The Rudyard Kipling poem If comes to mind when assessing the remarkable first season endeavours of Celtic’s manager. Or more specifically, the theme developed over the importance of keeping your head when all around are losing there to rise above the twin imposters of triumph and disaster. The Australian architect and builder of Celtic’s tenth championship in 11 years did just that as hopes of the 56-year-old having the immediate desired impact started to drain alarmingly across the early months of his tenure. He spread calm and assurance even as 11 points were spilled over the first seven cinch Premiership games through trusting the process, and trusting that his team would find their way once a host of new players had been bedded in. He has admitted Celtic’s league success took “every ounce” out of him, but in fact he poured every ounce of his experiences across 25 years producing title-winning teams to make it happen. In doing so, the initially unfancied Postecoglou in these parts has now become universally feted. A coach and character of real substance, his transformation of Celtic – who have now racked up 31 game sequence without loss in the cinch Premiership – required a special coaching talent. There is now none who can doubt that he demands to be regarded as such.
One of the many fantastical facets of Celtic’s latest top flight success is that nine of the players that now have first pick status in the set-up weren’t at the club before Ange Postecoglou pitched up last June. There is no precedent for a club going through such a player churn as they have bested all others in Scotland’s upper stratum. Essentially, 14 senior signings have been sanctioned by the Celtic manager. The full number of additions could be considered 17. However, the club had committed to deals for Liam Shaw and Osaze Urhoghide – signed under freedom of contract from Sheffield Wednesday – before his appointment. Meanwhile, teenage striker Johnny Kenny was purchased from Sligo Rovers in January more as a development player.
Postecoglou has enjoyed an astonishing strike rate with the personnel acquired to revitalise the crumbling squad he inherited with Cameron Carter-Vickers, Kyogo Furuhashi, Jota, Giorgos Giakoumakis, Liel Abada, Carl Starfelt, Joe Hart, Josip Juranovic, Daizen Maeda, Reo Hatate and Matt O’Riley all proving integral to Celtic usurping a seemingly unassailable Rangers.
Just as Ange Postecoglou appeared to be handed an impossible task, so too the man he named as captain to replace the seemingly irreplaceable heartbeat and armband wearer of 12 years, Scott Brown. Somehow, remarkably, the 28-year-old midfielder proved more than able to fill the gaping void created by Brown’s departure; demonstrating the on-field drive, leadership skills and unifying qualities to become totemic for the new squad around him precisely in the fashion of his old mentor. An astonishing feat.
The return of supporters
There is no question that the absence of fans, as a result of Covid-19 restrictions last season, affected Celtic more than most clubs. And that it did lend an artificiality to the behind-closed-doors games as the Parkhead club flunked out in pursuit of a record 10th straight title. You need look no further than the same Liverpool players being unbeaten at home in the English Premier League this season after suffering six straight losses at an empty Anfield last term for evidence of the latter. Full houses gave Celtic back their fizz, with the bond between those in the stands and those in the pitch a traditional bedrock for the club’s successes.
The return to this normality also allowed for a sense of renewal to be palpable following the failures in their horrendous pandemic campaign. It is debatable as to whether the late winners away to Ross County in December and at home to Dundee United in February would have ensued if there weren’t thousands on the sidelines doing their utmost to suck the ball into the net. And the electric atmosphere for Celtic’s 3-0 home derby success the midweek after the United denouement was key to them performing as if they had been zapped by 20,000 volts.
The derby outcomes
There were a number of boxes that Postecoglou absolutely had to tick off for Celtic to earn the title. Chief among these was reversing their fortunes in the league meetings with Rangers. He did that, and with the points differential between the Glasgow title challengers a mere four points, his team’s seven-point return from the four fixtures between the pair (set against Rangers’ four-point haul) ultimately has settled the championship in Celtic’s favour. A slender loss with a half-old/half-new team at Ibrox in August meant the Parkhead side went into the second league meeting of Scotland’s big two without a derby win in two-and-a-half years and six Premiership encounters when they faced each other in February.
The thumping 3-0 success that night for Postecoglou’s men altered everything about the title race, never mind that it sent Celtic to the top of the table. In essence, it was the first time it was seriously entertained that the Australian’s revamped side could snatch the title back from Rangers. And when Celtic then embarked on a faultless run before the pair’s next head-to-head at Ibrox two months later, digging in for a 2-1 victory at home of their rivals allowed them to open up a six-point advantage that was never going to be over-turned in the closing six weeks of the season. Well, just about. Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men could have made the title issue live again had they beaten Celtic in Glasgow’s east end a fortnight ago. However, again they couldn’t get the better of their ancient adversaries, with the 1-1 draw completing a trio of Premiership outcomes that proved to be decisive.