This weekend will not make this Celtic team champions, but it will take us to the end of the journey that started, in some ways, when we won our first away game of the campaign in the league and this side started to find its footing.
Every football fan recognises that when you look back over the course of a campaign that there are games whose importance only emerges in hindsight, when you can see they were crucial, that they were turning points. This season has been odd in that most of us realised how big those moments were even as we were living them.
No-one, for example, was in the slightest doubt that the Ross County last minute winner from Ralston was massive, even as we witnessed it being scored. Nobody questioned that the late goal at Celtic Park, against Dundee Utd, which enabled us to go top if we beat the Ibrox club in February, was a genuine game changer. The February win over our rivals was, of course, critical and so was the victory on their ground which extended our lead.
As much as those games, we all knew that things were finally starting to go our way when we ended a long run of away games without a win by beating Aberdeen 2-1 at Pittodrie on 3 October, and then followed that up with a win at Motherwell a fortnight later. That was the start of it. That was when this team started to produce.
The team that did it now stands on the brink of history. For some of these players it will be the first major title of their careers. For others, it will be another step on a journey that they were on prior to Celtic. For more still, it will be the continuation of what started when they won the League Cup thanks to Kyogo’s two moments of brilliance.
There is something special about a first title, or even a first title at a new club. It will be the making of some of these guys. That taste of success, of glory, and that sense that this is a team that is just getting started, will drive these guys forward to the next level and the next success and the next set of achievements.
In some cases, it may explain the hestiency of a handful of players at Hampden. There was, as Callum McGregor said in the aftermath, a fear of losing that replaced the drive for victory that day, and that may have been why we were so flat. Teams which are used to that kind of pressure and turn up in the frame of mind that “yes, we’ve been here and done that” don’t freeze up the way we seemed to … that won’t happen once this team is used to winning, used to turning up for finals. Once this team are champions.
You see it all the time in teams who have won things; they develop an air of self-belief, at times almost of invincibility. The Invincible Treble team had that aura about them to the extent it survived 18 months after a change of manager. That’s what winning things consistently, regularly, does for a side … it almost makes winning easier.
It’s one of the reasons, I think, that many of us are confident about next season even before we know whether we’ll keep Jota and Carter VIckers, without knowing what state our closest rivals are in or what changes might lie ahead on the road … there are players in this team who have been exceptional for us, and we’ve not even seen their best.
Married to a will to win and the swagger of champions, it is amazing to ponder how far this particular side might go. You can sense that this is just the start.
That’s why this weekend is so huge, and why next weekend is even more so. Once this is finally won, once these guys have their medals, they have the whole summer to enjoy themselves prior to the next campaign getting underway.
And when they do they will approach it with a new mindset which reflects their status … that of the best team in the country. The champions.