The road was smooth at first. The season started in what seemed like the middle of a pre-season. A relaxing corporate friendly tournament jaunt to Dublin was preceded by an opening day win at Easter Road.
An omen of darker days ahead arrived when Emilio Izaguirre broke his ankle at Pittodrie the next week but a victory was attained. We even thumped Dundee United 5-1 in our first home game.
Then Celtic cast their eyes to Europe. A Swiss team by the name of Sion, unknown to most of us, awaited. It was a disaster, a catastrophe, it was Utrecht and Braga all over again but worse! Yet we won 6-0 over two legs. “How could it be?” the history books will ponder. It’s a quiz question waiting to be answered by some 2025 smug know it all. Fortunately Daniel Majstorovic’s first minute red card away to the Swiss will not count and neither will the humiliating 3-1 defeat that followed. They fielded ringers, nobodies, illegals, Rangers players circa 2002. It sparked a long, tedious series of top brass lunches at UEFA who decreed after lots and lots of red wine and linguine that Sion should be cast asunder into the abyss of no European football sending us into the Europa League group stages by default.
We were lucky but it did a lot of damage, fan morale bottomed out, not least because St. Johnstone beat us in between the legs and a couple of weeks later Rangers cuffed us 4-2 at Ibrox. Heavens above where would we go now? At the time it seemed like Lennon was on the verge of doing a Mowbray and we needed guidance. Then Hearts beat us too and we were 9 points down in mid-October. A trip to Rugby park awaited us…
It punished us. It was half-time, we were three nil down to Kilmarnock and I was sitting, bottle of beer in hand, on Twitter like a true rogue. Fuming, upset, aghast… a thesaurus of woe in a 21st Century medium. Lennon must go was the cry of most, I dare not dig out my tweets to see if I said the same. I was thinking it. We all were and he was too and one day we will know what he said at half-time. It took 27 minutes but Anthony Stokes scored first and then again and suddenly we were on the cusp of something brilliant. Charles Mulgrew arrived next sending the stand behind the goals into a jumping roar of delight. 3-3 with ten minutes left, could we win it? Well no, but it was enough. Rangers dropped points later and it was a glimmer of hope. Many people said it would turn our season around. It didn’t to my mind but only because that does a disservice to the hard graft that followed.
Later that week I took part in my first ever European away trip, heading to Rennes with my father and brother. We drew 1-1 and if not for the Smiling Assassin himself, Cha, it could’ve been a first away win for years.
The Europa League was a pressure release valve for the stresses Celtic’s SPL campaign. We performed in every match and competed strongly against a very tough group in Udinese, Atletico Madrid and Rennes themselves. Indeed when we dropped more points to Hibernian at home on October 29th it was the next game at home to Rennes, which we won 3-1, that picked us up.
Sadly we went out of the competition before Christmas but gaining six points felt like a success, especially after the rank disappointment of the Sion debacle. The whole experience brought confidence to the squad and it allowed us to play future regulars, such as Victor Wanyama, in the first team regularly.
In between these performances we started winning consistently in the SPL. It wasn’t easy, every game was a must win fixture due to the lather we had built ourselves up in over the points difference between us and Rangers. Every week seemed like progress though as we pushed aside in form teams like Motherwell and St.Mirren.
A pivotal moment in these early months was a certain Charlie Mulgrew goal against Aberdeen at Parkhead, it was 1-1, pouring with rain and nothing was working. In the 72nd minute a fifty pence header from Majstorovic fell into the path of Mulgrew who fired it into the roof of the net. He ran towards the fans and planted his knees, sliding across the slick surface. It was the first moment I believed.
The points gap was closing all the while and we were only four points behind when Hearts came calling on one of those dark 3pm kick-offs you get in Winter. Like the Aberdeen game we were locked in a draw heading into the closing stages of the match. Again in the 72nd salvation arrived, again it was a central defender on the day. Victor Wanyama staked his claim for goal of the season with fierce, incredibly accurate hit into the top right hand corner of the goal at the Jock Stein end.
The story of the day wouldn’t end there as Hearts pushed to equalise. In the last moments of the game they were awarded a penalty and Celtic Park to a man was crestfallen. We deliberately delayed the kick looking for it to be placed on the spot correctly and Samaras in particular indulged in some gamesmanship before Eggert Jonsson stepped up. Heart fluttering, I watched from Section 440 as he hit it low to Forster’s left. The Englishman stretched his frame across the goal and tipped it wide. Pandemonium. We held on and by Christmas Day we had closed the gap to two points.
It was through hard work we got there, those moments barely scratch the surface of game after game of consistency. It was a solid team unit that ticked along with the help of outstanding performers such as Charlie Mulgrew and James Forrest, who shone at times when we needed them most. Kneeslides in the rain and stretching penalty saves at our lowest moments.
It was this determination as much as the skill or ability of the players that brought us from nine points down to two and it was Neil Lennon’s doing. His team embodied who he was as a man; passionate, strong, immovable. This rocky road from the brink of resignation and another failed Celtic project to within touching distance of salvation and resurrection was the making of where we stand today. Rangers arrived next, on the 28th December, the crisp festive night when Joe Ledley planted the header. The night we all knew that, as Celtic climbed above Rangers, the title was heading home to Paradise. And no more shall we part.
Of course in playing terms the season went on and the sham of Rangers being a competitive force continued well into January despite constant rumours they would have to sell their star striker Nikica Jelavic. The rumours were an on the field reminder that throughout the season there had been a backdrop of gossip and innuendo about the Govan team’s imminent financial implosion. While attuned to this I have always been of the opinion never to write Rangers off, they are a stubborn bunch. It was with great delight then that Jelavic left in as cut price a deal as possible to serial penny pinchers Everton in the English Premier League. The bears weren’t happy and in a game three days later less then 20,000 turned out to Ibrox to see them get put out of the Scottish Cup by the backhand of Dundee United. This was just the beginning.
Fourteen days later on Valentine’s Day Rangers were handed a note from their biggest love, Her Majesty the Queen. It read: “Roses are red, your strips are blue, you’re going into Admin, taxes are due”. It burns being broke and it hurts to be heartbroken but always being both must be a drag. I toasted their new relationship that night after a frantic day of news ingestion with a whisky that is only opened on special occasions and deaths. It was the death of Rangers as we’d known them, as I had known them as a boy, winners, nine in a row achievers. All of it was their own fault as became apparent in the following months, even to this day new revelations come to light damning their twenty five year long dream of destroying Celtic.
All of this meant for Celtic that any pressure going into the latter part of the season would be put upon ourselves. It was time for the treble. A treble is a magnificent achievement in football, no matter what league you play in or who the opposition is. Celtic in their history have only won a treble (or more) three times; 66-67, 68-69 and 00-01. Despite this the hype went into overdrive. Lennon’s team were showing a consitency that hadn’t been seen since Martin O’Neill’s achievers in the early noughties. The squad and the manager himself were trying to downplay this scenario perhaps reminded of how fragile things seemed in October.
The fans were having none of that though, opting for the “treble or bust!” Wild West style of thinking. The press too had decided that anything short of a treble for this Celtic team would be a failure. A cup was in immediate reach having already disposed of Falkirk in the League Cup Semi Final at the end of January. All that remained was Kilmarnock in a March final and a Rangers-less Scottish Cup to navigate through. It seemed easy and when things seem easy they rarely are, so it goes…
I must say first of all I hate Hampden. Hampden is a dream factory for fans of most other teams. For Celtic it is a place where on the greatest days minimum expectations are met and on the worst days we are being humiliated in front of the nation. As a Scottish football fan I can’t begrudge teams in provincial towns winning trophies at our expense because frankly honours aren’t competed for enough. As a Celtic fan I hate them for it. It enrages me in a way I can’t quite pin down, in a way seperate from being horsed by Rangers or losing a league title.
It was with trepidation that I took my seat for the League Cup Final. The glory of a treble seemed so real and yet in my stomach there was a knot of… uh oh. The Killie fans were belting out the Killie Boys. When you’re used to seeing them either 50-strong in a corner at Celtic Park or outnumbered at their own ground the buoyant, arrogant chanting in your face sticks a bit. The worst thing was we didn’t play terribly, certainly not as bad as in the semi-final against Falkirk. Chances were numerous but we couldn’t stick it away, even for a team with a supposed winning mentality a neutral venue can be a downfall. Then they scored.The tiny silent pause at Hampden between a goal going in and hearing the roar of opposition fans is possibly the worst feeling in football. Again they’re the Killie boys, my heart is bursting out my chest, my hand is shaking and we go away despondent, cursing the lost chance of treble immortality. There’s always a double.
The Scottish Cup is possibly my favourite tournament in all of sports. Certainly for me it’s the most nostalgic. The first trophy I saw Celtic win was this one in the final against Airdrie. When I close my eyes I can still see Pierre as a rising giant and the angle of the ball going into the net. Hampden was a dream factory for me then. Our Cup campaign was going so well in conjunction with our form in the other two domestic competitions. It was three away wins to Peterhead, well reminded old foes Inverness Caledonian Thistle and finally Dundee United in the Quarter Finals. We were going to Hampden again and Hearts awaited.
Again it wasn’t the worst display from a Celtic team I’ve seen. Frustrated, mostly dominating possession and having the majority of chances. Rudi Skacel fired high past Fraser Forster first. For the rest of the game we huffed and we puffed and in the last minute Gary Hooper blew the house down. The wolf in black had the last laugh though, giving a penalty moments later for an accidental Victor Wanyama handball. The only pig that day was Craig Beattie, a pink skinned foil to our double chance, blasting the ball past Forster and making a show of himself. You know the feeling, heart bursting out of the chest, the hand is shaking and you go away despondent.
Those dreams were over but Neil Lennon started the season aiming to deliver the SPL trophy. Even had Rangers been at the top of their form he’d have fulfilled that promise. From the 6th November to 3rd March we didn’t drop a single point. We went to Ibrox on the 25th March with a chance of winning the league, the early date showing not only the fact Rangers were in administration but also how dominant our form had been for months and months. The machine faltered there but no-one was left in any doubt about who the best team in Scotland were when we went to Rugby Park to pay Kilmarnock a visit.
Our friend Charles Patrick Mulgrew wrote himself into Celtic history with a phenomenal display in front of three stands of Celtic supporters. Goal after goal rained in, after a disappointing March it was cathartic and special and wow, Charlie Mulgrew. It sealed the first league win in four years. We were finally doing it right again after years of false starts, false hopes and false promises. All that was left to do was tour the massive party until the day we picked up the trophy… and we did.
The last Glasgow derby, potentially ever, will be remembered as the day Celtic as a club, as a support revelled in the demise of a morally and financially bankrupt football club. The Green Brigade unveiled a banner before kick off which set the tone for a day. It read “Your Day Will Come” and portrayed the four horsemen of the apocalypse as Neil Lennon, Craig Whyte, Hector the Taxman and The Green Brigade. The visual impact of this display put the visting support firmly in their place as they withdrew into their shells despite proclaiming they are the people. They weren’t even defiant until well into the second half, they said that day that they must hang. The psychological damage had already been done to them and to Ally McCoist’s team.
We thumped them three nil at a canter. Sounding visibly upset in his radio interview after the game McCoist was asked whether he thought the support and the occasion had an adverse effect on his team, “without a doubt” was the reply. Job done, league won, Rangers humiliated. Long may it continue.
The triumph of the season wasn’t winning the trophy but in the way we won it. Neil Lennon has knitted together a team of young, hungry football players who want to prove themselves and want to do it with Celtic. Flaws remain in the team but for the first time in a while we are in a strong enough position to try and achieve perfection relative to our goals of winning championships and competing in Europe.
The machine like winning mentality is now a fabric in the minds of the squad, an important step towards dominating your immediate rivals. A constructive Summer is required but the foundations have been laid for a period of Lennon inspired celebration and the rise of Celtic as a credible club on football’s grandest stages. The SPL may look radically different next year and it may not. With or without Rangers, Celtic will always be looking to improve their status and achieve their ambitions writing new stories into the tapestry that Brother Walfrid started way back when.
I’ll be there and so will you and that’s all that matters. Here’s to us.