On 25 May 2019 the script went like this: Neil Lennon left Hibernian, by far the better run of the Edinburgh clubs, under a cloud, with various versions of events going round, none of them particularly supportive of our manager. He was mutually consented out of Bolton Wanderers and the halcyon days of Champions League glory against Barcelona were a seven-year-old memory.
Celtic were transformed under Brendan Rodgers, who left without dropping a trophy after bringing a level of professionalism the Scottish game had never experienced. By contrast, Newco had a stable ownership structure, management team and a squad which performed better than expected in their first season of European group stage competition. With a season under his belt, Steven Gerrard knew he had money to spend; this was the time to push the boat out.
It is unfair to say this of a treble winning team, but it is also true that season 2018-19 ended with Celtic looking a bit one-paced. For all his glory, Rodgers missed more often than he hit the target in the transfer market; the squad looked in need of an overhaul. For these reasons, at the start of the season I wrote our chances of winning the league were 50/50.
What transpired was one of the most fascinating seasons in recent memory and we’ve had a few of those. Credit to Gerrard. Again he outperformed expectations in Europe but this time he outperformed the expectations of many Celtic supporters domestically. He picked his team off the canvas after Odsonne Eduard and Jonny Hayes teed up Celtic’s season with a win at Ibrox in August, competed twice a week through the autumn before two games against Celtic in December that will long be subject of debate.
Newco wiped the floor with us in the League Cup Final at Hampden. Tactically, they controlled the game and were it not for a sublime finish by Christopher Jullien and the most impressive goalkeeper performance we have seen in 15 years; their eight-year wait for a trophy would have ended. Instead, a substitution led to a free kick and a goal. Celtic then faced an onslaught which both looked impossible to withstand and bizarre in its wastefulness.
What happened at Hampden informed Celtic’s decision-making when the teams met on league duty at Celtic Park three weeks later. Odsonne Edouard was able to start up front, instead of Lewis Morgan, with the expectation that normal service would resume. It didn’t. Newco again bossed the game, this time winning. Newco had a difficult December but were set for an easier set of fixtures after the winter break. You, me, Neil Lennon and the players went off on the winter break knowing it could be March before the teams were due to meet at Ibrox and we would have a chance to make regain the initiative. But going to Ibrox after being handed our arse on a plate at Celtic Park was a daunting task.
This exact scenario was what Newco’s confidence when they Tweeted anticipation for this season minutes after Neil Lennon’s permanent appointment was all about. The script was written, Neil would buckle under the pressure, Gerrard had responded from the Hampden despair by tactically schooling the Celtic manager and had the means to win the title.
Let the history books show that if Newco were able to hold onto late leads against Hearts, St Johnstone and Kilmarnock, and beat Hamilton and Aberdeen at home, Celtic’s run of successive league titles would have stopped short of the record nine-in-a-row.
For 22 years I have looked back on the shambles that was Celtic early in season 1997-98 and I still cannot figure out how we won the league to ‘stop the 10’. If anything, this season is a greater mystery. They did not know it at the time, but all Newco needed to do to win the league was win a handful of games against opposition vastly inferior to Celtic or those they comfortably despatched in Europe.
The pandemic should have been the gift that allowed the title to go to Ibrox without the need to face Celtic a further twice. But the script was not followed, Neil Lennon coped rather well with the pressure. Whatever ailed him at Hibs put fuel in his tank. Celtic were imperious, anyone who wanted their title would have to reach new heights.
At this point Steven Gerrard began looking like the man under pressure. He questioned his team’s bottle as each reversal brought a new wave of indignity. Instead of the pandemic gifting him the best chance he will ever have of winning the league, it probably saved his job, as performances could not continue on the path they were for another two months.
Getting things right at a football club is more difficult than it seems, even when you apparently win everything with ease. Celtic knew they had a battle on their hands at the start of this season, there was no complacency, but there is also a lot of corporate learning built into the Celtic Park ecosystem. I spoke to Peter Lawwell during the winter break, he was calmer than most of us, “We have the best manager, the best squad and we are going to win the league.” No panic, just a clear assurance that we stick to plan.
God knows what lies ahead of us next season. It will be very different in every respect, but no one will underestimate Neil Lennon, or Celtic’s incessant winning strategy. Congratulations to the manager, players, backroom staff, commercial team, administrators, board and every Celtic supporter who did their bit. Our second nine-in-a-row was one of the sweetest yet!
Jackie Dziekanowski Celtic top auction
The Walk With Shay Legacy Fund are delighted to bring you a very special auction tonight. We have in our possession a signed and framed Jackie Dziekanowski Celtic top which can be seen here.
This was one of two signed Jackie tops donated by our Polish CQNer, Zbysek in 2009, during the Bringing Martin Home campaign. Zbysek had arranged to meet up with Jackie to get these tops signed. One of these tops was won in the raffle at the grand finale fundraising night for Bringing Martin Home at the Kerrydale Suite in the same year, by another CQNer, Murdoch, Auld & Hay. Stephen sadly passed away last year, and his brother Jim, kindly donated the top to us to raise funds for a future good cause.
We are therefore delighted to announce that all of the net proceeds raised in this auction, will be donated to Strathcarron Hospice, in memory of our good friend Helen Dunese Stewart (Minx 1888), who sadly passed away recently.
To bid, please send an email to email@example.com, with your bid (and indeed with a maximum bid if you wish as well). For instance your bid may be £50, but you can also say this will be up to the maximum of £100. So, if a rival bid comes in at £60, your bid will automatically be increased (in £10 tranches) to £70.
The bidding closes next Friday 22nd May at 8:30pm and the winner will be notified shortly afterwards and arrangements will be made for the winner to collect the framed top. We can also arrange for the top to be couriered to the winner, but delivery costs would need to be added.
We will of course, keep everyone informed of the highest bid as we progress during the auction.
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Happy Bidding and thank you.