ON a weekend where over-the-top lavishness and pomp were rubbed in the faces of the world, the champions retained their crown as kings of Scotland.
League tables never lie and with just one defeat in 34 games, and 95 points from a potential 102 so far this season, Celtic remain on course to eclipse Brendan Rodgers’ Invincibles from the 2016/17 campaign.
Winning a title, even in a so-called two-horse race, is something that shouldn’t be downplayed.
Ange Postecoglou has ensured that his squad hasn’t lost sight of the standards required to claim three points week in, week out, and that motivation doesn’t diminish. It’s a slog just getting to the top, and even more difficult to stay there, so to perform with such consistency is a testimony to how the manager and his coaching staff have been able to keep the players hungry for success.
Going into Tynecastle on Sunday, there were a few changes that disrupted the rhythm of the team.
With Cameron Carter-Vickers and Alistair Johnston missing from the back four through injury, Tony Ralston and Yuki Kobayashi stepped in and initially looked every inch two players who haven’t played much football this season.
Hearts, to their credit, were more than eager to delay a title party and had the Hoops on the back foot for much of the first half until Alex Cochrane was harshly sent off for a foul on Daizen Maeda, which was upgraded from a yellow card to a red following VAR intervention.
After that, and despite only a minor improvement in performance in the second half, strikes from Kyogo and Oh Hyeon-gyu were enough to steer the Bhoys to a 53rd league championship. It was typical of Celtic lately – not spectacular but finding a way to get the job done.
That’s the mark of champions. Over the course of a 38-game league campaign, there are days when the opposition is blown away, and others when just enough can seal the points.
The Hoops have proven time and again that they can adapt to any situation with a never-say-die attitude. As the manager says, they never stop, and neither does he. It was evident once the celebrations were underway after the final whistle how much this achievement meant to Ange.
In an interview with Sky Sports, he was visibly emotional when describing how he’s felt embraced by the club since day one.
Many of us weren’t familiar with the big Aussie two years ago, while some were disgracefully dismissive of his CV when he arrived in Glasgow. “Winning titles in Australia and Japan? What’s so good about that?”
They weren’t few in number, either, and following the implosion from the season before, there was a tremendous sense of unease at appointing an ‘unknown’.
After all, Eddie Howe looked a done deal, but he got cold feet when it emerged that he couldn’t bring a team of about 400 up with him to Scotland.
But that’s ancient history and the appointment of Postecoglou has been a match made in Heaven for Celtic.
It’s not uncommon for managers and players who join to not understand what it’s all about.
Ange, though, was an exception. From an immigrant family who arrived in Australia from Greece, and with Celtic as a club rooted in immigration and multiculturalism, a bond was quickly formed.
He knew the history, what the supporters have gone through and was a perfect example of “One club, open to all since 1888”.
Aside from a brief stint at Panachaiki in 2008, the 57-year-old hadn’t been given the opportunity to manage in Europe, and with Celtic taking the chance on him, I believe he’ll stay faithful until he feels he can’t take the team forward anymore.
He said on Sunday: “I’m really proud of this group of players and staff. They’ve maintained an absolutely ridiculous standard this year. They are relentless in their approach.
“Having success last year, you always worry as a manager - are they going to be as hungry? From the first day, they haven’t let up and it’s a credit to every single one of them. We still have four games to go and a cup final to prepare for. It’s not over and we want to finish our season strong. These guys won’t let their standards slip.
“I’m immensely proud. I’ve had a great deal of support, within the football club from Dermot Desmond to the board to the management. I’ve got an outstanding football team behind me that has trusted me. I feel really blessed for that, and for my inner circle who make a lot of sacrifices.”
I’d be shocked if a man with such integrity left Celtic simply for money.
We can all speculate, but the truth is that Ange is quite inscrutable, and only he will know where his long-term future lies.
He remains on a 12-month rolling contract, and while many have called for a multi-year deal, let’s not forget that Brendan Rodgers penned an agreement that would have taken him to the end of the 2020-21 season, only to leave less than halfway through it. He has been talking about strengthening for next season, which is a promising sign.
An improvement in the Champions League, even if it means coming third in the group, will be the target. If Postecoglou aspires to become a Celtic legend – and, for me, he’s not there yet – then Europe is where it will happen. And complete the treble of course, which is only a few weeks away.
I haven’t even mentioned this Saturday’s final derby of the season (kick-off 12.30pm at Ibrox). There won’t be a guard of honour (quelle surprise), instead I expect a Rangers side hellbent on getting one over on the champions.
Kyogo is a doubt and key defenders are out, so they have a shot.
However, psychologically, Celtic shouldn’t give them an inch. There can be no promising signs for next season for Michael Beale, no talk of closing the gap, no hope. Show them why you’re champions.