Celtic’s Troubled Quadruple Treble

by | Dec 26, 2020

That noise you heard just before five o’clock last Sunday afternoon was me, letting out a “yes…f***ing YES!” when Kristoffer Ajer’s shoot-out penalty kick secured Celtic’s “quadruple treble,” a domestic clean sweep of Scottish League, League Cup and Scottish Cup for the fourth consecutive season.

After that expletive deletive, however, I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate much. Celtic may have taken domestic football dominance to historic levels. But in season 2019/20, they also took falling over the line to historic depths.

Their League Cup final win was underpinned by Fraser Forster’s goalkeeping but assisted by profligate opponents and decided by an offside goal, Celtic’s best move being scorer Christopher Jullien’s celebratory 360-degree pirouette on his knees. Their league title was not reasonably disputed but was unsatisfactorily won in a curtailed season and assisted by a post-Christmas collapse in their only competitor’s form. And the Scottish Cup triumph? Where to start?

Celtic completed their “treble,” in May 2019, with a narrow Scottish Cup final win over Sunday’s opponents, Heart of Midlothian. Although the win secured the permanent manager’s job for the then-temporary boss Neil Lennon, Celtic played scrappily and striker Odsonne Edouard’s 82nd-minute winner was assisted by a gap in Hearts’ central defence wider than the River Clyde in Glasgow city centre. But Celtic’s 2019 struggles were dwarfed by Sunday’s huff-and-puff through the second half of normal time and throughout extra-time.

These were all-the-more amazing because of Celtic’s first-half display. “Bad first touch,” I shouted at my computer screen, as Ryan Christie gathered possession, 20 yards out, on 19 minutes. “Good second one, though,” I added, as Christie’s shot whizzed past Hearts and (double-treble-winning) former Celtic keeper Craig Gordon. Thus inspired, Celtic clicked into full forward gear, and ten minutes later, Edouard added a “Pannenka” penalty, to which the outsmarted Gordon’s response was to fling the ball, hard, towards the celebrating Frenchman.

Remarkably, Gordon’s response to Edouard’s skill wasn’t the sourest. On BBC Radio Scotland’s Sportsound, Neil McCann excused Gordon’s petulance by calling the penalty “pretty disrespectful” and “selfish.” He “didn’t like it.” Not “because Celtic have gone two-nil up,” he protested too much methinks, but because, he added, getting his tenses tangled, “that’s his team-mate.” McCann can be an articulate, insightful pundit. But when analysing Celtic he is invariably a cock. This is not thought co-incidental.

There were signs of Celtic’s now trademark defensive frailties in that first half. A minute before Christie’s strike, Celtic’s young Irish keeper, and soon-to-be-hero-of-the-hour(s), Conor Hazard rushed head-strongly out of his penalty area to fail to clear a through ball which Hearts striker Steven Naismith prodded wide of the newly-gaping goal. Mohamed Elyounoussi’s ill-advised back header towards Hazard was nearly an assist for a Liam Boyce goal.

And the confidence Celtic gleaned from their goals threatened to crossover into arrogance. Captain Scott Brown began showboating on the ball and strutting about the pitch, which might have been safe in second-half stoppage-time but not before half-time. I mean, Brown has SEEN Celtic’s defending this season. He’s had a front-row view many times and has been part of the collective problem more than once.

Celtic’s first-half swagger on the ball also seemed to erase shite defending from the BBC Scotland telly pundits’ memory banks. Former Celtic treble-winning boss Martin O’Neill hadn’t even “seen much of Ryan Christie,” so he had an excuse. Not so the others. Handy, then, that reminders were soon available, Celtic taking three minutes to concede “that all-important” third goal of the match. Scorer Boyce was stood seven yards out from, and bang in front of, goal as Hearts worked the ball into a crossing position, yet he wasn’t marked at any stage. No-one even stood next to him before he headed neatly home.

Suddenly, Celtic were a shambles. Yet they got away with the worst shamble, as Hazard saved Jullien and Shane Duffy’s skins after an impromptu game of “after you, Claude” on 66 minutes. Had you seen two stereotypically hungover centre-backs do that during a Sunday morning park game, you’d have laughed (inwardly, Sunday morning park centre-backs tend to be big units). During a Sunday afternoon HAMPDEN Park game? Not so fcuking funny. Fortunately, Hearts sub Josh Ginnelly was just off the bench and needed the “sighter.” Unfortunately, the sighter would prove valuable. And only six minutes later Hazard flapped at a corner and Stephen Kingsley equalised.

The still image of the goal on the BBC website showed six Celtic defenders in various states of bemused paralysis on the edge of the six-yard box as Kingsley somehow snuck in behind them to head home, with Christie trying to shoulder the ball to safety and Brown doing a deft Tiller Girl impression on the line (ask your parents). Still, at least Celtic wouldn’t dare leave Kingsley un-marked at the back post again. Cough.

In the midst of this carnage, Edouard could have scored twice and should have scored at least once. The first chance arrived in the attack immediately following Boyce’s goal. And Celtic would not have thrown a 3-1 lead awa…no, I’ll stop there. As it was, Hearts players began cramping up towards the end of normal time. Which suggested that Celtic’s Premiership players would last the extra-time pace better than Hearts’ Championship ones, albeit that Hearts look likely to dominate said Championship.

However, extra-time regurgitated another old Celtic/Lennon issue. In 2014, Lennon’s newly-appointed successor as Celtic boss, Norwegian Ronny Deila, was quickly and highly critical of the physical fitness of the squad he inherited. Celtic’s labouring and lumbering around the Hampden pitch in the early stages of extra-time on Sunday were powerful reminders of these criticisms.

Duffy was, and has been, a prime example of this. He looked a yard short of pace as he struggled for Ireland in their September Uefa Nations League games. Since then, at Celtic, he seems to be a yard shorter still. But what do I know? I tweeted that I couldn’t “see Scott Brown making a positive impact in extra-time.” But Brown won the header from a corner, which substitute and regular Hearts-skelper Leigh Griffiths turned into the roof of the net to make it 3-2, an ex-Hibs duo doing a job on Hibs’ city rivals.

Brown’s goal celebrations amounted to ugly taunting of former and in-game adversary Naismith, for which he might have been sanctioned had an alert Christie not hauled him away from the confrontation he seemed desperate to provoke. That said, Naismith’s behaviour all match was at best no better and at worst, violent conduct. But it was Brown’s leg on which he stamped, and Brown’s face which he slapped. So Scotland’s football authorities didn’t give a monkeys.

“Now all Celtic have to do is hold on for…you know the rest,” I tweeted, as extra-time’s second half began. We knew alright. Another free-kick conceded in the final third. Hazard looking nominatively determined as he flapped at the cross. Kingsley unmarked at the back post again. And his header across goal slaloming between Celtic defenders before Ginnelly slammed the ball into the net.

Sub Tom Rogic’s increasing influence drew inevitable, and painful, comparisons with 2017’s Scottish Cup final. Then, Rogic’s stoppage-time lung-busting run and neat near-post finish clinched the first of Celtic’s quadruple trebles, after the fitness of Brendan Rodgers’ team wore Aberdeen down and made a winner seem a matter of time. Now, neither Rogic nor Celtic’s fitness were up to that. And, close though Rogic came with a 119th-minute shot, it wasn’t clear by then which side wanted penalties more.

Hearts were probably shoot-out favourites, with by far the more experienced keeper and Celtic’s regular penalty taker, Edouard, subbed after Lennon’s allergy to fielding two strikers didn’t respond to treatment in time. Luckily, sub striker Griffiths kicks a mean spot, and did so here, Hazard saved Kingsley’s kick after Gordon had aerodynamically turned aside Christie’s effort, and Celtic had a Craig Whyte to rely on. Well, Craig WightON, whose penalty was the shoot-out’s worst and was easily saved by Hazard, giving Ajer his shot at history.

The pre-match hope, and attempted post-match narrative, was that the quadruple treble could salvage Celtic’s season, however it was clinched. But BBC match commentator Liam Miller’s suggestion that “the fact that they surrendered a two-nothing lead” would “not matter a jot” if they won the Cup was untrue. No “corners” were “turned” on Sunday. Indeed, Celtic were ineffectual (polite term) from corners at both ends. Only the desperate would consider a shoot-out win over second-tier leaders a significant achievement for top-flight high-flyers. Its significance was in historical context alone, because, for much of Sunday, Celtic were very desperate indeed.

This may all sound churlish, given this historic significance. But untrammeled celebration is easily-found elsewhere. And the quadruple treble is already history, which may repeat itself if two clubs remain so unhealthily ahead of the rest of Scottish club football; trebles were harder and better won in decades when five teams were champions, such as the 1960s…even the “Lisbon Lions” only won two.

I called the third treble a “sad indictment of Scottish club football” as Celtic won it unimpressively. The fourth wasn’t hugely better. Ross County have already extinguished prospects of a quintuple treble. And though Celtic exacted arithmetically precise revenge for that League Cup loss as I typed these closing paragraphs, they are comfortably Scotland’s second-best just now, with the historically even more significant Scottish title “ten-in-a-row” becoming a more distant prospect by the week.

Well done all concerned for the past four seasons, even (especially?) Brendan Rodgers. “Yes…fcuking YES!” indeed. But Sunday was horrible. And the quadruple treble needs parking.