My friends in Celtic, a year ago I signed off on 2010 by saying, “I have never spoken to less confident Celtic fans ahead of a game against Rangers than I have this week”. Celtic had won only five of their previous 10 league games, seven of which were at home, but with a squad ravaged by injury, they found a formation which over several games dominated Rangers.
After three defeats and an Ibrox draw against 10-man Celtic, Walter Smith eventually got it right and beat Celtic at Hampden. The league challenge floundered in a scrappy defeat at Inverness, the home team fought for everything and found some vulnerabilities in Celtic but the season ended on a high with the first trophy of the Neil Lennon era as the Scottish Cup was won at rain-soaked Hampden against Motherwell.
Neil Lennon, Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn all had to deal with more serious events than football in the first half of the year. Bombs and bullets were sent to Celtic’s three Irish stars, prosecutions are pending. These events put Scotland on the international news circuit in a very unwelcome light. First Minister, Alex Salmond, promised to take action but instead of tackling a century-old anti-Catholic, anti-Irish tradition, his government passed a law which criminalised all sorts of non-sectarian, non-racist activity.
Despite this initiative taking on flagship status for the Scottish Government, Salmond has steadfastly refused to re-gather and publish information on sectarian attacks in recent years. Policy has been made without reference to facts.
The new season brought great promise. Neil Lennon had a year under his belt and was no longer up against Rangers’ most successful manager, instead he would face rookie Ally McCoist, but a humbling by Sion, ultimately neutralised by Uefa, and poor early season league form saw the manager consider his position.
A home defeat to St Johnstone and an utter collapse at Ibrox set the tone, but it was Kilmarnock’s three goal lead which caused Neil Lennon most concern. The story of the second half comeback at Rugby Park is likely to take on legendary status in years to come, but as with much in life, it contained prosaic events. Celtic came out of the dressing room like a condemned team and failed to register a genuine attempt on the Kilmarnock goal for 25 minutes. Anthony Stokes struck a free kick which would have been stopped by most defensive walls but the Kilmarnock version was made of butter and Celtic had a platform to stage a comeback. Killie’s reserve keeper, Jaakkola, failed to reach Anthony’s shot a few minutes later and Celtic were level six minutes after they realised they had a game of football to play.
In their next game Celtic failed to score at home to then-bottom Hibernian, allowing Rangers to open up a 15 point gap over their rivals, who by then were in third place, although with two games in hand over Rangers. Celtic then went to Motherwell and promptly fell behind, our season hung by a thread, but it was that guy Stokes who again had the stomach for the fight. Anthony equalised within minutes and Gary Hooper scored a late winner.
Celtic have not dropped a point since, while Ally McCoist and his boss, Craig Whyte, now look like the rookies they are. They have lost three of their last six games, completing a collapse at Celtic Park on Wednesday night.
A year ago I reflected on the 46 players who played for Celtic during 2010 and suggested we would be better starting with a blank sheet of paper. The league challenge ended in failure but 2011 didn’t. This year ends with a coherent team strategy which could deliver the first sustainable and successful Celtic team in 40 years. We have a young squad, on wages the club can afford, with a scouting and management team that have delivered a clutch of players destined to achieve an enormous amount in the game.
Despite the energy and excitement around Celtic Park, attendances are down. Football is not as fashionable as it was three or four years ago. For much of the season, we play in a cold, wet, environment against well-organised but defensive teams; it’s a hard sell. We all know fans who have drifted from the stands, large areas of the stadium are now scarcely populated unless Rangers are visiting, which will impact income and subsequent expenditure.
Still, the shambles of 2010 has gone, Celtic look like a club with purpose and the tools to move forward with confidence. A two point lead at this stage of the season is largely symbolic but it’s a deserved honour that your team deserves.
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