NO MATTER where Neil Lennon ends up in his career – Everton or wherever – he will hardly have a less stressful afternoon than the one that brought him a second successive SPL trophy.
Scorers: Ledley 2, Mulgrew 36, Forrest 51, Wright 90
The Celtic manager may as well have replaced the dugout with a fluffy couch, may as well have removed the water bottle from his mouth and had a giant cigar instead. From the first minute, when Joe Ledley’s thumping shot from outside the box put the home team ahead, to the last, when an own goal brought up number four, Celtic had not a second’s concern. This was a championship sealed with a stroll. Lennon’s players may as well have worn slippers.
On the pitch in the aftermath, Lennon praised his team, the fans and had a thinly coded message for absent chums. “To celebrate 125 years of unique and unbroken history with a title is something very special,” he said. Ouch.
Later he referred back to Rangers. “This title is better [than last season] because it’s the next one,” he said. “We’ve proved we’re not a flash in the pan. I know there will be a lot of people out there saying there was no Rangers, it was a one-horse race. In essence there is something to that and we are not going to hide away from it.”
This was probably the first time Lennon has given any credence to the view that a title without Rangers as a rival is a lesser title. Interesting and honest stuff from the Celtic manager. “But we have a job to do here,” he added.
“We have a responsibility to win trophies. It’s in the DNA of the club, as is doing it in a certain way. These are days you want to cherish. It’s important that the players appreciate them because they go very, very quickly.”
Celtic did it in the most emphatic way yesterday. They had energy and brio, nobody bringing more attitude to proceedings than Scott Brown, making his first appearance since facing Juventus in mid-February. Brown never looked like he’d been away. He lasted an hour and left to a rapturous ovation. “Special,” he said, later. “Always special.”
Celtic looked alive from the first whistle, looked like they didn’t just want to take the trophy on the back of a win, but a resounding win. They were playing to preserve the aesthetic of the day. A scratchy win or worse – dropped points – wasn’t something they were going to allow. They had some good fortune to set them on their way, but once ahead they never looked back.
The piece of luck came in the build-up to Ledley’s opener, a Gary Hooper handball that went undetected by referee Alan Muir. Not that the offence made Ledley’s job any easier, of course. He was still a distance out from Alan Mannus’ goal when he hit it. And what a hit, high and handsome and away into the top left corner of the St Johnstone net. Mannus wouldn’t have reached it had he been given springs instead of studs on his boots.
One minute old and the game was done. There are certain days at Celtic Park when you know that they’re on their mettle and impervious to a fightback. This was one of those days. “Everyone was bang at it,” said Lennon. They set the tempo, owned the ball, created the chances. They pegged the visitors back for vast chunks of the game in the manner of a boxer pushing his opponent to the ropes. Mikael Lustig had a shot tipped away by Mannus, Brown had a shot charged down. All the while there was a hunger about Celtic that made a second goal a certainty and sure enough it came, 35 minutes after the first. The only surprise was that it took so long. It was a strange one, a devilish free-kick by Charlie Mulgrew whipped in from the right and taking a glance off the head of Patrick Cregg along the way and, possibly, another tiny touch off Anthony Stokes before it bounced past Mannus.
Whoever got the final touch, the impressive thing was the initial delivery. A Mulgrew special.
The procession continued. Early in the second half, Brown burst through the midfield, fed Gary Hooper who shipped it on to James Forrest, a bundle of energy all afternoon. On the right-hand side of the penalty area, Forrest drilled his shot across Mannus and into the far corner.
Before the end, a fourth arrived, a present from the head of Frazer Wright off a Mulgrew corner that bamboozled the defender. Wright could, and probably should, have been off the pitch before then having caught Lustig with an elbow not long before. As he emphatically nutted past his own goalkeeper he might have pined for the red card.
Celtic pined for nothing. Throughout the day the home support were shouting not for three in a row, or four, but ten, a serenading that Lennon smiled at. “It’s a long way off,” he said. “Next target is the third and we’ll take it step by step. You can never take these achievements for granted. Ten in a row seems a long way off. Eventually Rangers will come back and put in strong opposition. In the next few years I would imagine.”
Lennon said that he was going to spend today watching some players – namely, transfer targets – but wouldn’t say who. He said he was planning for next season and that nobody had been in touch from Everton. Business as usual, then. On all fronts.