From invisible to invincible. It has been quite a journey for Dedryck Boyata at Celtic this season.
During the first half of the campaign, the Belgian was so far off the radar it was difficult to imagine that he had any future under Brendan Rodgers’ management.
Since being surprisingly drafted back into the side after the winter break in January, however, the rangy defender has become a key component of the squad, which last Sunday became the first to complete an unbeaten top-flight Scottish league season since 1899.
“It feels great to be invincible,” says Boyata with a beaming grin. “It’s a big word, you know? A strong word, I’d say. At the start of the season, we didn’t really think about it. Then, with the results you get, the more you think about it. Now it’s done and it feels unbelievable.
“For myself, it was a little different. At the beginning of the season I was injured and I couldn’t get into the team. So I wasn’t even close to that, I wasn’t even thinking about that. I had other goals.
“But towards the end when I started playing it was good to be a part of the team and be back in the defence trying to get as many results as we could. Right now it’s just a great feeling to be in this position.
“Of course I feel proud about how my own situation has changed. It was difficult for myself and for the people around me too at the start of the season. So being in this position today feels good and something I’ve learned is you need to enjoy the moment.
“I’ve come from far away from the first team. I don’t really want to think about it again because there were some negative moments, some bad moments. I’m not pointing at anyone else, I did the injury myself then I came back and did it again.
“Mentally it’s hard but today things have changed and you can only go forwards. You learn from this moment. Mentally you get stronger and now I feel good. You look back at last season and then we had a new manager in the summer. To get this achievement, we needed a lot of work and a lot of changes. But, at the start of the season, no team would say they were going to go out and not lose any games in the league.”
One more hurdle now stands between Celtic and the unprecedented feat of going through an entire domestic campaign undefeated in all competitions. Boyata admits he and his team-mates simply cannot bear the thought of failure in Saturday’s William Hill Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen at Hampden.
“Obviously it would be very hard for us if we lost the final now,” added the 26-year-old. “It’s the last game we have to play and it’s a game where we will try to give 200 per cent. We want to finish on a high.
“We’ve been working so hard and have been invincible in the league. But we have got one more game now and I think we will forget everything else if we lose this final.”
Boyata has an FA Cup winners’ medal in his trophy cabinet but felt less than fulfilled by his role as an unused substitute for Manchester City at Wembley in 2011 when they defeated Stoke City in the final.
He experienced more frustration in the 2013-14 League Cup with City, playing in every round before being dropped from the squad for the final against Sunderland by manager Manuel Pellegrini. It is something which still clearly rankles with him.
“That’s another story and I can’t say anything about it,” he said. “It was disappointing but that’s life. It’s just how it was. It is hard. As a player you want to participate in every moment, every great moment for the team.
“You want to be a part of it, say you’ve been on the pitch or came on. If you manage to get a few games and get to the final and don’t play then you can still say you took part. It’s difficult not playing a minute but a team is not just 11 players, it’s a squad. Not everyone is involved.
“I also watched from the stand at Hampden in November this season when we beat Aberdeen 3-0 in the League Cup final. I had hurt my hamstring again and it was a hard moment.
“Of course it would be good to play in a final at last. It’s a great achievement. But it’s going to be nothing if we don’t win.”
Boyata has relished the matches he has played against Aberdeen over the past few months, scoring twice in league fixtures against them. But he has full respect for the potential threat they pose to Celtic’s treble ambitions.
“Our team played great in the League Cup final against them, we were on top for the full 90 minutes,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult to do the same this time because Aberdeen are a very good team.
“The game at Pittodrie a couple of weeks ago was hard, even though we won 3-1. We are definitely expecting another hard game but we’ll be up for it. This kind of game only happens once. We have 90 minutes or more but we are going to be there to give everything. I’ve managed to score twice against Aberdeen from set-pieces but it’s not really my job, scoring. It’s about defending.
“We know we are going for an unbeaten treble on Saturday and if you manage to make history it’s a great achievement for any player. It’s not like it came from nowhere because you’ve seen how the season has gone. If we make history it’s going to be something great for any player, to have it in your book.”