It’s unusual to do an end of year review in football for the simple reason it only de-marks the half way point of the season and we’re still 5 months away from the final placings and the big trophies being handed out.
But it seems apt, simply due the to the fact Celtic have been through so many profound changes over the past 12 months.
That plus the team won’t be kicking a ball in anger for another three weeks.
So what better time to summarise and digest what’s taken place in the year that was 2016?
Back in January we were of course still under the management of Ronny Delia.
With the season only at the half-way point, Celtic were top of the league, in a League Cup semi-final and still had a Scottish Cup campaign to begin that very month. The squad had been reinforced by the additions of exciting Manchester City winger Patrick Roberts on an 18 month loan, central defender and Norwegian international captain Erik Sviatchenko and what could only be described as a bizarre gamble on dread-locked attacker Colin Kazim-Richards from Feyenoord.
Strange then that the manager would be under severe pressure with rumours abounding about his future. However closer inspection of the circumstances underlined why as the Hoops were top by a mere 3 points to an Aberdeen side who had a game in hand.
There had also been another failed Champion’s League qualification when a 3-1 home lead had been thrown away against Malmo in the play-offs as we were eventually beaten 4-3 on aggregate followed by a disastrous Europa League campaign which had resulted in 3 losses, 3 draws and a bottom of the group finish.
January itself was, for the best part, a bumper month for Celtic.
It began with a New Year’s Glasgow derby victory against Partick Thistle with a ten man Celtic grabbing the 3 points via a 90th minute strike by goal machine Leigh Griffiths. The club went onto record 4 consecutive victories (three in the league and one in the national cup) scoring an incredible 18 goals in the process. One of these was the 8-1 trouncing of Hamilton Accies on a cold mid January, Tuesday night.
At this point all seemed well on the good ship Celtic as the club rolled into Hampden for the the League Cup semi against Ross County.
County were no mugs, sitting 4th in the league but looked like they would be the latest victim of a then rampant Celtic as they fell behind after only 26 seconds to a Gary Mackay-Steven goal. Then enter Efe Amrbose as he dithered at the back, conceded a penalty as the last man and was shown red after only 13 mins.
From then on out Celtic collapsed, eventually being beaten 3-1 and any chance of a treble, and possible redemption for Ronny after his European failures went up the proverbial swanny.
February continued where the end of the previous month left off.
Celtic visited Pittodrie to face an Aberdeen side providing a genuine title challenge. The game was the chance to secure a 9 point lead and effectively snuff that said challenge out. It ended in a 2-1 defeat, our second reverse by the same scoreline against the Aberdonians that season on their home patch. The pressure on Delia at this stage was almost insurmountable with many wanting him to walk there and then. He decided to stay on.
For the next 2 and a half months things were actually pretty stable.
Celtic were unbeaten in eleven, with 8 wins and 3 draws.
The league was led by 8 points over an Aberdeen side who were beginning to falter and a second semi-final place of the season had been secured.
The opposition in the said semi was of course our good neighbours from across the city and Sunday, April 17th at Hampden Park would prove to be Ronny Delia’s D-day.
An emphatic victory over city rivals romping to a Championship victory and inevitable promotion may have been just enough to convince some that the Norwegian had a future in Paradise. But ultimately the day became a disaster for the manager.
Though the post-match stats favoured Celtic, the facts were that they had been outplayed and an open goal miss by Paddy Roberts in the first half followed by a sudden-death penalty shoot-out defeat pretty much summed up Delia’s luck in the hot-seat at Parkhead.
He announced he would be leaving at the end of the season not long after.
The rest of the campaign was somewhat academic. Celtic dropped more points but Aberdeen’s title challenge completely collapsed in the final 5 weeks and Celtic secured a 5th consecutive Premiership title with a 3-1 win over Hearts at Tynecastle on the 30th of April. That game was memorable for two other reasons. Colin Kazim-Richards actually scored against someone outside of East Kilbride, a feat seemingly appearing unlikely if not impossible and the players celebrated in front of the away fans with a dance-off featuring spectacular somersaults by Efe Ambrose and Logan Bailey. Ronny Delia clapped uncomfortably in the background.
Celtic received the trophy on the 15th of May with a 7-0 thumping of Motherwell at Celtic Park. Ronny boarded a plane back to his native Norway the following day.
And thus ended his 23 month reign.
There after lay the big question…………who would be replacing him?
Malky Mackay was interviewed. Davie Moyes was allegedly sounded out. When Paul Lambert handed in his notice at Blackburn Rovers after only 6 months he inevitably became the favourite. But there could be only one and in the end Celtic pulled a rabbit out of the hat when Brendan Rodgers was unveiled.
A particular coup when you consider that only two years previously our new manager had come within a whisker of leading Liverpool to their first league championship in 24 years.
Subsequent to his arrival, Hibs ended a 114 year wait for the Scottish Cup by banishing our semi-final conquerors: it never rained for 5 weeks and a clear out of personnel began.
Both Calrton Cole and Colin Kazim-Richards had the curtain come down on completely ineffective if not pointless spells at the club as both departed to the Americas to seek their fortune. Mis-firing Stefan Šcepovic was sold back to Getafe, Charlie Mulgrew & Anthony Stokes joined Blackburn Rovers under freedom of contract and Scott Allan was loaned to Rotherham where he joined Darnell Fisher, also released under the new regime.
Stefan Johansen was sold on for a decent fee to Fulham bringing to an end an tenure which had initially shown so much promise but which ended in mediocrity.
Coming in the opposite direction were veteran Kolo Toure, goalkeeper Dorus DeVries, right back Christian Gamboa, winger Scott Sinclair and a little known striker called Moussa Dembele from Fulham for a 500K fee.
The season started with the indignity of a 1-0 loss to Lincoln Red Imps in the opening leg of the Champion’s League qualification but Brendan kept the head went on to guide us into the group stages for the first time in 3 seasons, unlocking a goldmine of participation riches in the process and domestically he’s been imperious.
Beginning with a hard fought 2-1 win at Tynescatle where new signing Scott Sinclair delivered a wonderful counter attacking winner on his debut the men in Hoops have gone on to dominate all before them in league and cup.
Sometimes the stats don’t lie. This is one of those cases.
As Celtic head in to the winter break they leave behind a first half of the season with an incredible record of 19 wins from 20 league matches, with one draw, 54 goals scored and only 14 conceded. By comparison our closest rivals have netted just over only half that at 28 goals, with an overall goal difference of 33 less and are 19 points behind having played a game more. Seldom in their history have Celtic left Govan after a New Year’s derby in such a dominant position.
Added to that our three meetings with the light blues this term have yielded a 5-1, 1-0 (going on 4-0) and 2-1 (going on 5-2) victories as Celtic have swept aside all before them.
During all of this Celtic have also added their 100th major trophy in securing the League Cup in late November and the treble is a very real possibility.
To say the least it’s been a year of two halves.
The back-room team has been transformed and with it Celtic’s fortunes.
A club lurching towards crisis and struggling for an identity under a manager who was quite simply, and by his own admission, out of his depth has regained it’s place at the big table in Europe and has asserted the type of dominance upon the domestic game this season not seen since the Martin O’Neill era.
The turnaround since April 17th has been emphatic.
Who would have thought when that final whistle sounded at Hampden it would have spelled the dawning of a new era of almost faultless dominance on the home front and a resurgence on the continent? Certainly not Dave King and his acolytes.
They thought it was the dawning of something else.
Indeed little did they suspect that it was more like the curtain coming down on the Mark Warburton magic act.
January will be interesting to see if Brendan can strengthen in what is a notoriously difficult window but one things for certain and that’s that the fans will be right behind him in what ever he does and if another Dembele can be sourced (500K for a 20 year old French under-21 international who’s netted 19 goals in 36 games) then Christmas will have come early, or late.
I hope you had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Be glad all over because we’ve got Moussa Dembele and not Joe(y) Garner.
No, the Southern General still had him last time I checked!
Paul Cassidy is a happy Celtic fan after a fantastic second half of 2016 …