It has seemed impossible to decouple bitterness relating to Celtic’s title win from the reality of it being a perfectly valid outcome. Perhaps that was a useful byproduct for some of those immersed in the almighty row that recently engulfed the Scottish scene.
Celtic were the finest team in Scotland in 2019-20. The abbreviated season is surely a frustration for Neil Lennon and his players as outsiders look to diminish a ninth championship in succession. The sniping does not matter and how Celtic choose to celebrate is entirely up to them. There are of course deeper problems to ponder but a trophy retained by Monday morning Zoom call denies fans a moment in time. They will compensate for that as best they can.
The lead over Rangers – 13 points with eight games to play – would have been pressed home and in Odsonne Édouard, Celtic had the best player for good measure. Whereas clubs understandably object to being relegated when a season finishes short of a natural conclusion, the awarding of prizes when the situation was a fait accompli should be far less contentious. “Should” being the operative word.
Celtic have cause to rue extenuating circumstances. Nine is Scotland’s magic number, matching the record for successive league titles. This run has the backdrop of Rangers being out of the top flight for four seasons and football’s coronavirus-triggered suspension.
Lennon and Celtic fans have no reason to care. When the objective is to be the leading side in Scotland, weakness of opposition is not their problem. The target has been met comfortably. Celtic drew two matches and lost two while returning a goal difference of 70. Celtic averaged 2.67 points – and 2.97 goals – per league fixture.
Celtic deserve particular credit for a stirring response to defeat in the Old Firm match on 29 December. Rangers sat two points behind their oldest foes with a game in hand. Giddy analysis – not from Steven Gerrard, it must be noted – suggested a title battle worthy of the name was imminent but Celtic returned from their subsequent mid-season break in inspired form while Rangers wilted.
Gerrard has succeeded in separating Rangers from the rest as the Premiership’s second force but there remains no compelling case to argue Celtic’s stranglehold will be loosened anytime soon. It would take a seismic shift for them to be denied a perfect 10.
A key Celtic strength lies in their sellable assets. Moussa Dembélé and Kieran Tierney earned the club almost £45m without a domestic threat emerging. Édouard has admirers in England and abroad, Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie likewise. The development of Kristoffer Ajer, Christopher Jullien, Jeremie Frimpong and Mikey Johnston could result in more football and balance sheet success.
It remains a troublesome balancing act to assemble a squad capable of making European inroads when Ross County, Hamilton and St Johnstone are the staple diet but Celtic have managed their resources smartly.
There is symmetry to Lennon, who presided over the first of the nine titles, being back at the helm. The 48-year-old, by widespread acknowledgment more calm than during his first Celtic tenure, will take great pride in matching the record.
He has done it from a complicated standpoint. There were murmurs of discontent when Lennon succeeded Brendan Rodgers, who made fundamental changes to Celtic. There have been bumps in the road – a comprehensive Europa League defeat by Copenhagen, mainly – but Lennon has returned to the frontline with a minimum of fuss and arguably enhanced many elements of the team’s performance.
Historical comparisons are an Old Firm staple. Nonetheless, it feels futile to judge this Celtic against the one who cantered to nine titles from 1966. A year later, they were champions of Europe during a spell when Scottish clubs could go toe to toe with the best. Societal and economic changes are such that football – the game and business – is unrecognisable from that period. Many nations – including new ones – have left Scotland behind.
Even Rangers’ version of nine in a row, achieved from 1989, is not a valid parallel given they could compete financially against European giants. If those from Glasgow’s blue half seek to demean their rivals’ success on the basis of weakness elsewhere, the financial implosion at Celtic in the early 1990s is a counterpoint.
It would be naive to disregard the modest scale of the challenge facing Celtic domestically. Only those with vested interests can suggest the championship monopoly or duopoly that has existed since Aberdeen were kings in 1985 is healthy. However, Celtic’s place on top of the mountain is beyond question. It would be churlish to allow rancour to overshadow their achievement.