NEIL LENNON doesn’t have to look too far for inspiration as he prepares Celtic for the rigours of a title chase in 2021.
First up, of course, is the meeting with Hamilton Accies tomorrow afternoon before the visit of Dundee United on Wednesday as the champions bring down the curtain on an eventful 2020 which has been a rollercoaster ride between incredible highs and inexplicable lows.
But the Hoops boss, who will take his players to Ibrox on January 2, knows better than most what is expected in the marathon that is the race for the championship.
Author Alex Gordon highlights the astonishing winning sequence Scotland’s title kings embarked upon last season on his latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One’. which features the club’s remarkable fifty-one crowns in their glorious history.
In an edited extract, Alex writes.
Neil Lennon, like Jock Stein before him, always maintained the experience of being over the course would weigh heavily in Celtic’s favour in the run-in to the championship. On January 26, a double from Edouard and one from McGregor saw off Ross County 3-0 at Parkhead.
READ ALL ABOUT IT…Alex Gordon’s latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One’.
It was a stroll for the champions, but the afternoon presented a stumble for the challengers as Steven Gerrard’s men collapsed 2-1 against Hearts at Tynecastle where Northern Ireland striker Liam Boyce, a former Celtic trialist, hammered in the winner in the eighty-third minute. After twenty-two games, Lennon’s side were now five points ahead of the Govan outfit who still had a match in hand.
Three days later, as Celtic flattened St Johnstone 3-0 with a blistering three-goal salvo in twenty-one first-half minutes, courtesy of Olivier Ntcham, James Forrest and Leigh Griffiths, their would-be challengers toiled to overcome Ross County 2-0 at Ibrox.
The pressure was on when Aberdeen arrived in Govan on Saturday, February 1 with Celtic due to play at Hamilton twenty-four hours later. The Dons went home reasonably satisfied with a point in a 0-0 deadlock and then Lennon’s men gave Accies a goal of a start before routing them 4-1 with strikes from Odsonne Edouard (2), Christopher Jullien and James Forrest.
Thirty-four-year-old skipper Scott Brown made his 700th club appearance – 134 with previous team Hibs – at the aptly-named Fountain of Youth Stadium. Scotland’s title kings were now on sixty-four points with the Ibrox side seven adrift.
Celtic produced one of their finest performances of the season the following midweek as they waltzed to a 4-0 success over Motherwell at Fir Park. Edouard rifled in another double – one a sublime free-kick – and McGregor, with a goal of the season effort, joined in. There was a special celebration, too, for Griffiths who notched his 111th strike for the club that edged him one ahead of John Hartson.
Rangers kept in the hunt with a nervy 2-1 home win over Hibs. The Cup holders got a breather from Premiership business when they played League One part-timers Clyde at Broadwood on February 9 and Olivier Ntcham rattled in the opener with Scott Brown flicking in another before the interval. Substitute Vakoun Issouf Bayo, in a rare outing, claimed a late third in a 3-0 victory.
Three days later, Celtic took a gigantic step towards their ninth successive championship. Hearts were left in the slipstream of full-tilt opponents on a serene evening in the east end of the city of February 12 as Neil Lennon’s side hurtled to a 5-0 triumph. It took Celtic half-an-hour to break down the visitors’ resistence before Olivier Ntcham pounced to score after a rebound from keeper Joel Pereira. Within fifty minutes the team had crammed four more counters behind the Portuguese netminder with Christopher Jullien, Callum McGregor, Ryan Christie and Jozo Simunovic getting in on the act.
On the same evening at Rugby Park, Rangers led Kilmarnock at half-time through a Scott Arfield goal. But the wheels came off in the second period as the Ayrshire side scrapped to get back into the encounter. Scotland international right-back Stephen O’Donnell, who had once been on Celtic’s books, claimed the equaliser in the seventy-seventh minute and, with Steven Gerrard’s panicking team in disarray, Eamonn Brophy rifled in the winner two minutes from time.
With ten points of an advantage, Neil Lennon refused to get carried away. “The points might give the players confidence, but that’s about it, really,” he said. “We’ve got a tricky game at Pittodrie on Sunday, so we’re taking nothing for granted. There’s a long way to go and there will be twists and turns along the way, so we just need to focus on each game as it comes along.”
With nine minutes to go against Aberdeen, two points looked to be escaping. A solid, combative encounter was deadlocked at 1-1 after Dons defender Ash Taylor had equalised Callum McGregor’s first-half opener. As the clocked ticked down, the visitors put together a quickfire move that spreadeagled their opponents with Edouard, on the halfway line, releasing McGregor with a neat back-heel, James Forrest burst forward to collect the ball on the left.
Swiftly, he turned inside and spotted Kristoffer Ajer racing sixty yards to get into a superb position on the opposite wing. The Norwegian finished a lung-bursting run with exquisite composure as he nonchalantly clipped the ball high into the net.
A delighted Lennon joked: “Big Kris doesn’t see himself as a defender – he thinks he’s Franz Beckenbauer. He’s some player, though. I think he’s undervalued sometimes. He’s been immense since I’ve come in. He’s shown his composure. It was a big moment and he took it brilliantly. He’s an outstanding footballer all round. Now we just need to keep going and not look at other results. We can’t control them, but that’s nine wins in a row and we need to keep that momentum going as long as we can.”
Three days later, Celtic, thankfully, picked up their winning rhythm with a 3-1 victory over Kilmarnock in Glasgow while Rangers dropped two more points in a 2-2 stalemate with St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park. Kristoffer Ajer, Odsonne Edouard and Leigh Griffiths claimed the goals at Parkhead while Stevie May hit an equaliser for the Perth outfit with ten minutes to play.
The champions were now twelve points clear and it was fairly evident Steven Gerrard’s team had failed to cope with the pressure that comes with challenging for the crown. Celtic now required seven wins from their remaining ten games and the flag was assured. Lennon, though, steadfastly refused to discuss impending silverware success and stressed: “I don’t want to talk about titles. I just want to talk about the game. The title is a million miles away as far as we are concerned. We just want to concentrate on our affairs. Since the turn of the year we have been magnificent. The fact we have won ten domestic games says my team is very good. Today, in the second half, we were outstanding and I think some of our football was simply irresistible at times.”
On Sunday March 1 at McDiarmid Park, Celtic took on St Johnstone in the Scottish Cup quarter-final at McDiarmid Park on a wet and wild afternoon with the wind an additional troublesome obstacle. Twenty-four hours earlier, Rangers had vacated the competition when they lost to Hearts at Tynecastle where Oliver Bozanic claimed the only goal in fifty-eight minutes.
There was also a solitary counter in Perth and it came nine minutes from time and was delivered by Ryan Christie with a cunning right-wing free-kick that swirled beyond the transfixed Zander Clark as Christopher Jullien just missed making contact at the near post. It was the polished performer’s nineteenth goal of the campaign and, fairly astoundingly, the victory was the holders’ thirty-fourth successive victory in domestic knock-out competitions.
The semi-final draw paired them with Aberdeen while the Edinburgh duo of Hibs and Hearts were scheduled to meet in the other last-four confrontation. With the league just about wrapped up, Celtic, in theory anyway, were only two wins away from an unsurpassable quadruple treble.
Lennon praised his players for their gutsy performance against Saints – “they were out on their feet” – and tiredness undoubtedly played its part in the next match against Livingston three days later on their unwelcoming, suffocating ground in West Lothian. Callum McGregor swept the side into a sixteenth-minute lead, but a rare moment of misjudgement from Fraser Forster as he failed to clear a long throw-in from the left allowed Jon Guthrie to equalise. Shortly after the turnaround, Scott Robinson lashed in Livingston’s second. The game was one minute into stoppage time when substitute Tom Rogic rolled in the equaliser after neat left-wing service from Odsonne Edouard. At the tenth hurdle, Celtic had failed to take all three points for the first time in 2020.
Remarkably, though, the champions discovered they had increased their lead at the top to thirteen points when news came through Rangers had slumped 1-0 at Ibrox to Hamilton Accies who had started the night as the worst team in the top flight. David Moyo knocked in the only goal in the fifty-sixth minute.
Asked about the title race, Lennon simply replied: “I’m not talking about that. I’m taking it game by game and we have St Mirren on Saturday. We set high standards here and that’s the first points we’ve dropped this year, but in the context of the evening, I suppose it was good.”
Irrespective of what happened elsewhere between now and the end of the season, Celtic, with nine games to play, only required six wins and the flag would be fluttering in the breeze in the east end of the city for the ninth successive year. After the 5-0 victory over the Paisley outfit on March 7, their requirement had been cut to five victories. Leigh Griffiths notched a superb hat-trick against Saints and Lennon said: “The first goal gave him a lot of confidence. Now he knows he can still do it and we all knew he could. He’s answered all his critics. People were saying he was finished here, but, as far as we were concerned, that was never the case.”
Odsonne Edouard, with his twenty-eighth strike of the season, also got on the scoresheet, but it was left to Callum McGregor to slot away the fifth from the penalty spot with almost the last kick of the ball. Coincidentally, it was the 800th goal from 334 games in the club’s triumphant nine years of domination of Scottish football.
Alex Gordon, a veteran of fifteen Celtic books and a former Sports Editor at the best-selling Sunday Mail, recalls the inside stories ofa momentous season.
* ‘CELTIC: 50 Flags Plus One’ celebrates the club’s remarkable fifty-one league championships in their glorious history. To order a copy – and get a FREE book, ‘Seville: The Celtic Movement’ – please go to: ‘CELTIC: 50 Flags Plus One’.
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