My friends in Celtic, here we go, for nine-in-a-row! The consequences of what lies ahead are almost unbearable to contemplate. Win, and we match the proud record of Jock Stein’s team from the 60s and 70s and equalled by Rangers in the 90s. Lose, and until the end of time, Celtic fans will point to this season and wonder what went wrong.
In the mid-90s I attended a function with Billy McNeill and Tommy Burns the guest speakers. Billy looked at Tommy, who was then manager, and implored him to stop Rangers taking the record he and his team-mates won. It was an era with indignity piled on indignity. We were able to endure many setbacks – SIX YEARS without a trophy, but it was the feeling that our historical record could be violated that concerned us most.
History matters, records matter and in Scotland, no record matters as much as this one.
If it was all about the desire and money, SPFL chief exec. Neil Doncaster would be as well bringing the trophy along with him tomorrow, but football does not work like that and we have an example from relatively recent history to give cause for concern.
Having watched Rangers win nine-in-a-row, Fergus McCann sacked Tommy Burns, but he had not reckoned on spending two months trying to recruit a replacement. The players were back training two weeks before Wim Jansen, “the second worst thing to hit Japan” was unveiled.
Wim was a gift from God, but if he walked through Glasgow Airport on the morning of 3 July 1997 wearing a “New Celtic Manager” T-shirt, no one would have paid him any attention.
Rangers had every reason to expect the Holy Grail, 10-in-a-row, would be theirs, but in true David Murray style, they spent a fortune in an attempt to leave nothing to chance. Amoruso, Gattuso, Vidmar, Johansson, Porrini, Thern and, of course, Marco Negri, arrived in a show of financial muscle Scotland had not previously witnessed.
We took a first half lead in our opening league game of the season against Hibs, then lost. We held a halftime lead at home to Dunfermline in our next league game, but lost that one too. What had Fergus done? Meanwhile, inspired by Marco Negri, who was breaking scoring records, Rangers swept all before them.
It took a while, but Wim slowly steadied the ship, aided by a certain Swede and a large number of players recruited on the say of Jock Brown. David Murray, Walter Smith and all the filthy lucre they could put their hands on, could not stop Celtic winning the most cherished title in Scottish football history. Not only did we win the league after a decade, we preserved our name on the record books.
Why should we remember this today? Apart from the fact that any excuse is a good excuse to recall that season, we need to know that we have no divine right to win the league this or any season. Rangers spent lots of money, signed several excellent players, but things happened at Celtic which we had no right to expect. In the summer of ’97 we lost Pierre van Hooijdonk, Jorge Cadete and Paolo Di Canio. What happened made no sense, even today, I cannot explain how it happened, but Rangers would be stopped.
You and I have become immune to “The Rangers (sic.) are coming” mantra every summer. We know corporate Newco don’t really believe it, but it serves to put bums on seats better than “Come along and watch Celtic win xxx-in-a-row, we’ll try to keep Leigh Griffiths away from the goalposts.” It is pantomime, and we are right to not take it seriously, but there is an existential threat.
It goes like this. Steven Gerrard did better than expected in his first season in management and will do even better with the experience in his locker. They retained the bulk of their squad and spent a year scouting players who have arrived this summer.
By contrast, Celtic lost their managerial totem and appointed Neil Lennon, who has to deal with the pressure of sky-high expectation. We lost Boyata and Benkovic. The shadow of Moussa Dembele is still evident, with Arsenal sniffing around our prized prodigy. Scott Brown is a year older and all of our new arrivals are as-yet untested. Lose at Ibrox on 1 September, and the weight of the world will descent on the Comments pages here, as well as at Celtic Park.
There is a key difference between the Celtic of 2019 and the Rangers of 1997. Celtic are a thoroughly professional operation, with skilled operators at every level. The board know there is a chance, however slim, that Newco could turn up their own version of Larsson, Jansen and, erm, Blinker. They know that this cannot be a ‘Best endeavours’ season. Neil Lennon is planning for the unlikely, in order to prevent the unthinkable.
The cold facts are, we have better players than anyone else in the country. We have a manager who knows how to win leagues, “has an eye for a player”, and who slipped back into successful ways better than many expected.
We have already spent £12m this summer and will continue to spend, without the need to bring money in, or qualify for the Champions League. The manager will also have funds to fill gaps which emerge in January.
Celtic are as dominant as they have been in their 131 years. The stadium is sold out for most games and you have been unable to buy a season ticket for weeks (availability remains at ALL other grounds in Scotland, if you are looking for options). Our commercial deals are competitive with any similar club in Europe. Wages escalated alarmingly under Brendan but we are not over paying or at risk, there is money in the bank and talent on the field.
Having got into this position, we need to deliver this season and next, then build a monument to 10. Something big, that will serve as a tourist attraction for decades to come. And when we’re all in our old age, we can point to it and say to the kids, “I was there!”
Enjoy the season!