This series takes a nostalgic walk back along the path that led us to three consecutive trebles. Next up, to talk us through the Double Treble, is Matt Evans (@SkylandsCSC).
Going into the 2017/18 season, I remember having a feeling of “Well, how the hell are we going to match that?” In case anyone needs reminding, Celtic not only won the domestic treble the season prior and qualified for the group stages of the Champions League after having missed out two years running, but they did so without losing a match domestically the entire season. No modern Scottish team had ever earned the right to call themselves Invincibles – even the Lisbon Lions lost twice in 1966/67 – and a treble hadn’t been seen in Scotland since 2003. So when it came time to figure out what to do for an encore, there was only one answer: Do it again.
Celtic kicked off the campaign in high style. An appearance on the hit Netflix series Sunderland Till I Die, handing the hosts a 5-0 tonking in the final friendly of the preseason, set the tone for the Hoops. Through mid-December, Celtic continued to build upon the invincible season of the past year, reeling off 22 straight matches without a loss. A 4-0 win in Perthshire saw Celtic break their own record for an undefeated streak in Britain which dated back to Willie Maley’s day. The most enjoyable of those fixtures? For me, a 2-0 win at Ibrox where 2 goals against flattered the dreadful home side, and a 3-0 thrashing of Aberdeen at Pittodrie, where Kieran Tierney opened the scoring with an impossible-angle goal. In between all of that came Celtic’s 17th League Cup, steamrolling the competition by an aggregate score of 13-2 before dispatching Motherwell 2-0 at Hampden – history does tend to repeat itself, as you’ll soon see…
Europe, meanwhile, was the usual thrill ride through the qualifiers, with a very satisfying destruction of Linfield, a squeaker past Rosenborg, and a ridiculous tie with Kazakh side Astana, where Celtic jumped out to a 5-0 lead from the home leg, and then go down 4-1 after 50 minutes in Kazakhstan, only to be saved from embarrassment by the play of Olivier Ntcham, whose goal sent Celtic to the Champions League. The group stages were decidedly a mixed bag, getting hammered by PSG 12-1 on aggregate, but giving a powerful Bayern Munich side all they could handle in a glorious 2-1 defeat at Parkhead. The pulsating 3-0 away win in Anderlecht was the clear highlight of the 17/18 European campaign, and it was enough on its own to send Celtic into the Europa League round of 32.
And then something very strange happened. Riding an unbeaten streak of 69 (nice) domestic matches without a loss, Celtic headed up to Edinburgh to face Hearts on 17 December. Tynecastle is a notoriously difficult place to play but Celtic had won 5-0 at the previous visit so there was no reason to expect what eventually occurred. Hearts played Celtic off the park in a 4-0 win to hand the Bhoys their first Scottish loss in 585 days. In a way, I felt it was better to lose comprehensively to end the invincible run than to get pipped by an extra-time winner, but for myself and thousands upon thousands of Celtic fans, it was a tough pill to swallow. Brendan Rodgers gathering the team on the pitch after the final whistle was a wise psychological maneuver, and in retrospect it helped set the tone for the second half of the year.
Celtic and their support regrouped after the loss, with eight straight matches undefeated, including a profligate but ultimately satisfactory 0-0 home derby draw to keep the lead at the top 11 points and essentially put the league to bed. The Celts’ battle to retain the Scottish Cup, the final link in any treble, got off to a flying start with a 5-0 win over Brechin City. However, February reached out its icy, unkind hands to the Hoops when they traveled to Kilmarnock, losing 1-0 on the hideous plastic of Rugby Park. A James Forrest hat-trick was just enough to march on 3-2 in the Scottish Cup, Partick Thistle doing their part to make things uncomfortable. Celtic did make an excellent account of themselves in a tight 1-0 win over Zenit St Petersburg in the first tie of the round of 32, but the return leg the following week in Russia was a severe disappointment, as the green and white failed to reprise the magical night in Anderlecht and were rudely booted from Europe.
With the League Cup won, the book on Europe closed for another year, and the league all but secured, the only thing left was the official coronation of Celtic’s 49th league title, their seventh in a row, and the final three rounds of the Scottish Cup. On paper, the league run-in looks average (six wins, four draws, two losses) but not only was there an immensely satisfying 3-2 win at Ibrox with ten men to enjoy, but the final Glasgow derby of the season saw Celtic dismantle their rivals and bury their zombie remains in a 5-0 party at Paradise. As if those two wins weren’t enough, Celtic had come up against Rangers in the Scottish Cup semifinals only two weeks before the 5-0, and the result was little different as Celtic came away comprehensive 4-0 victors.
Finally, it came time to secure the double treble. Under the warm mid-May sunshine, Celtic faced Motherwell in the Scottish Cup final. With the distinct feeling that the emphatic semifinal win was the major hurdle cleared, I recall a far more relaxed atmosphere than the previous year’s final against Aberdeen, or even the following year against Hearts. ‘Well probably thought they had a puncher’s chance, but a gorgeous 11th-minute strike from Callum McGregor and then the second from Olivier Ntcham 14 minutes later put that all to bed. Just over an hour later, Celtic had repeated the treble and were on their way to an epic open-top bus parade, down the Clyde gateway in front of thousands of supporters.
In the end, the 2017/18 double treble season was certainly as enjoyable as the previous treble. For my part, I was living in Yorkshire for the entirety of that season, and was able to make it up to Glasgow for my first European night (too bad the opponent was PSG) and a handful of league matches. This included an epic away day to Ross County, where the Mikael Lustig song was born (to rarely be heard again), and where I was introduced to both the famous Mallard pub, as well as a cocktail named “venom” on the bus home.
The ability to repeat the success of the previous year, at the very least in terms of silverware won, was a clear sign that Celtic were heads and shoulders above the rest of Scottish football. Although the cast of characters would change considerably between that season and the next, the culture and ethos had been set – this was and still is a club of winners, from manager through players and staff.