Empires rise and fall but it is usually not until well after the event that the signs of decline or rise are appreciated. In April 1970 Celtic players took a lap of honour after winning both legs of the European Cup semi-final against English champions, Leeds United, before a record European crowd. They were in their second European Cup final in four and hot favourites to take the trophy again. If ever Celtic looked imperious, this was the moment.
Few watching that lap of honour could have imagined 33 years would pass before Celtic next beat a side from one of Europe’s biggest five leagues. Decline came slowly, a European Cup final loss in extra time, two more semi-final appearances and four more league titles, then decades as an irrelevance in Europe.
Today Celtic are nothing like that force in Europe, but 2018 saw the club secure the domestic treble for the second successive season, the first time this has been achieved in Scottish football. They also retained the League Cup this month and are hot favourites for both league and Scottish Cup. No team has ever been this imperious in Scottish football, not even the Lisbon Lions.
Celtic have lost four league games this season, four more than they lost in the whole of Brendan Rodgers’ first season. They failed to reach the Champions League group stage, losing to what proved to be a poor AEK Athens. This year has seen significant players lost: Dembele, Armstrong and Roberts. Although the latter two were mostly squad players when by the time they left, they still made important contributions.
The club broke its transfer fee record for the first time in 17 years to secure the permanent signing of Odsonne Edouard, but the deadline day shenanigans of Dembele and absences of Leigh Griffiths placed a heavy burden on the 20-year-old. Filip Benkovic was secured on loan from Leicester City but further attempts to reinforce central defence and the right back position have been ineffective, while the predicted signing of John McGinn from Hibs proved to be nothing more than a PR disaster.
Form during the early part of the season was well below standards of the previous two years. It was not until two first half injuries in the League Cup semi-final at Murrayfield to Ebouie Kouassi and Olivier Ntcham allowed Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie to take up central midfield roles, that Celtic started to play with fluency.
Three wins were secured in a very difficult Europa League group, meaning we travel to Valencia in February with a fighting chance of progressing, but you could sense the air escaping from Celtic during December, as eight points were dropped on top of a home defeat to Salzburg.
The question is, was Saturday’s arresting defeat at Ibrox a sign of Decline of Empire, or another sign of retrenchment? To answer that we need to look at the fundamentals.
Celtic are financially stronger than anyone else in Scottish football. We spend significantly more, not just on transfers and wages, but on scouting, sports science, analysis and any other metric you care to mention. We may only be top of the table on goal difference, with a game in hand, but the first leg of the treble is complete and we are the only Scottish team still in Europe.
This season, the rest of the league are getting closer, but if points earned is their measurement, they are not getting any better. Celtic’s lead is small, not because we face better opposition, or because we have fewer resources, but because some in the squad have aged and declined, while attempts to strengthen have not been good enough.
If you are searching for signs of Decline of Empire, keep looking. This is Celtic at the bottom of the curve – with back-to-back trebles, the League Cup secured and resources available to kick on. We cannot win every game, or play well every month. We can’t even win every trophy, but the fundamentals of Scottish football have not changed. Use this week to get in touch with how it feels to be second best in a domestic game. It could be a while before it happens again.
Have a great New Year.