Celtic review of 2020: A year of extremes in the extreme
Sometimes the best appraisals are the product of self reflection.
At Celtic’s AGM the other week, club chairman Ian Bankier described 2020 as a year of “extreme highs and extreme lows”. Ain’t that so. Whatever happens in the second half of the 2020-21 season - and even the typically pollyannish former Celtic striker John Hartson admitted it would take a “minor miracle” for Neil Lennon’s men to overturn a 16-point deficit and so land the obsessed-over 10-in-a-row – the club will always have their quadruple treble.
In the passage of time, the full extraordinary nature of this feat will be appreciated. It has become almost glib to talk of the four consecutive domestic clean sweeps as something that will never be seen again. To attempt to give the astonishing run its proper context, it is even a stretch to see any Scottish club getting within halfway of the achievement. Consider that until Brendan Rodgers swept in at Celtic in 2017, and embarked upon a glorious period that torched the record books, no club in more than 70 years had even strung together back-to-back trebles.
The quadruple treble is, then, a success for all ages. The pity of it is that the six-month delay in bagging it - thanks to the bonkers penalty shoot-out victory over Hearts in the Scottish Cup final last week - made it instantly feel like a relic of bygone, better times. The time-warp decider necessitated by the global lockdown in March, as the world was turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic, plonked the accomplishment into a period where the almost supernatural powers Celtic had displayed bringing it to life had effectively evaporated.
It is impossible to discuss the club’s 2020 without reference to the deadly virus. It appears to have cost Celtic so much for reasons not always easily discernible. Neil Lennon’s team pre-covid and in the age of covid bear only a passing resemblance. When the season was halted in mid-March, never to return - much to the chagrin of so many - with Celtic subsequently called champions following that vote that sealed a record-equalling ninth straight title - the Parkhead side were unstoppable. Striding towards the title by a whopping margin in holding a 13-point advantage over a buckling Rangers, nothing would have stood in their way of racking up the quadruple treble in the semi-final and final of the Scottish Cup then still pending.
A quadruple treble, by the way, that would appear to remain unparalleled in world football, despite what Lincoln Red Imps have cheekily suggested recently. The Gibraltar team’s assertion they claimed a quintet treble between 2003 and 2008 isn’t wrong. But it isn’t the treble against which Celtic’s feats are being compared, since it doesn’t comprise a top flight championship and two national cup competitions. Red Imps’ third string trophy, the Pepe Reyes Cup, is a one-off “super cup” game between the winners of the league and cup, the equivalent of England’s community shield...which no team down south has ever incorporated to claim a treble.
Celtic are sensitive to such downplaying of their remarkable run, even to suggestions the sheen has been taken off it through the club currently enduring their most uncertain period in a decade. Yet, that is what has ensued since the return of a covid-compliant form of football in August. Since that time Celtic have seemed bedevilled, and it feels as if they and their Ibrox rivals have undergone some sort of body swap; Steven Gerrard’s men becoming the unstoppable force in the league as their ancient adversaries spectacularly lost their way.
On and off the pitch. More than any shambolic defending that has stalked Celtic this season, and left the support unhinged about the undermining of the non-negotiable capture of the neurosis-inducing 10, the most unedifying spectacles associated with the club were the violent protests from neddish fans outside the stadium demanding the ousting of Lennon and the Celtic board. They came during a ruinous form run of only two wins in 12 games. A sequence that brought Europa League humiliation, the halting of the record run of cup-tie successes at 35 games in a home League Cup encounter against Ross County, and faltering league form that handed a humungous title advantage to Rangers.
The Celtic board deserves a certain admiration for standing by Lennon when the pressure to jettison him as his team imploded across October and November - with the first five-game home run without a win since 1957 and the first run of five-games without a victory in all competitions for 23 years - appeared to have become impossible to resist. With the recent renaissance that has brought four straight victories - and, of course, the banking of the quadruple treble - they will consider their tolerance has been justified. The fact is, though, short of Lennon guiding Celtic to wins in every one of their 22 Premiership encounters to come - including the daunting test at Ibrox on January 2 - they are unlikely to enjoy the happy ending they so desperately desire for the Irishman and their 10 quest.
Yet, it is difficult to know where to apportion blame for that, beyond blaming the fates. Losing two league games to Boli Bolingoli’s covid-breaching unauthorised overnight trip to Spain, which put them on the back foot in the title campaign from the opening weeks, seemed to set a tone. At various points, they have lost the services of no fewer than five players because of covid-related issues arising from international trips. In addition, the decision to hold on to all their main players in the summer despite such as Odsonne Edouard, Kristoffer Ajer and Olivier Ntcham patently desiring moves, has appeared to backfire. Similarly with an unprecedented outlay on new players; arrivals such as Vasilis Barkas, Shane Duffy and Albian Ajeti becoming problems rather than solutions to them. But they’ll always have the quadruple treble.
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