Even before the champagne corks were popped at Parkhead last weekend, the snide fraternity were busily claiming that Celtic’s SPL title was devalued because of the absence of Rangers. It’s an obvious, if simplistic, point to make but some critics have been taking a little too much glee in writing off the achievements of Neil Lennon’s men.
One could easily speculate on the personal agendas of those leaping with the verve of Olympic long-jumpers onto the ‘worthless title’ bandwagon, but instead let’s look beyond knee-jerk perceptions and examine the reality of Celtic’s domestic campaign.
Having lost six and drawn six of 34 games played at the time of writing, the maximum points total Celtic can achieve this season is 84. That would equal the lowest winning total in the history of the SPL. That doesn’t paint a picture of a giant on horseback cantering through a field of pigmies, lopping off heads with effortless disdain. Rather it suggests something more of a battle than many anticipated. Of course, there are several factors involved here.
The successful Champions’ League campaign was a major drain on the Hoops. The results against the likes of Barcelona and Spartak Moscow were achieved in large part through force of will, and lung-busting, energy-sapping dedication to the cause. It was no surprise that domestic results immediately after European games were not always perfect, but Celtic deserve respect for handling Europe while largely getting the job done on the home front, not berating for dropping a few points after Champions League ties. Interestingly, the previous lowest winning points total was achieved by another Celtic team; Gordon Strachan’s side of 2007 who were also battling their way through to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Complacency was an accusation thrown at Lennon’s troops, especially in the first half of the season, when the majority of league points were dropped. There’s strong circumstantial evidence to support this view but any such discussion necessarily involves looking at the bigger picture and considering the psychological impact of events across the city. Celtic are used to being weighed directly against their ancient rivals. It didn’t matter what team was in front of them on the park; they were always effectively playing Rangers, week in week out. Points dropped meant giving ground to the other mob, so a Celtic defeat to Inverness or St Mirren was effectively a win for Rangers. Big teams in other leagues aren’t expected to win the league every year, but in the traditional two-horse race of Scotland, not winning is a double-whammy. Not only did you not win the league, but the other lot did. Therefore second place is simply not acceptable. That’s a pressure-cooker environment and one that breeds a certain kind of siege mentality. Take that away, and players have to adjust. All of a sudden, a one-off defeat isn’t the end of the world because there is, potentially, a little breathing space. For players and staff used to being wound-up to snapping point each and every week, that’s a difficult mental adjustment to make. If you’re going to have a go at the players for being complacent, you also have credit them for sorting their heads out and mostly getting their act together when league business got serious around Christmas time.
Let’s consider the opposition for a moment as well. Yes, there actually was some, for all that some parties have overlooked the fact. Of course, nobody in the SPL can compete with Celtic’s wage structure so they’re always going to have a significantly better playing squad. But, despite the nation’s well-documented financial problems, there are signs of improvement. While traditional forces like Hearts and Hibs may have struggled, others have thrived. Looking north, for example, Highland football is very much on the up. Inverness look set for a top three finish to ice an incredible cake that’s seen them soar through every tier of Scottish football. Ross County have been hot on their heels and acquitted themselves with distinction in the top flight. Meanwhile, St Johnstone have defied the odds again; Dundee United, with fine young talent like Johnny Russell and Gary Mackay-Steven, and the confident and ambitious presence of new manager Jackie McNamara, look reinvigorated. Motherwell have upheld their status as the biggest player outwith the former Old Firm.
Competition was also increased since the other teams had more to play for this season. The absence of Rangers gives teams a chance to aspire to a higher level and opens the European door to more of them. There’s also the argument that smaller sides who have traditionally struggled to take points off Rangers in their four annual league meetings are now advantaged by their absence. Abstractly, they now effectively have a ‘head start’ on Celtic of up to twelve points.
Of course, it’d be ludicrous hyperbole to suggest that there was genuine competition for the title this season or to claim that the league win is a glorious triumph for Celtic. However, those who said before a ball was kicked that the title would be wrapped up by January were always living on Fantasy Island. Yet those same voices are again given airtime to decry Celtic’s eventual victory.
And why single Celtic out? In the self-proclaimed ‘best league in the world’ (sic), Manchester United’s lead is greater than Celtic’s. Chelsea is an ongoing pantomime, Mancini has proved unable to control the talents of his overpaid prima donnas, and there isn’t really anyone else. It’s all a matter of scale of course, but nobody is trying to undermine Sir Alex’s latest triumph with cries of “no competition.”
Ultimately, Celtic kept their heads while all around were losing theirs (in Rangers’ case, literally) and they got the job done. Not only that, but they admirably flew the flag for Scotland in Europe while others set the nation back through greed and self-interest. With fresh intrigue and scandal surrounding the Rangers Newco on an almost daily basis, and share prices dropping through the floor, there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of them competing for top-flight titles any time in the foreseeable future, so the sands of Scottish football have to shift. This is the beginning of a long process, one in which Celtic have successfully played their part, along with some others. So let’s give them a break from negativity and let the Bhoys celebrate a (fairly) hard-won and well-deserved title.
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