It read: “This city is ours.” Following Celtic’s 2-1 triumph, it’s hard to agree with such a statement.
Landslide winners of the cinch Premiership last season, Rangers had Celtic where they wanted them, the Parkhead outfit having blown the chance for ten titles in a row and falling behind their Glasgow foes.
Even by the end of August, when Filip Helander’s header gave Rangers a 1-0 win over Celtic and an early lead in this season’s race, it was difficult to see how Celtic could redress the situation in the 2021/22 campaign. Manager Ange Postecoglou had only recently arrived – not even first choice, after a failed pursuit of Eddie Howe – and his signings needed time to settle in. With a new playing style to bring in, some Celtic supporters would have written this season off, planning ahead to 2022/23.
So much has changed in the past six months. The Green Brigade will no doubt already be plotting their tifo retort to the Rangers fans for when they meet at Hampden on Scottish Cup duty on April 17, and the next Old Firm league showdown at Celtic Park, which is likely to be before the month is out. By that point, the title may be all but sealed. Celtic have a commanding lead, six points clear with six games remaining and superior goal difference by 16. Nobody at Celtic – not least Postecoglou – thinks that they have the trophy already under their arm, but this advantage is sizeable. The oddsmen have Celtic as 1/20 to be crowned champions.
How did we get to this point? How has there been a 12-point swing in a matter of months? The departure of Steven Gerrard as manager rocked Rangers in November and that is a legitimate reason, but so much of the credit must go to Postecoglou, his players and the Celtic board.
The Australian coach was written off by a snobby element of the Scottish football community when he was appointed, given his lack of experience in Europe. However, what he has shown since arriving on these shores is exceptional man-management, strong coaching, tactical nous and an eye for a player who can flourish at this level.
Rangers, where sporting director Ross Wilson has such a big say on transfers, Postecoglou has power in that department. Working closely with chief executive Michael Nicholson and the recruitment team, he has been able to identify new recruits who will be a success. Bringing in four Japanese players – Kyogo Furuhashi, Daizen Maeda, Reo Hatate and Yosuke Ideguchi – was rightly labeled as a bit of gamble, but it has paid off. Furuhashi, when fit, has terrorized most defenses in Scotland and played a significant role in Celtic winning the Premier Sports Cup. Maeda and Hatate have assimilated the demands of life at one of the Old Firm clubs and while Ideguchi’s impact has been minimal, he has been injured. Three out of four is not bad. You wouldn’t want to be a bookmaker up against Postecoglou’s punts.
Perhaps labeling them as such is being unfair. Celtic spent good money on these internationalists but they didn’t have to break the bank – an estimated £8million in total. The same can be said for the captures of Carl Starfelt, Liel Abada, Josip Juranovic, Matt O’Riley and Giorgios Giakoumakis, who cost the club roughly £11m in transfer fees to bring in. All have contributed, with Starfelt in particular growing in stature. Then there’s Joe Hart, the experienced English goalkeeper who was contemplating hanging up the gloves until Postecoglou picked up the phone. Hart has spoken about how his conversations with him with the Australian breathed hope back into his career and the way he has resurrected the ex-Man City man’s fortunes is an example of his fine management of players. Goalkeeper was a serious issue for Celtic last term – not any more.
And let’s talk about the two loan signings: Jota and Cameron Carter-Vickers. Both are such key components of this team. It remains to be seen whether Celtic can persuade them to pen longer-term deals – Celtic have purchase options with Benfica and Tottenham Hostpur respectively for the duo but personal terms would need to be thrashed out. They are both catching the attention of other clubs. Carter-Vickers, in particular, was outstanding at Ibrox.
Celtic’s recruitment has been foot-perfect, but Postecoglou has also regenerated those already in the building. Greg Taylor is having a splendid season at left-back, Anthony Ralston contributes strongly as a deputy, while Tom Rogic – known to Postecoglou through formerly managing Australia – continues to deliver at crucial moments. The appointment of Callum McGregor as Scott Brown’s successor as captain seemed obvious, but the faith put in the midfielder has been repaid in spades. McGregor has been excellent, cajoling and driving those around him.
The high-risk, high-reward style of football has been embraced by the whole squad. Celtic attack with gusto and suffocate teams very quickly. But they are also showing strength. Not many teams recover from going behind at Ibrox. The way they responded so swiftly to Aaron Ramsey’s third-minute opener speaks volumes for their character.
Postecoglou has been supported by those above and around him. Trust is such a vital part of any business and it looks like there is plenty of it at Celtic Park. The Australian has not got everything right, but he now stands on the cusp of greatness in his first season in charge of the club. Not only can they dethrone Rangers in the league, but the Scottish Cup is two matches away. A treble is on the cards. Nothing is done and dusted yet, but what odds would you have got on this situation arising back in September? All the gambles look like paying off handsomely now.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.