Invincibles no more but Celtic’s 69-game run was special

Dejection for the Celtic players at full-time. Picture: SNS
Dejection for the Celtic players at full-time. Picture: SNS
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There was, for Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers at least, a certain symmetry to the greatest undefeated sequence in the history of British football.

Celtic launched their unprecedented 69-game run with a 7-0 thrashing of Motherwell at Parkhead in Ronny Deila’s final match in charge, on 7 May last year.

This, though, will be remembered as Rodgers’ run and it began for him with a 2-1 victory over Hearts at Tynecastle on 7 August, 2016 and it came crashing to an end with a 4-0 defeat by the same opponents at the revamped venue yesterday, more than 16 months later.

Rodgers conceded, as recently as Friday, that his team would lose at some stage, although he would not have anticipated the setback being quite as emphatic as it was when it finally came.

Yesterday’s result may have provided the likes of Aberdeen and Rangers with a glimmer of hope that the Premiership leaders may be about to lose their grip on the title but the smart money suggests otherwise.

It is impossible to build and extend such a run without the players and management concerned possessing mental strength as well as technical ability.

Those 69 games were by no means all one-sided processions, with their rivals capitulating before a ball had been kicked.

Celtic had to grind out results along the way, coming from behind to win and draw while displaying both fortitude and a pride in the history they were making.

That approach, allied to their undoubted skill, saw them become the first British club to complete a campaign unbeaten in all three domestic tournaments. And, with last month’s 
Betfred Cup final victory over Motherwell, it also saw them capture four successive trophies.

Rodgers will shrug off the 4-0 towsing at Tynecastle in the same way he dismissed previous hammerings in Europe by Barcelona, Paris St Germain and Bayern Munich. He will attempt to learn what he can from that reverse but he will already be planning for Wednesday’s home game against the top tier’s bottom club, Partick Thistle, knowing that a victory
will restore Celtic’s five-point advantage over Aberdeen.

Indeed, it would be no surprise if, privately, Rodgers is stressing to his squad that they must now construct another lengthy period without losing in the league and the Scottish Cup.

Those players have, unsurprisingly, looked a little leggy in recent weeks. The match against Hearts was their ninth in 29 days and, with four fixtures still to come before the end of the month, this was always going to be the most likely time for an upset.

Certain pundits at home and elsewhere will be pleased that Rodgers’ side have finally been shown to be fallible. There were complaints that their 69-game run was damaging the image of Scottish football, a ridiculous claim and one which also served as an attempt to undermine the magnificence of the achievement. And it was magnificent. For any team in any league in any country in the world to go more than 19 months without bending the knee to their local adversaries is truly remarkable.

Critics carp about the financial advantages Celtic enjoy over the rest of the top-tier clubs, as if being run properly and making substantial profits is somehow a bad thing (Rangers, for example, continue to run at a loss and have admitted that they will do so until they can compete in the Europa League group stages and no-one appears willing to pinpoint the flaw in that plan).

In any case, PSG’s Qatari oil money makes them the wealthiest club by far in Ligue 1 but 
that couldn’t prevent them losing to lowly Strasbourg a fortnight ago.

Bayern Munich occupy the same position in the Bundesliga.
They’re known as FC Hollywood for a reason but they’ve lost to Hoffenheimn and Borussia Munchengladbach this season.

Celtic have been the richest club in Scotland since the turn of the century but that did not translate itself into invincibility until Rodgers arrived.

The Irishman is a driven individual and that single-mindedness is reflected in his team. The word the players most often use to describe his attitude is “relentless” and, without that incessant demand for perfection, they could never have racked up 60 matches without a setback.

Rodgers was gracious in defeat yesterday but that does not mean it will not have stung him. One imagines that he will be even more determined now to become the first manager to win consecutive trebles.

The Invincibles are no more but their feat deserves to be celebrated.