for the first time, on how sh*te Scottish match officials are: “Three men offside and yet Willie Collum and his officials said the goal was good,” he declared, his pain oozing from the page. The Daily Record ‘newspaper’s’ Keith Jackson was, almost, a relative voice of reason here, noting that Jullien’s “big toe” was offside while English had the distance at three complete feet (“a yard offside”).
But even Jackson majored on Morelos “losing” the final. Imagine such a response after a big English game. Much was written about Manchester City when they lost 3-1 at Anfield last month. But City won a domestic treble last year, so defeat was worthy of focus. Celtic did too…AND won on Sunday. Yet Scottish media focus was more, sometimes predominantly, on Rangers. And however big an “understatement” dominant is, the winners should always be that focus.
Jackson’s focus was harsh (even if the Colombian’s penalty was sh*te). On Sunday, Morelos hit the target six times with 11 shots, one off-target shot seemed to be cleared off the line by the line itself, his stoppage-time effort from a tight angle was a proverbial whisker away. And the description of all these as “misses” was enormously unfair on Celtic keeper Fraser Forster, who made three fine saves and three bloody brilliant ones in a man-of-the-match display.
However, the Celtic narrative was flawed too, in its over-confidence. Pre-match, you could read about “Sevco” being “roundly beaten on Sunday,” “handing out another skelping to the hapless NewCo” and “the fear wafting out of Ibrox already.” Yet, even after a match which dispelled all that, “the reality” was that Rangers “aren’t anywhere near Celtic when the going gets tough.”
The league table tells a different story about how “anywhere near” Rangers are. The correctly-perceived wisdom is that league tables only become accurate form guides after ten games. And after 15 games, Celtic lead Rangers by two points. Celtic have the edge in Europe, too, surprisingly well though Rangers have done there. Celtic currently have five more Europa League points, a-point-a-game, in a group which is not a-point-a-game easier. But it IS only an “edge” just now.
I noted Rangers’ league lead after Celtic’s 2-0 loss at Livingston and was told to wait for Rangers to play on the Tony Macaroni Ground’s poor plastic pitch. I waited. They WON 2-0. Then there is the sniffy dismissal of the “Morelos or Odsonne Edouard” debate. Celtic’s striker will be the better player when the age gap matters less than it does at 21 and 23. But there is little between them, just now. Yet this confidence comes from writers who otherwise write with admirable insight and candour on Celtic, and Rangers’ woeful finances, dreadful directors called Dave and supremacist fanbase.
A view is also forming that the fact AND manner of Sunday’s defeat will deal Rangers a “crushing psychological blow.” Placed alongside Tavernier’s melancholic Rangers TV post-match interview, this view has merit. But I would guard against Celtic relying on it. Indeed, such a defeat should hugely motivate Rangers’ for their league visit to Celtic on 29th December.
Somebody will remind Rangers that they played well and only lost to an offside goal. That somebody, of course, will be every Scottish media outlet, every day for the rest of the bloody month. This has already begun with the reports of Rangers manager Steven Gerrard “knowing” that “the officials up here need some help,” a point he made forcefully after Rangers were awarded four penalties in one match last seas…oh…wait, no, he didn’t.
However, I must note here that the most ridiculous take came from England’s Adrian Durham, surely not the first such event. His take on/away from Celtic’s triumph was that “Southampton have just won the Cup for Celtic,” as Forster is on-loan from the Saints, who “are paying more than half” his £70,000-per-week wage.
“That’s blatant cheating, isn’t it?” Durham asked, momentarily forgetting the very existence of football’s loan system and the Premier League-waged loanee status of Rangers’ Jermaine Defoe. “It’s an absolute disgrace, Southampton are funding Celtic’s season,” he continued, as his Talksport Radio studio colleague, former England cricketer Darren Gough, echoed the uncontrollable laughter of a nation.
And before anyone could accuse Durham of serious analysis of the loan system, he revealed his real gripe. “It doesn’t feel right when you consider that Rangers’ finances were scrutinised and they were sent down to the fourth-tier of Scottish football…maybe rightly so they were punished in that way,” he said, eschewing facts and relevance entirely, before dictionary-defining irony by moaning that Celtic “can’t afford to pay his wages, so what’s he doing in the team?” after years of unaffordable old and new Rangers wage bills.
“That to me feels like blatant cheating,” he reminded us. “According to the rules, it isn’t. But does that sit well with everybody? Sorry. If you disagree with that, you know where I am.” We knew. He was on the “Talksport Drive” show. Someone missed out an “L” there.
The best analogy was unintentional. Amid the usual guff on Rangers’ having “caught up now,” ex-Scottish Premier League CEO Roger Mitchell called the “next 18 months” their “Battle of the Bulge.” He meant it positively (“its game on, Gerrard has done a great job”). But the battle was Hitler’s ruinous last gamble in World War Two. As one wag (me) tweeted: “Rangers have overstretched their resources wildly to (nearly) catch up and might be in huge trouble if the fog clears” (Germany advanced under fog but suffered under air bombardment when it cleared).
This year’s race for Scottish honours is tight. In recent years, there have been consistently serious challengers in individual fixtures, if not often over whole seasons. This year, Aberdeen are stagnant, Killie miss manager Steve Clark, Hearts are irretrievably appalling and no-one else has fully emerged from the pack. Which considerably slims the chances of Celtic or Rangers dropping points to anyone but each other. So, Celtic can barely afford to be as sh*te again as they were on Sunday.
I laughed all the way home from Worthing in 1985, as football fans do after such wins. On Sunday, I was already at home…but laughed anyway. Because Rangers were on the arse-end of all the ill-luck and bad officiating from which they have benefitted countlessly over history. And you’d need a heart of stone, or Scottish media accreditation, not to laugh at that.