Celtic supporters have grown used to success in the Glasgow derby and yesterday’s loss was the first in almost 7 years in the league. The record for the calendar year 2018 shows the following sequence of results, Celtic score first: 3-2, 4-0. 5-0, 1-0 & 0-1. Hardly a disastrous run of results but the supporters are rightly angry at the performance at Ibrox. We all knew what was coming; an in your face, aggressive home side playing on the edge of the rules. Sure they were being given considerable leeway from officials who could apparently spot a marginal offside but not Morelos stamping on a Celtic player or kicking Scott Brown in the balls. We expected all of that and should have been ready to go to war with them. Instead Celtic looked timid, limp and lacking in the sort of character needed to win at these places.
There is an old adage that the hungry fighter is the best fighter; well yesterday Rangers were the hungrier team and Celtic need to take a lesson from this and rediscover the hunger successful teams need. These games are physical and psychological battles and all the pretty football in the world won’t help if you allow yourself to be intimidated or bullied. Celtic need to rediscover that hunger and passion they showed in 2011-12 season when they battled from 12 points behind to win the title. Joe Ledley’s headed goal in the final match of 2011 took Neil Lennon’s side to the top of the tree and they have stayed there for seven long and successful years.
Watching Celtic for many years gives you some perspective on such games. I’ve seen good Celtic sides, sometimes very good Celtic sides, lose such games but they have shown that they have learned from defeat and bounced back to win the league. Yesterday was a lost battle not a lost war. The prizes are given out in May and that defeat may well make certain players and even the manager reflect on why they were outfought in that manner. It may also be a blessing in disguise as it strengthens Rodgers’ hand when he asks the board for the money necessary to strengthen the squad. Players were played out of position, others obviously not fully fit but a club the size of Celtic should have more cover in key areas. The team remains on top of the table with a game in hand but they need to show resilience and begin the new-year with a determination to show the rest of the league that they do have the bottle for the battles ahead.
Yesterday the Celtic support was under the microscope as a minute’s silence was held in memory of the Ibrox disaster of 1971. It strains credulity that many in the home support watched the 750 Celtic fans like hawks almost willing them to break the silence before they themselves begin the usual poisonous chanting which so scars their club’s history. We saw banners about paedophilia, others mocking Jock Stein, a man who quite literally carried the dead and dying from the terraces on that lamentable day so long ago. This support must have the lowest self -awareness of any in the land. The child abuse scandals which beset so many institutions in modern society affected Rangers FC too. Indeed many of those scoring tawdry points at football matches chanting about it are statistically likely to be standing near a victim of abuse. Do they ever stop for a moment to think how utterly crass and low it is to sing about such things at a football match? One fellow Celtic fan told me after watching the game on TV, ‘That’s why I hate those bastards and everything they stand for.’ Listening to that poison yesterday, I can at least empathise with his point of view.
When the prizes are given out in May I hope that yesterday’s result is but a blip in an otherwise successful season. As I’ve already said good teams learn from setbacks and address the flaws which make defeats like yesterday’s possible. I look for Celtic to bring in some experience and flair in the January transfer window but I also want to see a more determined attitude; one which says ‘Yeh, we’ll play football but if you want to scrap we’ll be ready for that too.’ Jock Stein knew the value of players who fought to the end and once told a hushed dressing room at Hampden Park moments before a cup final with Rangers…
‘Every one of you has a job to do. You’ll be up against determined opponents used to bullying and bossing Celtic, well it stops today! The first tackle you have with your immediate opponent is crucial. Go right through the bastard; let him know he’s in for a game. We won’t be bullied any more. This is the new Celtic, we can play football but we can scrap too if that’s what they want. Any of you not going into tackles with the right degree of conviction will be on the transfer list next week and I’ll tell any manager interested in in buying you that you’re a shite bag. Do I make myself clear? Now get out there and win this cup.’
His team did indeed go out and win that game all those years ago. In fact he made then so successful they won 25 major trophies in 12 years. Stein’s team were not just excellent players, they were fighters too who knew that those one on one battles decided how matches would go. Celtic of 2019 need to relearn that lesson, you need to be up for the fight and ready to go to war in those games. If you show any sign of weakness then you’ll get what Celtic got yesterday: nothing.
As 2018 comes to a close we can look back on another successful year. Yesterday was a warning that if we don’t maintain the standards that we’ve set in recent seasons then we could let a once in a lifetime opportunity to complete a historic ten in a row slip away. I’m confident Rodgers won’t let that happen and if some of the players don’t have the heart for the battle then he must source others who do. Celtic have better players than any other side in the league and occasional dips in form can happen but there will never be an excuse for being outfought in the manner they were yesterday.
Have a very happy and peaceful New Year. I’m confident we’ll be celebrating again in May. Remember; he who laughs last laughs loudest.