In one respect, 2019 could be presented as simply a rerun of its most immediate predecessors. Only the name of Celtic was engraved on the three domestic trophies handed out across the past 12 months – as was the case in 2018, and 2017. Yet, in sweeping the boards once again, Celtic’s staggering monopoly of the country’s domestic honours made for a year, not just without parallel, but one appearing to belong to a parallel universe.
The double treble accomplished the previous year was considered to have breached the outer limits of what seemed possible in opening up a new frontier. To follow that with a treble treble and, three weeks ago, a tenth straight trophy triumph, has catapulted Celtic’s current Scottish silverware streak into an entirely different stratosphere.
The accomplishments are all the more remarkable because of two planetary alignments. Celtic are now in a patently more challenging environment as a consequence of the strides made by Rangers under Steven Gerrard, inset right. These have been profound. The advancement claimed the Ibrox club a top-two finish in the game’s upper stratum for the first time since their 2012 liquidation required them to reform in the bottom tier. On the home front, it was further confirmed only three weeks ago with their dominance of the Betfred Cup final. Only bad breaks and Fraser Forster’s brilliance prevented them breaking their rivals’ trophy stranglehold that afternoon.
Celtic’s ability to stay an inconceivable course in the face of exacting circumstances was never better illustrated than in the wake of events across the closing days of February, though. Then their world appeared to be knocked off its axis with the shock departure of Brendan Rodgers, right. He was a Celtic manager whose two-and-a-half-year tenure had resulted in everything he touched turning to silverware. A capacity that seized him seven straight trophies for a faultless and incomparable record.
It did not prevent the Celtic support accusing the Irishman of treachery on a Guy Fawkes scale when he burned his bridges to trade his “dream” job for the vacancy that had opened up at Leicester City.
Their neuroses over the perceived wrecking of a slice of history, over which they had become obsessional, blinded them to Rodgers simply moving to a higher-profile post in the game’s only truly global football set-up. And in relishing the sense of Celtic operating at an exalted level that had been created by Rodgers’ presence at their club, the dramatic break with the Irishman also progressively blinded them to the outrageous fortune of having Neil Lennon available to step in immediately. The fact he could be presented to the media within hours of Rodgers clearing his desk spoke to another of the themes of 2019 – his free-agent status the product of a messy end to his two-and-a-half years in charge at Hibs a matter of four weeks previously.
Messy ends to managerial stints – from the brief to the bankable – impacted on a host of Premiership clubs.
Six of the current 12 top-flight teams will go into 2020 with different men in charge as took them into 2019: Hibernian, Hamilton Accies, Celtic, Kilmarnock, St Mirren and Hearts. In the case of Hibs and Kilmarnock, the unhappy stints of Paul Heckingbottom and Angelo Alessio, made the year essentially a three-manager period for those clubs. Indeed, Hearts can be placed in the same bracket. It is difficult to see the chain of events that flowed from bagging Craig Levein following an alarming downturn, before giving his assistant Austin MacPhee more than a month at the helm… only for Daniel Stendel to come on board and the Tynecastle ship to plumb even further belong the water line in his early weeks.
Celtic supporters might now pretend otherwise, but they wanted a successor to Lennon-the-Rodgers-successor by the time last season was out. Certainly, there was gratitude and relief that the former Celtic manager was able to “come home” to “get the treble treble done” in the role of interim. But the attitude changed thanks to stuttering, uneven performances as Lennon closed in on his quarry. The absence of authoritative displays extended even to the Scottish Cup final, when a late double from Odsonne Edouard was required to break a Hearts side that had gone in front. The result was widespread resentment from the Celtic masses when the 48-year-old was given the job in the shower area at Hampden in the minutes after a third straight honours clean sweep was wrapped up.
Lennon has inverted all these perceptions with outstanding results in recent months as Celtic have rediscovered an attacking mojo lost even in the final year under Rodgers. Lennon stood tall when the brickbats came his way in the aftermath of the hapless Champions League qualifying exit at home to Cluj, and in the subsequent Europa League campaign this ushered in, his team stood taller. Defined by memorable home-and-away victories over Lazio, they became the first Scottish team to claim first place in a European group with two games to spare.
And, just as with a domestic scene in which Gerrard’s men – fuelled by 28 strikes from the goal-ravenous Alfredo Morelos – have matched them for disposing of Scottish opponents in a manner not witnessed from the two big beasts since the early 2000s, Rangers kept pace with their rivals for renewed continental competitiveness to progress to the Europa League last 32.
As a result, 2020 will open up with the country boasting two clubs in the knock-out stages of European competition for the first time in 12 years. It is unlikely to offer any great comfort to the rest of Scottish football, but as they stretch away in tandem once more from the rest within their borders, at least the two Glasgow clubs are also stretching the parameters over what seems possible when they travel abroad.