Scottish football was waning in 2016. In the five years before then, Celtic won all league titles, while the Scottish and League Cups each saw five different winners – nine clubs won cups across both competitions. The ‘neutrals’ raved at this and fair play to the likes of Ross County and Hibs, (especially Hibs), but there was something missing.
Brendan Rodgers arrival gave Scottish football a team who were not just champions, but imperious champions. 18 trophies have been awarded since, 14 to Celtic. Those neutrals (yet to meet a neutral) bemoaned a lack of competition, but you and I know the truth. The value in even the League Cup has never been higher.
Other teams want to win it because so few sides apart from Celtic get to win anything. Celtic want to win it because we know the historic significance of these times. We are living in a period that 100 years from now football fans will look back at the records and marvel. This. Is. History! You and I know it and we kicked every ball.
When I think back on highlights from those 14 trophies, that magnificently-horrible League Cup win in December 2019 jumps out first. The thought of losing our run, history denied, was such, that the eventual relief was euphoric.
Next is the game we watched from home. We knew the run that led to the Quadruple Treble was over before the Scottish Cup Final against Hearts in 2020. An equally horrible performance before Kristoffer Ajer blasted his deciding penalty into the net brought a feeling no less joyful than beating Newco 5-0 to win the league.
When your status is as high as Celtic’s has been since 2016, historic significance is always on the line. This is Celtic’s gift to the rest of Scottish football. Every competition here has an importance other countries could only dream of, and I include the often-vaunted English game. There, their top clubs use the League (and increasingly FA) Cup as a development opportunity.
Even the second strongest team in Scotland is not robust enough to do that. They need the League Cup. A loss there, while miles behind in the league, would be a disaster. February is a bit early to have only the Scottish Cup to look forward to. Can you imagine looking at the months stretching out between February and August and thinking, ‘at most, three games in the Scottish Cup”? They cannot walk out of Hampden on Sunday muttering, “Bigger fish to fry”, it all goes on the line.
Celtic are playing so well, some of us are disconcertingly confident. Hatate, Kyogo, Jota and Maeda are on fire. The back line is rock solid, and Joe Hart looks ready for anything (except a back pass). McGregor and Mooy will move, block and pass their way through the game, while Ange will make changes that reinvigorate the second half.
Five League Cups out of six, you know the script, Celtic, Hampden is ours!