The entertaining Scottish Cup final was the perfect ending to Celtic and Brendan Rodgers’ historic season, writes Joel Sked.
Scottish football has had its detractors this season. Then again, it always has. But with the arrival of box-office names, namely Brendan Rodgers and Joey Barton, interest south of the border increased ten-fold.
Much-maligned in some circles in England, Rodgers looked to rebuild a damaged reputation in Scotland, or more pertinently Celtic. The team he says he was “born into”. As he has done so, he has drawn inquisitive English eyes.
Those nosy eyes increased in number as Celtic moved through the season: From showing the way to combat Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City to the Betfred Cup, to the Ladbrokes Premiership title to an unbeaten league season, to the Scottish Cup, the treble and to Scottish football’s first ever unbeaten domestic season. Forty-seven matches not out.
One former footballer, now a radio ‘personality’, who we will not name, called the Premiership an “appalling league” and that the “standard is shocking”. I would hope he tuned in to Saturday’s final and reassessed his opinion. But I wouldn’t advise holding your breath.
What he and many others would have witnessed was the stunning denouement of Celtic’s historic season in a fascinating game between the country’s best two sides.
From Aberdeen’s strong start, through two early goals and countless saves, to Tom Rogic’s dramatic injury-time winner this was an engrossing final. As Rodgers scaled the Hampden steps to lift the trophy he became only the third Celtic manager to have led his side to a treble, joining exalted company in Martin O’Neill and Jock Stein.
More than 12 months ago, Celtic fans trudged out of Hampden having been defeated by Championship Rangers. They wanted change, they needed it. It would have hurt at the time but that defeat could not have worked out better for Celtic. The board were prompted into action and Rodgers was recruited.
With the club celebrating the 50th anniversary of the famous Lisbon Lions they required a special season to honour their heroes, their legends. They have done just that, the treble and unbeaten domestic season a fitting tribute to the men who became immortals on an evening in Portugal 50 years ago.
They have created their own history, and much of that is down to the influence of Rodgers. Celtic and their manager have come along way since an inauspicious start behind an airport runway in Gibraltar. That defeat to Lincoln Red Imps provoked much laughter towards the club, but they have had the last laugh. Winning the league by 30 points, coasting to victory in the Betfred Cup final against Aberdeen before breaking the hearts of the same opponents at Hampden on Saturday.
It wasn’t Celtic’s best performance under the Northern Irishman. Derek McInnes and Aberdeen made it extremely difficult for 70 minutes. The Dons were brave and stood toe-to-toe with their rivals for so long.
Aberdeen simply did not allow Celtic to find their rhythm. They knew if they did so then that would be the game as good as over. Instead, Graeme Shinnie, Jonny Hayes, Kenny McLean and Ryan Jack ran, chased and harried out of possession, When they had the ball they were positive in their passing, direct, slick and created chances.
Celtic were left frustrated and flustered, the first time they have been made to look so ordinary for so long in a domestic match this season. Scott Brown wasn’t allowed to dictate, Leigh Griffiths was surprisingly isolated and handled competently by Ask Taylor and Mark Reynolds. Patrick Roberts and Scott Sinclair were on the periphery for too long. Stuart Armstrong was the one positive, trying to drive Celtic forward.
Yet, this only highlights how far this Celtic team have come under Rodgers. They didn’t fold. They battled, they waited and when their time came they struck eventually.
Aberdeen’s legs were starting to wibble then wobble as the game entered the final 20 minutes. Mentally they may have been affected by McInnes’ decision to replace Niall McGinn with Anthony O’Connor. Perhaps the Dons boss wanted more control but it simply handed the impetus and momentum to Celtic.
But they found Joe Lewis in inspired form. The English keeper has been excellent throughout the season and presents a formidable barrier to opposition. He produced a world class save to tip a Roberts shot on to the post. But he was eventually beaten by a stylish Rogic solo, evading O’Connor, who had been brought on to shackle the Australian, and then Andrew Considine all to easily.
It was deep in to injury-time and simply epitomised the relentlessness of this Celtic team. They knocked on the door, they rang the bell, they shouted through the letterbox. They considered knocking down the front door but simply walked around and opened the side door. Simple.
Rodgers spoke of the players’ fitness levels in his post-match interview. It was something which Brown alluded to in an excellent interview with Michael Stewart in a package for the BBC’s cup final build-up. He said his legs were gone after last season and worried about being finished as a player.
Rodgers came in and reinvigorated him, it has been one of the midfielder’s finest season in his career. It is a theme which runs throughout the squad. Armstrong, who netted another accurate, long-range strike for his 17th goal of the season, has progressed to become one of the best midfielders available to Celtic.
James Forrest, Kieran Tierney, Moussa Dembele, Patrick Roberts, Callum McGregor, Jozo Simiunovic, Craig Gordon. The cast is endless.
Even when Rodgers has got it wrong he gets it right. His dropping of Gordon for the erratic Dorus de Vries was a strange move. But Gordon improved and came back stronger and better. A more rounded goalkeeper despite being the wrong side of 30. He was produced a number of fine saves throughout the final.
Rodgers has simply taken Celtic, individually and collectively, to another level. Rather than criticise the gulf between Celtic and their league rivals, they should be held up as a barometer, for other clubs to raise their quality, their standards to close gap. After all, under the former Liverpool boss, Celtic are only on an upward curve.
Scotland has been good for him and he has been good for Scotland. But, on this day, most importantly he has been good for Celtic. A treble and a place in the Scottish football history books was confirmed on an afternoon which produced another fantastic advert for Scottish football.