The trophy-grabbing colossus that is Celtic in the domestic game might not have rampaged their way to a treble treble in an ultimately engrossing, nail-biting Scottish Cup final that had elements of mortal combat. But, from a losing position, they prevailed all the same, dragging themselves to the winners’ podium yet again for an achievement utterly gobsmacking – and unparallelled in global football. It deserves repeating: never before in a major footballing top flight has any team won their three domestic trophies in three successive seasons.
There can be a danger of becoming glib over the remarkable annexing of silverware Celtic continued on Saturday, in the process achieving another landmark by lifting the Scottish Cup three years running for a first time in their history. When at times he has seemed inhibited by stepping into Brendan Rodgers’ shoes, it was an outcome that allowed Neil Lennon to walk tall and into the manager’s job permanently, at the end of an afternoon where he betrayed the agonies of a see-sawing contest on the sidelines.
Yet his team’s struggles which, for a brief stage following Ryan Edwards’ 52nd minute opener, had threatened to break them against a Hearts side exhibiting ceaseless application and appetite, served to do more than simply bring commendation for Craig Levein and his men. These struggles demonstrated it isn’t easy to win cup tie after cup tie despite how straightforward it may have appeared at times ahead of this latest triumph, which takes their record run of these to 27 on the spin.
Lennon has presided over the last three of these in this Scottish Cup, so the success belonged to him, and in his three months as temporary successor to Rodgers he has ensured there have been no costly false steps.
Following a near chanceless first period in which the Tynecastle side played cat and mouse with a Celtic team whose previous 140 games across these past three silverware-strewn seasons looked again to be catching up with them, the final burst into life early in the second period.
Even if Hearts were bidding for a first trophy since their fabled 2012 Scottish Cup success, and Celtic looking for a ninth consecutive domestic honour, the confrontation never appeared a match-up of unequals. Hearts, with John Souttar making a superb block on the one occasion that Odsonne Edouard had a clear sight of goal in the first half, appeared as fired up and focused as their history-chasing opponents. And then, seven minutes after the restart, it appeared as if the Gorgie club might topple the mighty giant.
Fittingly, the 16-year-old Aaron Hickey had a hand in it, having stood up so admirably in the Hampden hum, the left-back playing the ball inside to Arnaud Djoum. He created panic and uncertainty among the Celtic defence after knocking the ball into the box where it became bogged down as a series of failed tackles allowed the smart-thinking Sean Clare to backheel into the path of Edwards, who thumped a low effort past the despairing Scott Bain.
The bedlam this provoked among the Hearts half of the ground seemed to act like a code maroon to a teetering Celtic. A team in need of a fresh injection of talent, this astonishingly durable group showed they had one last hurrah in them by finding the means to respond, ratcheting their game up a notch when most in need.
Yet for their last storied cup final comeback they had goalkeeper Bobby Zlamal as an unfortunate accomplice. The Czech was guilty of rank stupidity after coming off his line to confront an Edouard sent through on goal by James Forrest. Zlamal hesitated as the Frenchman sought to nick the ball round him and then thrust his leg out to catch the striker, sending him down in the box. It was a straightforward decision for referee Willie Collum to point to the spot. Embracing a monumental pressure spot-kick, Edouard then slotted in, with Zlamal unable to get a hand to it even though he guessed correctly by diving to his right.
Celtic now had the bit between their teeth. Still, though, when their winner arrived it was out of nothing. A crossfield clearance from the back seemed a nothing hit. But, from nowhere, Mikael Lustig appeared to thunder a header down the middle of the pitch that Edouard was able to fasten on to and break free of a Hearts backline, Christophe Berra fatally losing the forward. Celtic’s £9 million signing still had plenty to do and almost too much time to think as he raced into the box, but Zlamal meeting him at the edge of it set him up to guide the ball into the net with utter conviction.
Hearts had one or two glimpses of goal thereafter but Celtic’s authority was never seriously questioned in the 13 minutes of football that followed. Or, indeed, the three years during which this club have been imperious as no other in the history of our game. Lennon sank to his knees in relief and jubilation at the final whistle that marks the start of another new chapter for the irrepressible Irishman. Scottish football, meanwhile, continues to be brought to heel by an unstoppable Celtic.