It takes years before you can properly judge the impact of winning any league title. For me, although 1998 feels most precious, 2001 was far more significant in its impact, that title changed the world. After this league title win, secured at Tannadice last night, Celtic fans look ahead with a confidence that we might just be onto something special.
A year ago, everything went wrong, a timely reminder that football will never be without sporting risk. The response, however, has been nothing short of spectacular. Oh, Howe we waited for the appointment of a new manager. At the time I wrote that Eddie Howe was the best English manager in the game, someone who had consistently overachieved and who was very capable of restoring Celtic to the top. As the wait for his decision continued to an uncomfortable level, two chief executives, one outgoing, one incoming, shuffled furtively around each other.
It took Howe, himself, to put us out of our misery. Plan B had been agreed, even if one or two never thought it would get to that stage. Ange Postecoglou wanted the job from the moment he knew it was available and made his intentions clear to the club. He watched what happened as all three trophies slipped away and knew this was the club and that was his time to take control.
On getting an offer from Celtic, Ange had to complete some business in Japan, then isolate for two weeks in a London hotel, watching videos and immersed in videoconferences, before finally flying to Scotland and meeting those he would be working with in person for the first time.
Eddie Howe’s reason for not taking the job was that he didn’t think it possible to achieve what was necessary without taking his backroom team with him. Ange brought no backroom team, he worked with those already here, who, it turned out, were not actually the problem all along.
An early priority was to sort out the playing squad. Captain, Scott Brown, retired at the end of the previous campaign, but several of the remaining top performers were refusing to extend soon-expiring contracts and wanted away.
The men who didn’t do the 10 were still able to attract sufficient money to seed the pot for a rebuild. Odsonne Edouard and Ryan Christie stayed until the close of the window, but disruption was such that Kristoffer Ajer was offloaded between Champions League games against Midtjylland.
By the end of September, league form saw three wins, three defeats and one draw, and were still without an away win in domestic football since February. If you based your expectations for the season on results until that point, you would have been significantly wrong.
Celtic won 24 of the next 27 games, drawing two and losing only away at Bayer Leverkusen, who scored twice in the final 8 minutes to deny Celtic a win. Livingston and St Mirren successfully shut up shop to take a point, every other team Celtic played in that run were beaten. Our Europa League group stage ended with three wins from four games and the League Cup was secured in a memorable win over Hibs at Hampden.
It is tempting to interpret the story of our season as being transformed by a spectacular January transfer window. We did have a spectacular transfer window, but the winning routine was well established before this. Ange’s system was by then embedded and paying significant dividends.
Saturday, 29 January, was the day the penny dropped for even the casual observer that Celtic had their name on this title. Newco were a goal ahead at Ross County in the 96th minute but could not hold on for the win. Celtic, who kicked off later, were drawing when they went down to 10 men against Dundee United. Liel Abada’s 89th minute winner thundered across the land. If Celtic won their next game, against Newco, they would go top of the league!
That run of 27 games ended against a team of preseason Norwegians. Those Conference League games aside, Celtic swept all before them, only a draw at Easter Road marked the copybook on a march to the title that was effectively secured when a win at Ibrox put the club six points clear with six to play. We knew the league title was coming home.
After that game at Ibrox, I thought the final winning margin would be in excess of 10 points. It turns out, Newco had more in the tank than I credited them with. Not only did we win a league with a new manager, new chief exec, an horrendous start and a significant squad overhaul, we did it against a team fortified by the kind of strength you only get after a £100m overspend. Celtic, it seems, are doomed to compete against sides who will play fast and loose with their very existence, gamblers to the bitter end.
In January 2005, when Martin O’Neill’s Celtic team were shrinking before our eyes, I wrote that we were in a Generation of Domination that started with Martin’s arrival in 2000. 17 years later our forward prospects are as good as they were then. Enjoy and appreciate these special years.