And the Parkhead club’s interim manager John Kennedy sees no foreseeable threat from Rangers now to Brendan Rodgers’ ‘invincibles’, as they were christened four years ago. The Ibrox men may head to Glasgow’s east end for Sunday’s derby without a loss in their 32 league games. It may have led to their latest face-off being presented as Celtic’s best opportunity to preserve the uniqueness of what they achieved so recently. Yet for Kennedy, first team coach in Rodgers’ backroom team, that misunderstands what accounts for the invincible label, and fails to appreciate the unprecedented run of success it set in motion that supplied the moniker with such resonance.
“It’s important because it’s part of our history and we’re very proud of that. We also went a full season, winning each trophy. So that in isolation is a bigger achievement,” said Kennedy, with Celtic remaining unbeaten across the whole of the 2016-17 domestic campaign to rack up the first of four straight trebles. Rangers’ League Cup loss to St Mirren last December means a treble is out of their grasp. “We’ll not use it as extra motivation [though]. We have set the marker in previous seasons. We have cleaned up domestically in previous seasons. Rangers have had their moment, but we want it to be a moment. The thing now is how we perform on Sunday, the result we get and the impact on things going forward. It will not be an extra incentive for the players to stop Rangers. It’s more about us now, what we deliver, how we perform and the results we get.”
The difference between Rangers in this “moment” for Kennedy and Celtic across the latter years of the last decade is his club simply “winning more trophies”. “Especially in knockout competitions, it only takes one game to be off the boil and you’re out,” said the 37-year-old, with Celtic’s 12-straight successes in national competitions a global first. “That period of being so successful is a huge achievement. As much as we all acknowledge it, in later years when it can’t be repeated, we will probably look back on it and say ‘wow, that must have been an unbelievable team’. We’ve had a big setback this season with the league campaign but you don’t just become a poor team overnight. So we need to get back to our levels and we want to show that on Sunday.”
A thumping 20 points separates Celtic and the runaway Ibrox title winners. Kennedy is honest enough to admit his team’s misadventures across the current campaign - which led to Neil Lennon’s departure as manager three-and-a-half weeks ago - do not warrant any better. “The table doesn’t lie when you look at the performances this season and what we’ve delivered,” he said. “But we know we are better than that. We’ve under-performed and Rangers have maximised - that’s why they are champions. They’ve been at full tilt and performed well all season while we haven’t. We know the levels we can get to but we need to get there this weekend. It would lay down a marker that we are still capable and we are still here, and then we can take it forward.”
Celtic have back-pedalled in astonishing fashion across the past six months. It has caused the club to turn in on itself, with the support at war with the team’s management and board. After 19 honours in nine years, Celtic fans have been unable to handle Rangers replacing them as the pre-eminent footballing force in the country. A first derby success of the season for their team following two losses in the fixture - which, in turn, would prevent three straight home defeats to Rangers for the first time in 29 years - could be construed as the first step towards reparation. Kennedy refuses to get caught up in the notion that Celtic owe their supporters a win on Sunday.
“We owe it to ourselves as much as the fans,” he said. “We all accept that responsibility. It’s been a really difficult season for the fans. They’ve put their money into the club when they’ve not been able to attend the games and then with the way the season has gone it’s become very frustrating for everyone. That you can’t get in and support the team as well … that’s very difficult. As much as we owe it to everyone, it’s always about what we do on the field to give the fans that joy and that pride in their team. A Rangers match is one that gives them that if you can go out and perform well and get a big result.”
Whatever else happens on Sunday, Celtic won’t be giving their opponents a guard of honour in recognition of their title success. In that sense, for all the froth generated, convention will be maintained. There is no precedent for either giving the other a guard of honour over a league triumph. "It was the same two years ago when we were champions and if I am being honest, I don't think such a fuss was being made about it. I don't see it as a big issue,” Kennedy said. “We spoke collectively about it and we won't do it. It is not about lacking class, nothing like that, because we are a club that always shows class and dignity and do what is right. But ultimately this same group of players went in as champions and didn't get the respect that time, if you want to call it that. They are the same players who are being asked to stand there. We will just get on with the game, park that, so we will focus fully on the game and just put that to bed.”