Celtic entertain Kilmarnock today and has an opportunity to stretch their unbeaten domestic run to 62 games; a feat which will equal the club record which has stood since 1917. In that sequence of games, their record was; 49 wins, 13 draws. The run lasted from 13 Nov 1915 until 21 April 1917- a total of 17 months and four days in all before they lost 2-0 to Kilmarnock on the last day of the 1916-17 season. This remarkable run came as World War one raged and fans and players were likely to be called up for service. The SFA abandoned the Scottish cup for the duration of the war but the league was kept going as it was thought to be good for morale. Celtic dominated the league in that period winning 5 titles out of six and losing the other by a single point. It was remarkable achievement by Maley’s side and one to be proud of.
Any cursory search of the web for similar unbeaten runs can be a little confusing as definitions of ‘competitive matches’ become blurred. For instance tournaments like the Glasgow Cup used to pull in big crowds and be considered worth winning. Other nations don’t have a League Cup so should these games be included? UEFA are the official holders of such records and their website has Celtic fourth in the list of all-time unbeaten records in top flight competitive matches. If we include national FA cup ties as part of the record then the top clubs are as follows…
· Steaua Bucharest 119 games (1986-89)
· Lincoln Red Imps 66 games (2009-14)
· Sheriff Moldova 63 games (2006-08)
· Celtic (62 games) 1915-17)
Context of course is all; Lincoln Red Imps record came during a period where they won 14 consecutive titles in a land with just 34,000 inhabitants which is less than the town of Falkirk. This makes Celtic’s defeat there in Brendan Rodgers first game all the more embarrassing although the side redeemed themselves by winning the tie overall. Steaua played in a league where fear and corruption were the norm. Communist dictator Ceausescu and his sons, Valentin and Ilie took great interest in football and influenced games hugely. One report into Romanian football in the years before the fall of communism stated…
‘Interviews with sports writers and officials paint a picture of rigging Romanian soccer matches that make baseball's Black Sox scandal or college basketball point-shaving cases look minor league. They said Romanian soccer fans routinely went to games presuming the winner already was known. Newspapers were told which reporters should cover games. Referees were assumed to be corrupt. Constantin Firanescu, a veteran soccer writer, said players did not have to be paid off because they knew they were not supposed to win against Ceausescu-backed teams, so they entered games fearing reprisals if they won. Steaua and Dinamo routinely took players from other clubs without offering a transfer fee or player trade. Gheorghe Hagi, the star midfielder for Steaua, was taken from first-division rival Sportul Studentesc in 1987.’
Whatever Celtic’s match with Kilmarnock holds today, their remarkable run under Brendan Rodgers will go down in the club’s history as a high point. They reached this milestone playing good football and unlike Steaua had no help along the way. Of course those with no love for Celtic carp about the strength of the league or the absence of a ‘strong Rangers.’ Celtic supporters rightly ignore the detractors and will recall a total lack of calls for a strong Celtic when Rangers were dominating in the 1990s. Some will never praise Celtic no matter what they achieve. The club has since its birth provoked a visceral reaction from some for reasons which have little to do with football. This is nothing new in human history and Celtic fans would recognise the words written by Shakespeare over 400 years ago...
‘He has laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, Why? Because I am a Jew.’
The words spoken by Shylock the Jewish trader in The Merchant of Venice speak of the type of prejudice which has always existed in the hearts of some human beings. 130 years after Celtic’s foundation some still see the club as the outsider, the interloper, rather than recognising them for what they are; the pre-eminent Scottish football club and one of the pillars of the Scottish game.
I never like to predict the outcome of games or get too far ahead of myself but it would be fitting if Celtic could make it to at least 67 games without defeat as a tribute to the Lisbon Lions. Whatever the future holds what this Celtic team has achieved has been remarkable and we should all be proud of them. When it finally comes to an end as it must one day we should applaud them from the field.
Defeat in sport is inevitable at some point but the great sporting heroes and great teams learned from it and became stronger. Through the darkest days of the 1990’s Celtic supporters stuck with them with a remarkable loyalty. I can recall travelling all over Scotland to watch them play in those days of disappointment, defeat and occasional calamity. The supporters developed a camaraderie and a determination to stick with their club and see them rise again. They took the necessary action to pressurise a failing Board to step aside and ultimately saved their club. They backed Fergus McCann’s share issue in the weeks following the painful loss of the League Cup Final to Raith Rovers and put up millions of pounds of their own money. They helped finance and then fill the new stadium when many argued it couldn’t be done. They backed the side to the extent that a club playing in a small league on the periphery of Europe is consistently among the best supported in Europe. All that Celtic achieves on the field of play is built on the foundation of that Celtic community which created and sustains this marvellous football club.
When the history books record the undefeated run of Brendan Rodgers side, they probably won’t record the role the supporters played in it but it was a huge one. Not only in roaring the team on home and away but in sticking with their club through good times and bad and making the tremendous days we are currently enjoying possible.
We should dedicate it to the Lions in this anniversary year, of course, but we should also dedicate it to the ordinary Celtic supporters who were knocked down much in the 90s but always rose again, always believed the good days would return. Fergus McCann once said…
‘The Celtic supporters want to be proud of their club. That’s all they want and it’s what they deserve.’
Players will come and go as will Managers but one thing remains constant and that is the Celtic support. They deserve these good days and I hope they enjoy them for a long time to come.