After being eliminated from the Champions League by CFR Cluj in August, Neil Lennon’s side were unbeaten in 11 games at home and abroad, winning nine of them. Following their defeat by tonight’s opponents Livingston at the Tony Macaroni Arena in October, they won each of their next 12 outings in all competitions. Their next defeat, in the Europa League dead rubber in Cluj, preceded four straight wins before a 2-1 home loss to Rangers allowed their rivals close to within two points of them with a game in hand.
Celtic responded with ten wins and a draw in their next 11 games prior to last week’s reverse against FC Copenhagen, after which came Sunday’s 1-0 victory over St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park to claim a place in the last four of the Scottish Cup.
By contrast, Rangers mounted a superb comeback to beat SC Braga 3-2 at Ibrox and then drew with St Johnstone in Perth. An even more impressive win against Braga in Portugal should have given them a fillip: instead, they plumbed the depths in a 1-0 defeat by Hearts at Tynecastle which, in terms of silverware at least, effectively ended their season.
Meanwhile, Lennon’s players remain both driven and blinkered, with a refusal to be sated by success or deterred by disappointments. They live in the moment and one suspects that, if they attended rock concerts, they would not join their peers in filming the performance on their mobile phones instead of savouring the event as it unfolds. They prefer to be here now and the occasional blip such as the error-strewn display against the Danes last week is given no more thought than beating Serie A title contenders Lazio home and away.
“Football is based on everyone making a mistake now and then,” said Brown. “We’re not robots, we’re not perfect: it’s all about how we bounce back. Plus we are willing to work harder than anybody else. We create a lot of chances and we put a lot of faith in our strikers to score goals.
“They do that, our midfielders have chipped in with a lot and big Christopher Jullien and Kristoffer Ajer have scored their fair share too. We have a lot of players who are scoring for us and that means there isn’t a lot of pressure on any one person’s shoulders.
“It’s football, you’re not going to win every game and get everything the way you want it. You have to work hard, and sometimes somebody is going to score a goal or take a chance and beat you but it’s all about how you bounce back – that’s what makes strong mentalities and that’s what a lot of these lads have. You get one knock back but you bounce forward four or five steps and that’s what we believe in.”
Brown also believes that the ability to leave disappointments such as last week’s against Copenhagen behind has been important.
“It was one result in a long season,” he said. “For us, it’s a long year and anything can happen in football. If you start worrying about results that happened two or three games ago, that’s when the form hits rock bottom.
“We just continue looking forward but we don’t speak about ten games ahead. For example, we’ll deal with the Scottish Cup semi-final when it comes around.
“But losing always hurts. The defeat in Europe hurt and the Livingston one [ in October] was hard as well because it was immediately before the international break and we had two weeks to think about it. You get that time off but the main thing is you think about how you played, you get sent the video analysis and look at your own performance or pick out bits and bobs.
“You can’t dwell on it, or over-criticise, for too long. You do that and you start to think it could be a bad week or a bad month. Instead, you think: ‘Let’s not do this or that again, let’s work on it and do better’.
“It’s a checklist. You’re not going to get a 10/10 performance every week. People will make mistakes, there will be a bad pass or a bad tackle. It’s about how you react, recover and learn from it.”