Scottish football in 2021: Covid casts a shadow but joy among the gloom for national team, Rangers and St Johnstone
Yet within a year bookended by those wretched Covid restrictions which separate supporters from their teams, there was no shortage of memorable moments for the national sport, some of them even adorned by the noise and colour which we all now know can’t be taken for granted.
Hampden Park delivered a couple of glorious reminders of just how special a full house can be when players and fans form that bond which is integral to football’s place in the country’s consciousness.
Scotland’s dramatic stoppage-time win over Israel in October and the stunning defeat of Denmark the following month, securing seeded status in next March’s World Cup play-offs, saw Steve Clarke and his squad end 2021 on a high note.
It was the year which had earlier seen the national team’s return to a major tournament finals for the first time since 1998, the wait extended a little longer as the Euro 2020 extravaganza was 12 months later than scheduled because of coronavirus.
The soundtrack to the summer for the Tartan Army was provided by their adopted anthem of Baccara’s Yes Sir, I Can Boogie but, on the pitch, there were faltering steps from Clarke’s men who were unable to make the most of having two games at Hampden - albeit in front of restricted attendances of 10,000 - in the group stage.
Patrik Schick scored one of the greatest goals ever seen at the stadium, his strike from just inside the Scotland half leaving David Marshall scrambling as it sealed a 2-0 win for the Czech Republic in the opening game.
A goalless draw against England at Wembley brought restored pride and renewed hope for the Scots but they flopped again on their return to Hampden, losing 3-1 to Croatia to finish bottom of Group D and exit the tournament.
A 2-0 defeat against Denmark in Copenhagen in September had many questioning the timing and wisdom of the Scottish FA’s decision to extend Clarke’s contract as manager but six straight wins since then have dramatically boosted his approval ratings amid genuine optimism that a place at the 2022 World Cup Finals in Qatar is achievable.
On the domestic front, 2021 saw four major pieces of silverware handed out. Remarkably, two of them were claimed by St Johnstone. In February, the Perth club defeated Livingston in the 2020-21 League Cup Final before returning to Hampden three months later to beat Hibs in the Scottish Cup Final.
It was an extraordinary feat for manager Callum Davidson, one which will resonate through the ages in Scottish football history. Yet there is no escaping the transient nature of the game and Davidson ends the year with Saints at the bottom of the Premiership.
Rangers top the table, just as they did at the start of 2021. A 1-0 win over Celtic at Ibrox on January 2 saw them move 19 points clear of their Old Firm rivals in a title race turned into a procession as Steven Gerrard oversaw an undefeated league campaign.
Champions for the first time in a decade, Rangers savoured a triumph which had been three years in the making as Gerrard transformed a previously dysfunctional club both on the pitch and in its training ground environment.
It also turned out to be a success which sated the former Liverpool and England captain’s appetite for the challenge provided by Scottish football.
With Rangers flatlining in the opening months of the 2021-22 campaign, Gerrard’s departure for Aston Villa in November was no great surprise. In his replacement, former player Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Rangers look to have found the ideal man to revitalise them.
As the Ibrox club ended their long wait to reclaim pre-eminence in Scottish football, Celtic’s implosion after their extended period of unprecedented dominance was as shambolic as it was dramatic.
The decision to go ahead with a winter break trip to Dubai in the aftermath of that defeat at Ibrox was, at best, ill-considered. The ramifications of it lingered, both in the shape of Covid-related player absences and the perception they were a club whose management in the boardroom and the technical area had lost their way.
Neil Lennon carried the can, his second spell as Celtic manager ending in February after a 1-0 defeat at Ross County, while Peter Lawwell stepped down as chief executive at the end of the season.
After a protracted and failed attempt to recruit Eddie Howe as Lennon’s replacement, Ange Postecoglou was named as Celtic’s new manager. The Australian coach was faced with a mammoth rebuilding job but has quickly earned the approval of the club’s support, his status enhanced when Celtic claimed this season’s first piece of silverware earlier this month by beating Hibs 2-1 in the League Cup Final at Hampden.
There were also restorative success stories for Hearts and Partick Thistle in 2021, winning the Championship and League 1 respectively to right the wrongs of their inequitable relegations the previous seasons. Robbie Neilson’s side recovering from a shock Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Brora Rangers to sit third in the Premiership at the turn of the year completes an impressive turnaround.
The League 2 title went to Queen’s Park as the country’s oldest club shed their long-cherished amateur status and turned professional.
In what was a sombre year for so many reasons, Scottish football mourned the passing of some of its greatest names. Legendary former internationals Ian St John and Peter Lorimer were among those we have lost, while towards the end of 2021 the deaths of two towering figures, former Rangers manager Walter Smith and Celtic’s beloved Lisbon Lion Bertie Auld, prompted emotional and heartfelt tributes from across the Old Firm divide and beyond.
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