I was a teenager when I looked back at the record books and saw Celtic won five consecutive League Cups in Jock Stein’s first five seasons as manager. This extraordinary achievement was less prominent that it otherwise would have been, due to the nine-in-a-row league title wins and that business in Lisbon.
Those five seasons, from 1965-66 to 1969-70 stood out from the tail-end of Stein’s then record breaking winning run of league titles. The European finals and two semi-finals, five leagues, five League Cups and two Scottish Cups; the rest of Scottish football had to scrap their joy from three Scottish Cups, as Celtic ended their long drought in spectacular fashion.
The current Celtic team are bidding for eight-in-a-row league titles, but this era also splits between the first six and the last two and a half years, where the trophy acquisition rate has become metronomic: cup, league, cup, cup, league, cup, cup…
Celtic players looked tired at times during yesterday’s Hampden final. Aberdeen looked far better than a team beaten 3-0 by Motherwell a week earlier, but the result was never in doubt. No amount of rest and recuperation while Celtic toured Europe midweek prepared Aberdeen for a cup final against the champions.
Ryan Christie will remember this League Cup competition for the rest of his life. Whatever he achieves in the game from this point forward can be traced to his halftime substitute appearance in the semi-final against Hearts at Murayfield five weeks ago. His goals settled both games and his performances marked him out as a pivotal player at the business end of the field. He also has an appropriate amount of aggression in him, which will take him places in the game meeker men will not see.
For much of the final play was squashed into a 30 yard area in the middle of the field. Aberdeen held a high line, compressing space, inhibiting Celtic from exploiting their traditional passing style. The compromise from this approach from Aberdeen was to leaving space behind the defensive line for the right ball over the top.
The goal came when Odsonne Eduard dropped to open a gap at the top of the field for Dedryck Boyata to ping a pass which the sprinting Christie controlled with his first touch. It was one run too many for Aberdeen to cover. After the initial shot rebounded off Lewis, Christie found the net with the rebound. Once ahead, Celtic were never going to be denied.
The award of a ludicrous penalty kick should have settled the matter early in the second half, but justice was served when Aberdeen keeper Joe Lewis rushed off his line before Sinclair’s kick was taken to make the save functionary. We left Hampden thinking ‘Scottish referees can do better’, then watched television pictures from elsewhere to remember they can also do worse.
Gary Mackay-Steven’s head clash with Dedryck Boyata knocked the Aberdeen player unconscious before he hit the pitch. Players seemed untutored on how to react. Mackay-Steven was flipped onto his back with his neck unsupported, an act which would have had potentially fatal consequences if the injury was different. Then, realising the seriousness of the situation, Aberdeen captain, Graeme Shinnie, berated medical staff for not having a stretcher on the field sooner, despite the fact that the player was already receiving treatment and not yet ready to be moved. Some simple head injury training is needed before another player is flipped while motionless.
What does this this trophy mean for Celtic?
For you and me, we have celebrated the seventh consecutive trophy – an achievement no Celtic fan has experienced before and a joint Scottish record. I’m not going to tell you this one was up there with the 1997 League Cup win over Dundee United, but it easily eclipsed the 2000 win over Aberdeen, when we got to enjoy a trophy, but endured a hollow season. This one means so much because it is a measure of how good a Celtic team this is.
What does it mean for the rest of Scottish football?
Sport thrives on great champions. It slumps with mediocrity. Right now, every trophy, every cup game, in Scottish football has enormous importance. When (or if) Celtic lose a cup game, every club remaining in the competition will think, ‘Maybe this year!’ Similarly, every other aspirational club knows that with Celtic just so imperious, they have to make every chance at a cup count.