Celtic Park has never hosted a title party quite like this. In a season when they seem to have set more records than Usain Bolt, Brendan Rodgers’ all-conquering side became the first team to complete a top-flight league campaign unbeaten for 118 years
They are the first to do so in the modern era, wrapping up their Premiership programme yesterday with the 34th win of the 38-game campaign – another landmark.
The scaling of fresh heights didn’t stop there. Their total of 106 points eclipses the mark of 103 set by Martin O’Neill in 2001-02, while, with a neat symmetry, the strikes from Leigh Griffiths and Stuart Armstrong which eventually saw off a stubborn Hearts side also took them to 106 league goals, beating the 105 netted by O’Neill’s squad in 2003-04.
All that now remains to turn an outstanding season into a truly historic one is the challenge of next Saturday’s Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen, when victory would bring not only the domestic treble but the accolade of becoming the first team in Scottish football history to complete a domestic season undefeated in all competitions.
It wasn’t a vintage display by Rodgers’ side yesterday by any means, but that was of little consequence in the greater scheme of things on an occasion when the Celtic support came to celebrate the ruthlessly consistent efficiency Rodgers has brought to their club.
His team were worthy winners in the end, courtesy of a much improved second-half performance which eventually saw them exert their superiority over Ian Cathro’s team.
Celtic had made a curious and uncharacteristically tepid start to the contest from which they subsequently found it difficult to gather the kind of attacking momentum which has been the hallmark of their dominant campaign.
Hearts, with 19-year-old Jamie Brandon handed his debut as right wing-back in a compact 3-5-2 formation, understandably arrived with containment in mind but their strategy was not wholly lacking in ambition.
Cathro’s men actually created the first opening of the afternoon. Bjorn Johnsen, retaining his place in the side despite his midweek bust up with the head coach, was unable to connect cleanly enough with his header when picked out by Don Cowie’s inviting cross in the second minute.
A free-kick from Griffiths ruffled the outside of Viktor Noring’s net, while Kieran Tierney fired narrowly over from 25 yards, but Celtic were finding it problematic to cut open their obdurate opponents.
Hearts looked threatening on the counter, teasing a number of free-kicks from the Celtic defence in promising positions. Alexandros Tziolis came close to giving the visitors the lead from one of them in the 27th minute. It was played short to him by Johnsen and the Greek midfielder’s sweetly struck shot rose just over.
Celtic gradually worked up a head of steam which was sufficient to place Hearts on the back foot for a sustained spell for the first time. It took a terrific reaction save from Noring to prevent Dedryck Boyata putting the hosts in front when he connected with a Griffiths corner from close range.
But Hearts, who came close again from a set piece just before the interval when Johnsen’s effort drifted just wide of Craig Gordon’s left-hand post, would have felt the more contented side going into the dressing rooms at half-time.
Rodgers didn’t waste any time making a change, starting the second half with midfielder Tom Rogic on in place of right-back Cristian Gamboa. It was Celtic’s switch to a three-man defence and the alteration in shape took just five minutes to bring a dividend.
Patrick Roberts, making the last Celtic Park appearance of his loan spell from Manchester City which expires next month, was the creator. The winger showed some typically sharp footwork to make space on the right for a cross which was met with a firm and decisive close-range header by Griffiths.
Liam Smith picked up a caution for a foul on the increasingly influential Roberts as the tempo of Celtic’s play began to reach the kind of levels their support have become accustomed to under Rodgers’ tenure.
Noring made another decent save, this time keeping out a snapshot from Scott Brown as the champions went in pursuit of the goal which would break the record.
The flares mindlessly lit by a group of supporters in the safe standing area of the stadium would have been an unwelcome sight for Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell on a day which was otherwise one of undiluted celebration. But when the smoke cleared, Celtic illuminated the afternoon with their landmark 106th league goal of the season.
Griffiths burrowed his way down the right and delivered a cross the Hearts defence were unable to clear. The ball broke into the path of Armstrong who drove his shot high into the net.
Boyata flashed a header just wide as Celtic looked to finish with a flourish but Hearts, to their credit, remained competitive and committed to attack. They were unfortunate not to pull a goal back when Johnsen’s header hit a post, before Gordon made a brilliant save to deny substitute Malaury Martin.