It was stated it would take years before it was truly appreciated just how rarified were the peaks they surmounted with 12 straight trophies before they toppled at full pelt into the deepest canyon … in a fashion akin to cartoon-hunter Road Runner’s cliff-drops.
Instead, it has really taken only weeks since they were deposed as champions for that. Rangers proved as dominant as any team over recent times in their rampage to the title; the honour they have sought above all others as their hated rivals had the opportunity to establish a ten-in-a-row record. Yet, despite being streets ahead in the Premiership ahead of this weekend’s final derby, they failed to turn one major trophy out of a possible 30 into two from 31 as the result of going down at home to St Johnstone in the Scottish Cup last weekend. A penalty shoot-out defeat suffered because they left keeper Zander Clark unmarked in the final minute of extra-time, allowing him to produce a header from which Chris Kane was able to fashion an equaliser.
Yet, Callum McGregor would argue that the inexplicable slip by Steven Gerrard’s men at an Ibrox, where they had won 19 straight domestic games, shouldn’t have been required to show one and all the degree of difficulty involved for Celtic in establishing a global first of four consecutive trebles in national football competitions.
“First and foremost, I don’t think anybody inside this building underestimated how hard it was. We lived it, the big pressure moments,” said the Celtic midfielder. “The very first invincible treble [Scottish] cup final, there was a huge amount of pressure. The second one was maybe slightly easier, but there were tough times throughout that when we had to bounce back, then the treble treble there was an enormous amount of pressure. We know how difficult it is, and hopefully now people outside of football and outside of this building understand how difficult it is. At any given moment, things can go wrong, and you saw that with such a freak goal from St Johnstone. How many times does the keeper go up in the last minute and the ball just goes straight past them?
“The way that the boys, the management and the staff reacted in those moments … you think about going one behind to Hearts in the treble treble cup final with 15-20 minutes to go. You somehow come back and win. That’s mental strength, it’s character, it’s belief, it’s all of those things. It’s so, so difficult to do.”
For Celtic, such virtues deserted them in this barren season – especially in their inability to beat Rangers, despite having far oustripped them for chances in each of the past three encounters. The current squad, despite boasting a core of those involved in their stunning silverware success across four seasons, are now being derided as chokers.
“When you have the track record to prove it, you don’t suddenly become a bad player or a bad team overnight,” McGregor said. “To do what we did in terms of 12 trophies in a row, it takes huge amounts of guts, energy and actual performance levels to keep performing at that level for three, four, five years in a row. There is probably going to be a dip at some point, so it’s about regathering your thoughts in that sense, taking the learning experiences, and once you wipe the slate clean at the end of the season, you go again after that. I’d much rather be in that position where I have all that experience behind me and then try to bounce back the following year. I try not to take things like that personally, because I know how hard it is to get up and do it every single morning. But when you have that track record behind you, that speaks for itself.”
The derby dunts, McGregor considers, speak of ill-fortune, as much as anything else. “In these games you have to take your chances. In any game of football you have to take your chances or you are going to pay the price for it,” the 27-year old said. “For large chunks [in Rangers’ games] the performances have been good. I think in the last three games we have created 45 chances and scored one goal. That tells you where we are at and what we did. Big moments swing momentum and there is a wee bit of luck involved in that as well so we have to prepare properly, turn up, work hard for each other and then take the chances when they come.”
Celtic need to change the record – or digital download – in their last shot at Rangers, or else allow the Ibrox men to move to within two games of replicating their unbeaten league season of 2016/17, fail to win a derby in any season for the first time since 1999/2000 and be on their longest run without a win over Rangers since that season contributed to seven straight games without a derby victory. McGregor maintains that ensuring his team’s invincible season stands as the only such top flight campaign in 122 years will not be the primary motivation at Ibrox.
“I think first and foremost we just have to take the game in isolation and prepare properly for it,” he said. “We have to go there and try to impact the game that we want to play and try to win – it is as simple as that. That is the first context. Secondly, we know how difficult it is to do an invincible treble. It is a difficult feat, we understand that. Now we are on the other side of it and we have to go and try to go and win the game to stop that happening. There is a lot riding on the game.”