When Celtic won their first 7-in-a-row by a 10-point margin in 1972, there was scarcely a cloud on the horizon. The also collected the Scottish Cup that season, lost the European Cup semi-final on penalties and, but for a mishap against Partick Thistle in the League Cup final, would have completed their third treble.
A year later, the league-winning margin was cut to a single point and although 9-in-a-row was famously achieved in 1974, the seventh consecutive title would be the last truly dominant Celtic league win for 16 years.
Jock Stein’s team of the mis-70s was vulnerable in ways your Celtic team of today is not. Stein was brilliant and changed everything about Scottish football when he arrived at Celtic in 1965, but the longer he stayed, the closer his rivals could ape his methods.
At Sean Fallon’s funeral Mass, Alex Ferguson mentioned that he and his wife would deliberately go to the same restaurant Jock and Sean dined at on a Saturday evening, so that the young Rangers player could quiz them both on the game. It was a school day for Ferguson. People watched Celtic, copied their tactics, scouting and preparations. By 1974 Stein’s advantage was gone.
This interpretation of Scottish football history was clear in 1997, when Rangers matched Celtic’s “9”. Their golden era was not the consequence of a radically different manager, but of sheer financial power, power that unlike Stein’s in 1974, remained in place as Rangers planned for 10-in-a-row.
There has been little consistency across our current 7-in-a-row. Three managers and countless players (not the 44 used in league campaigns between 1965 and 1974). If you were to try to match the current Celtic formula for success, you would attempt to replicate their scouting, sports science and maybe their playing style, but most of all, you would need a business plan that produces income which can, on occasion, reach £100m.
Like Rangers in 1997, Celtic today have a financial advantage over all others in Scottish football. Unlike Rangers in 1997, Celtic do not have anyone readying themselves to match their investment in the team. While Fergus McCann and Jock Brown were busy signing Henrik Larsson and the like, no one in Scotland can come close to matching Celtic’s £9m investment in Odsonne Eduard, or their £52m wage bill.
Nor should they. Under Fergus, Celtic worked their way close to Rangers turnover. By 1997 there was still a gap, but it was bridgeable without putting the club into peril. Even without Champions League football, other clubs are years away from getting to within striking distance of Celtic.
This position of strength is a consequence of professionalism throughout the club. Look around as you walk up Celtic Way tomorrow. Picture in your mind the next stage of the regeneration of the old place, with the hotel to your left, and a museum and visitor centre.
That Champions League income is important, but we have been busy in the background. The cumulative value of the Dafabet shirt sponsorship deal that was signed BEFORE Brendan Rodgers appointment and revolution in 2016 was worth as much as a Champions League group stage qualification. The renewal of Dafabet’s sponsorship for seven years, announced this morning, is worth an absolute fortune. Add to that, New Balance, the Magners sponsorship on the back and other key partnerships with Eden Mill, Intelligent Car Leasing and others, and you see a football club underpinned by strong finances, before it sells a season ticket or scores a goal.
One Saturday night In the early 1990s (not on a match day), at the Walfrid Restaurant, our table was served a main course without potatoes. The spuds duly appeared with the sweet.
This is an obscure observation to trouble you with today, but it encapsulated everything about Celtic of that era. We didn’t have the organisational knowledge to server potatoes with the chicken instead of the carrot cake. How could we hope to recruit, develop and tactically deliver success on the football field?
There are reasons why potatoes came with the carrot cake – it is not because the kitchen staff didn’t know better, just as there are reasons why we are ‘knocking it out the park’, on, and off, the park these days. Getting things right in any organisation is not quick, easy or cheap. It takes planning, training and several iterations of learning from mistakes. We were a shambles. We are now a thoroughly professional outfit in every area we operate. Look at what our commercial team are achieving in contrast to what happens elsewhere.
That is why we are going to win the league this season. It’s why we will win “10” and it is why we will continue to win successive titles for the rest of your life. This success is not built upon the wisdom of Jock Stein or Brendan Rodgers, it is a consequence of planning to win, and never lose again. Ever.
While Peter Lawwell is hugely important in the operation, it goes well beyond him now. You will find the same unforgiving demands at every corporate contact point. These commercial deals take the risk out of making expensive managerial appointments.
I have concerns about our prospects against AEK Athens – a stronger opponent than we are capable of facing in the fourth qualification round. The chances of a third consecutive treble should also be given perspective. We have escaped ‘one of those days’ in two years of cup competitions, that does not mean we are immune from them.
Champions League football may or may not happen this season, but we will not collapse “like a pack (sic) of cards” if we miss out. The show will go on, because we have planned for such an eventuality. Average attendances will hover a touch below capacity, we will continue to improve.
If you are too young to know how special tomorrow’s Flag Day is, bore yourself talking to an auld yin’ for a while. This success has been worked on for decades. It is a result of denial and restraint, while lemmings were heading for the cliff. It is a milestone in history. It is a beacon that shines a green light far beyond Celtic Park. It is a wonderful thing.