My friends in Celtic, 2021 is the year Celtic lost its first domestic trophy since 2016, for the first time in over a decade, the trophy cabinet was bare. We lost our manager in February, spent three months failing to land his chosen alternative, lost two chief executives, the captain retired and at the turn of the year we are six points behind in the league table.
So why are you all feeling so positive about things? If was not obvious at the time, but Celtic have been on the slide since at least September 2017. That month, we won our first European group game in 17, a 0-3 victory away to Anderlecht. They were the only points collected in that campaign, as the Belgian side won the return leg in Glasgow and PSG scored 12 over two games.
Remarkably, the club won another three trebles, but by early in the following season the trajectory was clear, as was Brendan Rodgers’ commitment to the club. Season 2020-21 was an unmitigated failure for Celtic, with the possible exception of the previous season’s Scottish Cup semi-final and final, played six months after they were first scheduled.
When Eddie Howe eventually got off the pot in May, Celtic moved swiftly onto Ange Postecoglou. Like Ronny Deila before him, Ange was on the periphery of City Football Group, the investment company behind Manchester City. Celtic’s links with City remain active and Ange came strongly recommended. Those close to Celtic who knew him, thought he was a better manager and better prospect for Celtic than Howe.
Ange was appointed on 10 June and then had to go through a period of isolation in a hotel room before being able to travel to Scotland and meet club representatives in person for the first time. Before he met the players, he was appraised that our top striker and top defender were both in the last season of their contracts and were not going to sign a renewal.
He had to rebuild a squad with scouts inhibited from travelling for the previous 15 months, while trying to qualify for European competitions and keeping want-away players interested.
Champions League qualification was never going to happen but the failure against Midtjylland highlighted how far Celtic had dropped. The first three away games in the league were lost: at Tynecastle, Ibrox and at the Plastic Pasta, it was a gloomy start to the new era. Newco were short odds to retain the league title, their only drawback was a remarkable 1-2 home defeat to Malmo, who came out for the second half losing 1-0 and down to 10 men. The consequences of that second half will be felt for years.
Little did we know, but the best thing was to get rid of Odsonne Edouard and allow our new Japanese signing, Kyogo Furuhashi, to play through the middle. With Kyogo as our focus, Celtic were transformed.
Domestic form has largely been excellent since those early away defeats. We are back to our trophy winning ways, taking the League Cup in a thrilling final against Hibs, but the gap at the top of the table has not moved in our favour. Newco continue to win most games, leaving Celtic to reflect on the cost of dropping points to Livingston, Dundee United and St Miren.
In any previous season, a six point gap at the top of the table would lead to insurrection, but there is a clear understanding of the direction of travel; Celtic are in recovery mode. That does not mean we are going to win the league. You can double your money in six months if you think we will be champions in May.
Newco remain in the driving seat, seem to be immune to isolating illness and domestic red cards and coped well with their managerial transition. They will travel to Celtic Park after the break knowing they will leave top of the table whatever the result, they are in a great position.
Last season was all about history, this season is all about the future. The Premiership winners will almost certainly automatically qualify for the Champions League group stage. If Newco get there, the money will provide them with a temporary bandage and may allow them to make an operational profit for the first time in their history. Failure would precipitate inevitable decline.
I worry the six point gap is too wide, that while we have delivered a high number of wins in recent months, we were vulnerable to Hibs and even made uncomfortable for a brief while against a truly awful St Johnstone.
The anticipated three new arrivals from Japan cannot have the impact of Kyogo. I see a lot of faith riding on these players, football often disappoints such belief. Whatever voodoo Newco have over the red cards domestic referees hold and Test and Trace procedures will doubtlessly continue.
In short, it will take a miraculous performance for the remainder of the season from Ange Postecoglou and new chief executive, Michael Nicholson, to delivery the title. But this is Celtic, where miracles do happen, so strap in and enjoy the rest of the season.
Very best wishes to you all for 2022, continue to stay safe.