So, This Scottish “Title Race”, Then

“Was this a big game?” my Dad asked, as Celtic players and fans went varying degrees of nuts at Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park last Sunday after their last-gasp 1-0 win gave them an eight-point Scottish Premiership lead with 12 games left.

The correct answer was probably “not especially.” But it felt huge. Because when Rangers outplayed Celtic at Ibrox on December 29th, Scotland’s football media came in its pants over the first ‘real title race’ since 2011. Seven weeks later, it feels like they came too early.

When a dominant team’s dominance is threatened, it is genuine news. Especially when that threat manifests itself in a bitter rival’s first-ever win over them. This Rangers only beat Celtic on penalties in 2016’s Scottish Cup semi-final and had otherwise mixed plucky draws with hideous losses. So Rangers’ win, more convincing than 1-0 suggests, was news.

But Scotland’s football media couldn’t contain themselves. Going into the winter break which immediately followed, Celtic led on goal difference with a game in hand, which they won, having been sixth in late September. But cheers rang out for a ‘genuine’ title race, led by Andy Walker from Sky’s commentary box immediately after the Ibrox final whistle, like a long-suffering Copland Road stand regular.

And Rangers’ January signings, particularly ex-England striker Jermaine Defoe, made them title favourites for many (largely disregarding the madness of adding two TV money-inflated English Premier League salaries to an already financially-crippling wage bill). Especially as Celtic’s signings seemed designed for the future and largely failed to address their glaring defensive weaknesses.

Chris Sutton took time off from insisting that Australia didn’t need Tom Rogic to beat Jordan in the Asian Cup to tell Daily Record ‘newspaper’ readers on 5th January that “Rangers are favourites to win the league. The business done by the Ibrox club has put them in the box seat.” And he sunk the key issue in paragraph 94: “Goodness knows where they are finding the money but that’s (chairman) Dave King’s problem.” Whatever about Rangers or Celtic, Sutton had a rotten January.

Celtic’s home wins since Ibrox were largely expected. Just as Manchester United could have won new boss Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s first eight games with Jose bloody Mourinho still active, early-season Celtic could have overcome Airdrie, St Mirren, Hamilton, St Johnstone (twice) and Hibernian. Indeed, Hamilton and St Johnstone were both beaten 1-0 before Celtic hit top form with the 6-0 league win over St Johnstone on 7th October.

Which is why I tweeted “that felt important” after Celtic won at St Johnstone on 3rd February with two late goals after dominating the match. And why Sunday’s win at Kilmarnock WAS important and was celebrated as such by players and fans alike. Especially those who, in the wise tweeted words of the ‘Celtic Research’ account, had “seen this movie before.”

In 2015/16, there was a genuine title challenge, although it wasn’t trumpeted as such because it came from Aberdeen, not Rangers. Celtic visited Killie, on 19th March lunchtime, a point clear. It was 0-0 on 89 minutes and if that result stood and Aberdeen won at Motherwell that afternoon, the Dons would have gone top. Google “Rogic’s screamer against Killie” and hear the Celt imploring Rogic to “hit it, big man” for the pivotal moment’s pivotal moment. Aberdeen lost 2-1. Celtic won the league by 15 points.

In answering my Dad’s question, I cited Rangers and Aberdeen’s unexpected home draws 25 hours earlier, explaining the ‘title-race’ arithmetic and, because that didn’t feel like it explained everything, adding that Celtic had won every home league game this season (whatever their form) and would be champions if they won their remaining six or seven. THAT isn’t quite true. So, I concocted a phrase, ‘pour dispiriter les autres,’ to suggest that Rangers, Aberdeen AND Killie losing ground when Celtic had the toughest game would have a bigger psychological than arithmetical impact.

However, the title race is not over. Watching TV pics of luminous yellow-clad Celtic players cavorting on the Killie pitch in post-match celebration, I said to myself, “they think they’ve won the league.” And I’d seen versions of THAT movie before.

In 2000, Southport drew an FA Trophy quarter-final at Kingstonian and celebrated on the pitch as if they’d won the tie there and then. They had been the better side and knew it. But their reaction reignited the hope that Ks might punish their complacency and nick the replay. Ks did… and won (retained!!) the Trophy at Wembley two months later.

And Celtic have direct experience of teams losing titles from strong positions, the old Rangers ceding the 2008 title to them having led by seven points with seven games left. Celtic had and won two home games against Rangers in that time. And Rangers had a punishing run to the Uefa Cup final, for fixture schedulers AND fans (nine games, two wins, five goals). In 2019, Celtic have pulled a tactical masterstroke, avoiding a Euro-based fixture backlog by losing dismally to Valencia last week. Cough

But, unlike 2008, Celtic still have to visit Aberdeen and Rangers, thus playing Rangers home and away. After Rangers’ draw on Saturday, “born a blue nose” tweeted “we need to get all eight points in the two games against (Celtic).” And if Rangers did that… (I know, I know. But not everyone would be surprised if that tweet gave the SPFL an idea).

If Celtic’s lead is only eight points when the top six play each other at the season’s end, the title is NOT won. Current league positions would give Celtic home games with Killie, Hearts and St Johnstone, who they beat 5-1, 5-0 and 2-0 respectively in their first Celtic Park league meetings (and St Johnstone lost 5-0 there, in the Scottish Cup on 10th February). That would push Celtic over the line, just.

However, Motherwell would replace St Johnstone on current form. And away to Motherwell would be a tougher prospect than Saints at home. Celtic only drew there 1-1 on 5th December, conceding on 88 minutes having dominated for 87, two dropped points which still feel important. Oh… and Celtic host that wonderfully in-form Motherwell on Sunday.

The upshot of this article-as-therapy-session is that Celtic should win their eighth title in-a-row after Sunday. Hence the wild and (mostly) wonderful celebrations of a fluke late winner of a turgid game, with kids of all ages leaping from the stand like Rangers fans celebrating their first-ever Europa League qualification and the chance to lose on aggregate to Luxembourg’s fourth-best team, with a late winner at Partick Thistle.

(This point was woefully missed by Guardian newspaper golf correspondent, Ewan Murray, whose football musings regularly feel written by a… well… golf correspondent. He tweeted: “Celtic’s financial year of 2018 saw wages and salaries of £52.5m,” as if a financial year has eyes, while “Kilmarnock’s was £2.8m. Old Firm fans aren’t famed for perspective with good reason.” Another reminder that Scottish football journalists “aren’t famed” for not being sh*t. “With good reason.”)

But “should” isn’t “will.” To paraphrase, if the Killie celebrations looked like title celebrations and sounded like title celebrations, they probably were title celebrations. So maybe this WAS a big game, after all. Just not, yet, THAT big.