The modern history of Scottish football is littered with thrilling climaxes to the Premier League championship. Many times over the last decade, Celtic and Rangers fans approached the last day of the season with identical levels of excitement and apprehension, as their respective clubs battled to the death for supremacy in a two horse race.
However, the liquidation of the Ibrox club in 2012 altered the footballing landscape in Scotland forever. As a consequence, Celtic supporters are invited ad nauseum by commentators in this country to quantify recent achievements in light of their city rivals disappearance. It is an exercise in futility – as the old saying goes you can only beat what is in front of you – but the notion that Neil Lennon’s accomplishment of winning three consecutive titles is in some way diminished, shines a light on perceptions of the Scottish game in some quarters.
As Celtic wrapped up the title with a 5-1 victory over Partick Thistle, the idea that Celtic merely have to send eleven men on to the pitch 38 times a season to claim the league flag reared its head again, threatening to over ride any sort of objective analysis of their season.
This narrative also undermines the improvements made over the last twelve months by teams such as Aberdeen and Dundee United, both of whom are experiencing a rebirth of sorts. The truth is that Celtic’s consistency of performance improved dramatically in 2013/14, though the illusion of domestic invincibility was punctured with defeats in both cup competitions.
On almost every possible indicator in the league, Celtic are infinitely better than they were last season. Defeated only once with seven matches remaining and on course for 100 points, they have demonstrated greater power, focus and attacking intent than in 2012/13, despite losing £20m worth of talent in Wanyama, Hooper and Wilson.
Virgil van Dijk, recruited from Groningen looks destined for the top echelons of the game, while the acquisition of Leigh Griffiths has brought energy, determination and goals to the frontline. A surprising by product of Griffiths’ arrival has been the transformation of Anthony Stokes from a decent No 9, into a perceptive and threatening second striker.
Scott Brown is in the form of his career for club and country while Kris Commons is rapidly emerging as a pivotal figure in Celtics recent history owing to his extraordinary goal scoring exploits; the diminutive midfielder has 26 goals already in this campaign.
Fraser Forster has broken into the England squad and has a chance of claiming a seat on the plane to Brazil courtesy of his record breaking domestic form and some eye catching displays in Europe, while the contributions made by the likes of Mulgrew, Lustig, Ambrose and Izzaguire cannot be neglected or trivialised either.
Of course, any retelling of Celtic’s season would be incomplete without reference to the various disappointments in domestic and European cup competitions. A collective inertia enveloped the team in February when Derek McInnes’ resurgent Aberdeen deservedly knocked them out of the Scottish Cup at Celtic Park, after Morton had caused the upset of the season, winning 1-0 in the League Cup.
These results swell the consensus that Neil Lennon has underachieved in domestic cups. Undoubtedly, he has, but he is also in a no win situation. Can those bemoaning the lack of competition – while at the same time criticising the manager – not see the inherent contradiction in holding both positions simultaneously? Occasionally, lesser teams play better and win on the day – Celtic’s victory over Barcelona last year is the perfect example.
In the ruthless glare of the Champions League this season, Celtic came up short in the group stages. A lengthy qualification process secured the prize of six glamour fixtures with Ajax, Barcelona and Milan. While they performed well at home to Ajax and Barcelona, results were disappointing overall. Nevertheless, the continued exposure at this rarefied level will only nourish the managers tactical acumen and improve the players immensely for next season.
Of secondary importance to on field matters was the financial gains made through Champions League participation. As Scotland’s sole representatives, CL qualification is worth around £20m and it is reasonable to suggest a significant proportion of this must be reinvested in the squad in the summer, to ensure continued competitive involvement at the elite European level.
What next for Celtic and Neil Lennon?
The prevailing mood among Celtic fans appears to be one of quiet satisfaction and while matchday crowds are down on last season, CEO Peter Lawell was quick to point out this week that Celtic still have the third highest number of season ticket holders in the UK.
Supporters will hope for a strong showing in the Champions League group stages culminating in last sixteen qualification or a run to the latter stages of the Europa League. Qualification is by no means guaranteed however due to Scotlands comparatively low co-efficient and Lennon will be preparing for this process already.
Domestically, Celtic will be near certainties to win the league again. The concept of ten-in-a-row will mean little to readers outwith Scotland but to football fans in the West of Scotland it is a loaded phrase. Both Glasgow clubs have achieved nine consecutive titles and unless Aberdeen or Dundee United can take their impressive renaissance to some unimaginable level, Celtic could be on course to surpass that mark by 2020.
Still only 42, Neil Lennon has never hidden his ambition to manage at the very top level but the opportunity to create an epoch defining team, while continuing to progress in Europe – not to mention remedying his recent record in the cups – is likely to be enough to maintain his drive and enthusiasm over the coming years at Celtic.
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