Our Team Is On The Verge Of Something Monumental. Nights Like Last Night Are Understandable.

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Last night was not a typical “after the title is won” match. It was heavy going. The players and the fans seemed jittery. Ordinarily, after a league championship is bagged, you can expect the team to stutter a wee bit as they take their eye off the ball. That isn’t what happened last night; these guys are now labouring under tremendous pressure, that of dawning history. They know what’s at stake and it is beginning to tell. Understandably.

The psychology of this is interesting to me.

You can approach this in many ways, using examples from your own life and those of people around you.

I prefer to think of it from the perspective of a gamer.

If you’re a computer games geek you’ll know what I mean. One of the things that makes the Steam platform on the PC so invaluable is that it keeps score for you, and offers you a series of rewards and achievements for what you accomplish when playing one of your games. Many Steam based games now come with a “perfect score” achievement, and the hard-core players are always trying to get their hands on one.

You’ll all know I’m a Football Manager fan. The “Invincible” award on Steam – for completing a league campaign without losing – has been won by a mere 9.4% of all players. That’s actually a lot more than I’d have thought; the “Dominion” award – for winning three consecutive top division titles – is one I’ve held myself, and only 5.6% of players on the current version have won that. I’ve never come close to an “Invincible” season.

Under normal circumstances, nobody sets out to achieve a perfect score. It just sort of happens.

But even if you are attempting it from the start, a weird dynamic happens as you go on.

It doesn’t matter how good you ordinarily are, as you edge into the grey area where that achievement becomes possible, and you start thinking about it, you start to make mistakes you ordinarily would never make. You begin overthinking things. You tweak and change your usual way of playing.

The closer you get the more you second guess your decisions, if the game allows you that kind of time. Whereas under normal circumstances you would simply start again when you lose, it becomes weighty, and real pressure starts to sink in.

If you’re a gamer you’ll understand that pressure, and how easy it is to slip up, especially late in the day. If Steam could keep stats on “near things” I’d be willing to bet that the failure rate climbs exponentially the closer people get to the end.

I play games to relax. I couldn’t handle trying for a perfect score.

That’s more stress than I need in my life.

I get the jitters every time I get an unfancied team to a cup final or when I’m on the brink of a decisive battle in Total War.

I know the pressure the most committed gamers must feel when on the verge of a perfect score must be a hundred times bigger.

Amplify that a thousand more times, and you get some sense of where our players must be right now, in their own heads.

How would you like to be the guy whose misplaced pass cost an unbeaten season and a permanent place in the history books? Imagine being in a fifty-fifty with the keeper in a close game and knowing what getting the ball past him had hinging on it?

I can’t fault our players for not being at their best last night.

I understand exactly why they struggled. Weary legs are one thing, but add that pressure and you’re in a whole different place. That’s why a home tie with Thistle was so fraught. It has nothing to do with complacency or anything else; these guys are on the verge now. Back when we were knocked of Europe I worried about complacency; I don’t any longer. I had no idea then we’d still have something to play for at this stage in the league campaign, but here we are, and this is enormous.

A lot of these players will experience title winning seasons again. All those who remain at Celtic Park beyond this campaign most certainly will. But none of them will ever again accomplish what’s in front of them right now, and I say that knowing one of them already has, of course; Kolo Toure did it at Arsenal. He, in fact, is on the verge of becoming the world’s first footballer to be part of two different sides who’ve had an unbeaten league campaign.

Yet even that is small fry; we’re on the verge of being one of only two sides ever who’s got through an entire domestic campaign, including the cup competitions, without losing a match. That prospect is now tantalisingly real, and the pressure of that must be all the greater.

This is where a good manager is such a vital asset to a team. Gordon Strachan was able to get our players across a line I never thought he could when we won the last eight games in a row in season 2007-08. His philosophy, which he shared with Neil Lennon in 2012, was to instil in the players the simple idea that leagues are won, and history is made, one game at a time. To concentrate only on each individual match, separating it from the bigger picture.

These are the moments when I’m most thankful for a guy with the experience Brendan has. He has, of course, been through the heartbreak of seeing a team come close to a monumental achievement, and he will be ever mindful of Steven Gerrard’s horror moment when a single slip in an otherwise magnificent season cost his Liverpool side the shot at the their EPL crown. Experiences like that are what make great bosses, though. He will have learned.

What Celtic players need to do from now until the end of the season is try to forget all the white noise around them. They are the best team in Scotland, and when they focus on playing their own game nobody can touch them. Everyone wants to be the team that stops this run, but then every side wants to beat us in every game no matter what. The equation is no different than the one we face every single week.

The irony of all this, of course, is that with records like this in front of a team they work harder than ever. They push beyond their physical limits. As pressure increases, so too does determination and effort and the will to win. That’s no small thing.

And there’s one other thing, and it might well be the greatest thing that we take from this campaign. A team which can hold its nerve in those fraught, desperate moments on the road to an invincible season isn’t one which will buckle under the normal pressures of a game. When Champions League qualification is on the line next time around this team will not crack. They will endure, because this is a tougher task than that could ever prove to be.

A team that can do this is made out of iron, physically and mentally.

If these players can accomplish it … well, there’s no telling what they might do for an encore.

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