This time last year we were on the verge of wrapping up a season in which we had secured a league championship, but in a wholly unsatisfying manner. The manager had announced his intention to leave. There was a feeling that our club was adrift, that it was listless. We were facing a monumental summer, one of the most important in our history.
Some fans dreaded the appointment of a new boss, worried about who it might be. They worried that our club might take a gamble, or worse, that we might go for a “safe” option like Coyle or someone equally uninspiring. Many thought we needed a complete rebuild of the squad. There were good reasons, it seemed, to be afraid.
Sevco, in contrast, were riding high. They had won the Championship, they had beaten us in the Scottish Cup and were preparing to play Hibs in the final. Their manager, Mark Warburton, was a darling of the media. Their fans loved him. He was the Man with the Magic Hat. There was all sorts of talk about who they might sign in the summer.
And then just six days later, everything changed. We appointed Brendan Rodgers manager, on the eve of the Scottish Cup final. We wiped Sevco’s preparations for the game off the front and back pages and we grabbed those headlines for ourselves. The mood amongst the supporters was utterly transformed. The Celtic fans were suddenly invigorated. Interest in season tickets went through the roof. The club had found its purpose.
Sevco lost the Scottish Cup final. Warburton disappeared for a month. When he finally surfaced it was pretty clear that something at Ibrox was far wrong. His signings were ridiculous; the Barton deal was always going to explode in his face. Kranjcar hadn’t played more than a handful of games in two or more years. Rossiter was a player with a dreadful injury record. There were issues with all of their “marquee” players, which research made easy to find. In addition, their star players from that campaign had shown serious weaknesses in their own game.
After the cup semi-final defeat, I had written an article for Fields which I called The Storm Before The Calm, in which I argued that Celtic was not a club in bad shape, but one that had bad leadership. I knew that result might backfire on Sevco, that it might result in a re-think of the strategy which had caused so many of us to have doubts. I knew that with the right manager at the helm we would be a different proposition. In an article for this site I ran through my short-list of candidates, and declared my preference, in the weeks after the season ended.
The guy I said should be boss, above all others, was Brendan.
His appointment was transformative. It made our summer, yet even then we had to endure all manner of sheer nonsense emanating from the media. We made three big signings, two of them which proved key to our campaign.
But the press attention was all on Ibrox as the has-beens showed up to take their slice of the cake. Numerous hacks got completely carried away, letting the blue tint discolour reality so much so that they tipped Sevco for the title and named Barton Player of the Year before a ball had even been kicked. Looking back on it now, it’s embarrassing for them.
Not a single Celtic fan I know was concerned about what they were doing. Even those who thought Barton and the others would be good signings and not form a multi-car pileup were largely ambivalent about what was going on over there. With Brendan at the helm confidence was high. We knew big things were in motion at Celtic Park and it was wholly unimportant what was happening anywhere else. I’ve never known such calm amongst our fans.
Fast forward twelve months and the feeling amongst Celtic fans is euphoric. Sevco fans are shell-shocked at a season where they have been beaten five times by us and where they’ve failed on almost every major occasion. The form of the team has been dreadful; even their wins have been characterised by appalling football. Their first team squad is scandalously inept, with much of the money of the last five years utterly wasted.
They will sell season tickets. Perhaps not as many as last season, but the media will help by spreading stories designed to make their plans (if you can call them that) sound good. But there’s no feel-good factor. Even with good signings they aren’t convinced by the manager. They can suspend disbelief if their board finds some money for players, but they know it won’t be enough to catch us because we will spend too, and it’s likely that we’ll outdo them by a factor of more than 3-1. This is us spending £15 for their £5’s if they are lucky.
And they won’t be. In truth, the spending differential is likely to be 4 or 5 to 1. There is only one period in the history of the three clubs that corresponds to that, and it was the era before Fergus took over our club. They can’t compete on those terms.
Their fans, those who bother to buy tickets, will certainly feel it as the summer rumbles on. They could be on the razors edge of revolt before the season even gets underway, and if they have a bad start – as Warburton did – the man in the dugout won’t get the luxury of time to turn it around. Most are already wholly unconvinced by him.
On top of that, who knows what might happen with King and the Takeover Panel? That case is rumbling along in the background. Justice moves slowly but it moves. There will be a showdown, and if it doesn’t come towards the end of this season it will come just after it, and if the club suffers consequences in connection to it they could wind up in real bother.
They will play in Europe, in an early round. It will be a stiff test of them, and considering how poor they look in Scotland it’s a sure-fire bet that even a modestly endowed team would put them out, possibly in humiliating fashion. When it sinks in how far they are from ever qualifying for the Groups of a major tournament the mood will get very ugly indeed.
This is the most important summer in their short history, and their fans are dreading each and every second of it. They will watch other clubs as they strengthen. They will compare what their club does with ours in particular. They will watch their manager and every step he takes.
And their fear is valid. It is based on real stuff. There will be no overblown predictions going into the next campaign; not one journalist will take Sevco as champions this time around. Most will view the title race as a formality before it even starts.
This is the first time in living memory for most of their supporters that they will begin a league race knowing they will not be title contenders. The so-called “journey” was made easier because they were clearly the favourites in every season and even last year they were able to kid themselves that there was a chance.
They go into the next campaign knowing there is none.
They’ve never had to deal with that before, and they don’t even know how to start processing it, how to come to terms with it. They need to. Because this season will be next season will be the season after that, and that far into the future.
Their board is terrified of all this. If we upstage them this summer – as looks very likely – they will face tougher questioning that they can handle.
Celtic’s performances on the park are what scares them right now; the summer provides them with more reasons to be afraid, though, as we will outspend them, claim the back pages as our own and make seven in a row certain.
Their only hope is to do enough in the next few weeks to sell enough tickets that they can survive, narrowly, into the new campaign. It relies on the gullibility of their own fans, and whatever fairy stories they can promote through the media about big name signings coming in.
It is a forlorn hope.
This is a board marking time, waiting for the end.