When, with five games of the 2015/16 campaign remaining, Celtic announced that Ronny Deila would be leaving his role as the club’s manager at the end of that season, many out of work coaches would have been licking their lips at potentially taking on a job that on paper looked an easy one. The league title virtually guaranteed, the opportunity to manage in the Champions League and the biggest budget in Scotland by some way.
Yet they only needed to look at the reign of the Norwegian boss to see that it wasn’t that simple. Despite winning the league and cup double in 2014/15 and then the title again in 2015/16, he had failed to take The Bhoys past the Champions League play-off round in either of his two campaigns and the confirmation of his departure was preceded by a Scottish Cup exit to Old Firm rivals Rangers. At a home game against Ross County, fans held up a banner that read “Empty jerseys, empty hearts, empty dreams, empty stands”, whilst it seemed as though the board were concerned by a lack of progress.
Despite being advised against it, Brendan Rodgers took the job in May 2016, determined to bring about that sought after progress and also rebuild his own reputation following a dismal end to his time at the helm of Liverpool seven months previously. A year and a half later and portions of the Celtic fanbase are calling this the best time to watch the club since the legendary Jock Stein’s spell in charge between 1965-78 that brought 31 trophies – including 10 league titles and the European Cup.
With records tumbling and statistics being smashed, they’ve got a pretty good case. Last season, Celtic won the Scottish Premiership with a record 106 points, becoming the first side north of the border to complete a top-flight season undefeated since 1899. They joined only Arsenal (2003-04) and Juventus (2011-12) in being unbeaten over a 38-game league season. Success in both the Scottish League Cup and Scottish Cup meant that they achieved a domestic treble for the fourth time in their history.
Their invincible streak has continued into the current campaign, with a 2-0 win over St Johnstone last weekend seeing them break an 100-year-old British record for going 63 domestic matches (56 wins and seven draws) without losing. It’s a staggering and incredible achievement, but one that is being dismissed by many because of the Scottish league’s supposed ‘Mickey Mouse’ status.
Unlike many Englishmen, I find this a naive and ill-informed comment as well as quite frankly insulting to Celtic. Whilst they undoubtedly do have a monopoly on the division and many of their weekly opponents would probably slot in somewhere in League One or Two south of the border, to go on such a run that ends a century long record takes some doing. Whatever country you’re playing in, whoever you’re opposition is.
Sure, Celtic have dominated the Scottish Premier League since Rangers were liquidated in 2012, but they’ve never been this good. They have never bettered the 34 league wins and 106 points they achieved last season. Not since the 60s have they scored more than last season’s tally of 106 goals in a league campaign. Would they, or anyone, achieve that in England? Definitely not. Is it ‘easy’ to do in Scotland? Definitely not.
The main reason for this is that when you’re on a long unbeaten streak and facing much weaker opposition, it is so easy for complacency to set in. How often have we seen bigger sides in the Premier League get beaten by teams that they should be winning against simply because they’ve underestimated them? Already in 2017/18, champions Chelsea have suffered shock defeats to Burnley and Crystal Palace, whilst Huddersfield pulled off an upset against a Manchester United team unbeaten up until their visit to Yorkshire. As well as being strong on the pitch, the Celtic squad also clearly have a very powerful psyche.
It’s not just their record-breaking feats that are receiving plaudits, but their approach and philosophy as well. Rodgers has attracted hugely promising youngsters Patrick Roberts (on loan) and Moussa Dembele to the club from Manchester City and Fulham respectively, despite interest from several English sides. In addition, he’s bringing through a seemingly endless crop of players from the club’s own academy. 20 year old defender Kieran Tierney (who signed a new six year contract last week) is the poster boy, and has now established himself as first choice for the Scottish national team.
In addition, this season opportunities have been given to graduates Anthony Ralston (18), Mikey Johnston (18), Calvin Miller (19) and Liam Henderson (21), whilst fellow academy product Callum McGregor (24) has really come into his own under Rodgers. Completing the Scottish nucleus of the squad are vastly experienced pair Craig Gordon and Scott Brown, as well as Stuart Armstrong, Leigh Griffiths and James Forrest, three stand-out attackers in the primes of their career. Belgian defender Dedryck Boyata and English winger Scott Sinclair, both denied the opportunity to develop at Manchester City, have chosen the right place to kick-start their careers and are rightly earning significant praise.
It is refreshing therefore to see how Rodgers has built this impressive squad with a Scottish core and without splashing out on big names or egos. The most he has spent on one player since arriving at Parkhead was £4.5 million on Olivier Ntcham from Manchester City, a figure that all 20 Premier League clubs surpassed this summer and one that falls as low as sixth on the list of Celtic’s all-time transfers.
Of course, question marks will remain over the club’s Champions League performance, with 5-0 and 3-0 defeats to PSG and Bayern Munich respectively this term following on from a 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Barcelona last year. Ultimately though, no one is expecting The Bhoys to match those three European giants – very few teams can. A pair of draws against Manchester City in 2016/17 and a narrow 2-1 defeat to Bayern last week do represent some improvement under Rodgers, whilst they are on course to qualify for the knockout stage of the Europa League this season. It will only be the third time in the last 10 years that they’ll have reached the second round of a continental competition.
Cynics, particularly Englishmen, will continue to write off Celtic’s achievements. But with Rodgers being linked to the top jobs in England and many fans suggesting that this is the best Bhoys team they have ever seen, it’s time to sit up and take notice of some truly special football going on in Glasgow.