Alas, all good things come to an end.
Such was the case on Sunday.
Though I must admit as I took my seat in front of the big telly down at the local on early Sunday afternoon it was safe to say that I didn’t see it coming.
Quite simply put, Celtic didn’t show up.
They looked lethargic and even slightly apathetic. Hearts, encouraged by recent back to back wins and energised by the presence of young players such as 19-year-old Jamie Brandon and in particular 16-year-old Harry Cochrane go right into our faces from the get-go. They pressed us high up the park and made us work to get the ball out from the back. Craig Levien stated that they followed the blueprint laid down by Anderlecht in their recent successful visit to Celtic Park in the Champions League and that’s hard to dispute.
If anything they executed it better.
It was like visiting Tynecastle a decade ago when they had a capable and combative team that usually started fast and you really knew you were in for a game. Like back then the idea would have been to ride out the storm as the young Hearts team ran themselves into the ground but they opened the scoring through the aforementioned Cochrane and then Jozo Simunovic decided to leave Kyle Lafferty in acres of space and the Ulster sensation raced clear with his picture-perfect stride to lash in a second before celebrating with a cheeky ‘Red hand’ style salute to the visiting support. Good old Kyle eh? A face you’d never tire of slapping.
In the second half, we needed to respond and we duly didn’t.
Big Jozo’s nightmare at the back continued as he let the ball bounce before laying out the red carpet for the previously unknown Manuel Milinkovic – who in fairness actually looks a player – to run through and tap into the net. Just to round things off Craig Gordon got in on the act, gifting a needless penalty late on for Milinkovic to lash in his second and their fourth.
It truly was an awful day. One that came out of nowhere considering this was against an under-strength Hearts team who have been poor for most of the season and are barely in the top six. That plus we were going for an unprecedented 70 games unbeaten and hadn’t lost to Hearts since the Scottish Cup semi-final five and a half years ago.
You had a feeling that we could have played all day and night without scoring, something that hadn’t happened domestically in 76 previous games.
Of course, the usual post-game soothsayers emerged within the support afterwards claiming ‘ it had been coming.’
How exactly I ask?
What because we dominated a game against Hibs last Sunday before letting two points slip in the last 15 minutes?
Or because Scott Sinclair scored a penalty equaliser late on in a game against Motherwell that we also completely dominated and should have been well up in before Lustig scored an unfortunate OG just before the 80th-minute mark?
The truth is nobody saw it coming and it wasn’t just the result but the performance that was pretty mystifying.
Though I guess if you’re gonna go down then go down in flames.
Though I was frustrated in the aftermath I wasn’t really angry.
How could I be?
We’d gone 69 domestic games unbeaten, won 60 of them and collected the last four domestic trophies.
I’ve never known dominance like it and it’s unlikely anyone, including ourselves, will replicate a run like that again.
Part of me is even relieved.
EVERYTHING was becoming about THE RUN.
When would it end?
How long would it go on for?
Could we remain unbeaten for another season? etc, etc.
In amongst all that the emphasis on performances had gotten lost and whilst we aren’t exactly playing badly we are still way off the bar that was set last season. Indeed going into Sunday we’d already dropped more points this season than we had in the entirety of last. Our lead at the top of the table is a rather precarious two points over Aberdeen and we’re only five points clear of our struggling neighbours over at Ibrox.
By comparison this time last year we were 11 points clear of the light blues with two games in hand and 18 points clear of the Dons having played one game fewer. On 41 points so far this term we are five points less well off than at the same point 12 months ago having played two games more. So cause for concern.
All of this stems from the centre of defence. I actually like Simunovic.
I’ve always rated him but truth be told he has been poor recently and he had one of those games yesterday where everything that could go wrong did.
As for Boyata I don’t rate him and never have.
He was thrown under the bus when he first came when his original central defensive partner, the classy Virgil Van Dijk was sold and the often calamitous Efe Ambrose was brought in to replace him. But for me even under Brendan with everyone claiming he’s ‘rejuvenated’ he’s still way off being good enough.
Against PSG over in Paris, everyone in hooped shirts was being played off the park as we crashed 7-1 but Boyata, in particular, looked like he’d been caught in a tumble dryer. I find it bizarre he’s somehow found his way to being involved in the Belgian national team squad recently when you consider the depths of talent they currently have available to them.
Our hammerings in Europe were dismissed as being purely down to the enormous gap in finances.
Any criticism was deflected with the mantra ‘look at the domestic run’.
Now that’s gone and yesterday’s humbling by an average Hearts team, albeit they were inspired on the day, exposes our defensive frailties for all to see.
Investment is required at centre back and not only just in time for the Europea League Last 32 in February or for next season’s assault on the Champions League qualifiers next season but also to reassert domestic supremacy this term.
In the meantime let’s start a new run.
On Wednesday we play a struggling Partick Thistle team rooted to the bottom of the table as their attractive passing football from last year has deserted them. They are leaking goals left, right and centre whilst their confidence is at rock bottom following a 3-0 pasting by fellow strugglers Dundee at Dens on Saturday. They should be the perfect tonic. That then takes us into a three-game schedule that could see us emerge in the New Year way ahead of the pack.
Let’s just get Wednesday out of the way first though.
Paul Cassidy is a Celtic fan and blogger from Glasgow. He’s been warning people about our defence for weeks.