NO-ONE could have blamed Brendan Rodgers if he had adopted a scattergun approach in his criticism of Celtic’s blundering players on the afternoon of December 17 2017 at Tynecastle.
The stunned manager had just witnessed his team produce a mind-numbing, truly awful display as he sampled defeat to Scottish opposition for the first time since easing gracefully into the Parkhead dug-out in a seamless takeover from Ronny Deila in May the previous year.
The Hoops had rampaged through his momentous and intoxicating debut campaign on their way to claiming all three domestic honours to emerge unbeaten and unscathed following a historic crusade that earned them the title of The Invincibles.
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT…Brendan Rodgers acknowledges the Celtic fans after the team’s dramatic 4-0 loss at Tynecastle in December 2017.
It was a mantle well merited as the players dismantled their ill-equipped adversaries in routine fashion on their relentless pursuit of a date with destiny in the club’s Hall of Fame.
They had gone SIXTY-NINE encounters without defeat on the day they turned up in the capital to take on Craig Levein’s Hearts.
What happened next defies description. Some of the occupants of the green-and-white hooped jersey looked as competent as a one-legged tap dancer as they failed miserably to make their undoubted superiority tell against a team that completed the term in sixth place, 33 points adrift of the champions while losing 13 of their 38 games.
Rodgers’ men may have had 53% of possession that Sunday, but, by the 48th minute, they were three goals adrift as the swashbuckling odyssey was coming to a shattering and inexplicable conclusion.
The visitors were 2-0 down by half-time, the hosts gratefully snapping up errors from the normally-reliable duo of Kieran Tierney and Callum McGregor.
Three minutes after the turnaround it was Jozo Simunovic’s turn to look as though he had taken up football as a hobby a couple of hours before kick-off. The defender didn’t so much as fall asleep as lapse into a coma when a hopeful punt forward landed practically at his feet. Inevitably, Hearts capitalised on the gift and it was game over.
SUMMIT MEETING…Brendan Rodgers has a word with his crestfallen players after the shattering reverse.
Rodgers had thrown on Moussa Dembele and Stuart Armstrong for Tierney and Olivier Ntcham at half-time to add a goal threat and creativity to the dithering line-up.
But, in one moment of utter carelessness from Simunovic, we all knew it was going to be the end of something wonderful. Fourteen minutes from time, Craig Gordon was the culprit when he dived recklessly at the feet of Ross Callachan, inviting the Hearts man to go to ground in anticipated exaggerated fashion.
Willie Collum pointed to the spot and David Milinkovic slotted the ball home from 12 yards to seal the Edinburgh club’s biggest win over Celtic since 1895.
Rodgers had just watched his side capitulate in the most embarrassing and humiliating fashion. Trusted members of his all-conquering squad had mysteriously failed to show during a feeble performance on a miserable afternoon.
Onlookers would no doubt have been intrigued to discover how the Irishman would react to such a lamentable presentation from his players as their exceptional sequence of results brutally hit the buffers against mediocre rivals.
LET’S STICK TOGETHER…the Celtic players and boss join in an impromptu huddle.
Stern-faced, Rodgers marched onto the pitch. What emerged in the next few minutes proved the strength of character of the Celtic manager.
He gathered his players around them, said a few well-chosen words to remind them of their prior achievement and then everyone, including backroom staff, joined in an impromptu huddle.
Rodgers then led his staff towards the travelling supporters to applaud them and acknowledge the extraordinary journey we had all enjoyed since, coincidentally, the team embarked on the unforgettable expedition at the same venue with a 2-1 victory in the new gaffer’s first-ever Scottish league outing on August 7 2016.
“All credit to Hearts,” he said to the invasive TV cameras, “they were the better team. No argument.”
Rodgers mentioned his players had not defended well – I hadn’t realised he was such the master of understatement – and they would go away, dust themselves down and get ready to go again.
TRIAL BY TV…Brendan Rodgers speaks to the media in the aftermath of the Tynecastle defeat.
There wasn’t a scapegoat in sight and it must be said the boss would have been spoiled for choice if he had decided to go down that route. You and I can name other managers who would have readily adopted the Pontius Pilate stance and blamed everyone else. “Nothing to do with me,” is the oft-repeated mantra from dug-out dwellers.
On this occasion, though, it was a case of onwards and upwards.
A historic second successive treble was delivered at the conclusion of another epic episode in the life of Celtic Football Club.
If Tynecastle almost six years ago was a test of character for the manager, then you have to applaud the way he passed the exam with flying colours and impeccable class.
I just hope we don’t hear him repeating his words from December 2017 later today.