This series takes a nostalgic walk back along the path that led us to three consecutive trebles. First up, to talk us through the Invincible Treble, is Eoin Coyne (@toomanybigwords).
When Martin O’Neill arrived in 2000 and duly delivered a treble in an unforgettable season I’ll admit to thinking we might see another in the not too distant future, such had been our dominance and such is the exhuberance and cock-eyed optimism of youth. I was 19 and it seemed reasonable to assume that our own era of dominance was beginning after the bewildering mess we had been for most of the 90s. Although I was half-right, the era of fenian dominance was indeed upon us, the huns would ocasionally sneak a title here or there before their financial implosion but up until 2016 the last manager in Scotland to win a treble was, annoyingly, Alex McLeish in 2003.
Brendan Rodgers arrived to much the same level of fanfare as his countryman some 16 years later. Undoubteldy a high-level appointment but out of work since being sacked by Liverpool Rodgers stock was not quite so high as that of O’Neill who arrived having been linked with Leeds, Tottenham and England following a sterling few seasons with a Leicester side more than holding their own in England’s top division. O’Neill came with a reputation as a fantastic motivator and man-manager, Rodgers as a studios, tactic and systems obsessed modern manager complete with modern management speak and that famed need to appear as ‘one of us’ to the fanbase.
Though very different men and managers each achieved a remarkable upswing in their maiden season. O’Neill took over in the face of a dominant all-conquering huns team and had to shake the collective inferiority complex from around the club, stompimg an expensively assembled huns side into the mud in the process. Rodgers arrived post-Deila when the new huns were ‘back’ and Celtic were perceived to be in a bit of a slump. Attendances were notably down and the end of Ronny’s last season was something of a grind, to put it politely. The club seemed to be drifting until this managerial appointment galvanised the fanbase and players and set the course for what was to come.
2016/2017 hardly started with a bang. The euphoria that surrounded the Rodgers appointment gave way to reality with a sobering 1-0 reveral to Lincol Red Imps in Gibraltar. After that, things improved rapidly and just kept getting better. The team began to take shape and looked more and more formidable as each European qualifier was navigated. There were some dig-in results in there (Astana, the second leg in Israel) but you could see the changes that had been implemented behind the scenes now having an effect on the pitch.
Domestically, it was as good a start to the season as you could hope for. Moussa Dembele and Scott Sinclair settled in and scored goals immediately, Kolo Toure brought experience and much needed cover for an early-season injury crisis in the centre-half position. This was as much about evolution as revolution though. Numerous players who had looked so poor for the past 6 months began to turn their form around and contribute more and more to the team. Stuart Armstrong went from peripheral attacking midfielder to all-action box to box hairdo man with the best song in football. He wasn’t alone in showing marked improvement; Rogic, Lustig, Forrest, Boyata all improved after looking like their Celtic careers may be coming to an end. Perhaps the biggest change was in Scott Brown who seemed to revel in the responsibility of anchoring the midfield in a much deeper role few would have thought him capable of playing effectively in.
These historic seasons are typiclly set to backdrops of specific games where you just got that feeling afterwards that something good was happening here. The first hun game of the season was one of those. To win 5-1 against that lot will never get old and to be honest, it could have been a lot more. The dominance was inarguable, their surrender total. A personal favourite moment is watching plastic hard-man turned philosopher Joey Barton waving at the ball as it sails over his head before Moussa controls it and buries his third goal of the afternoon. Just like in 2000 the first derby game had resulted in a thumping victory for the good guys, in both cases it pretty much wrecked rangers before their season even got started. In 2016 the new club didn’t have the quality players to fall back on and at least ensure second. They were never in it, not even close enough to grab our coat tails.
As the season progressed and the undefeated run began to grow there were questions about going the whole season unbeaten. This was one I thought possible but highly unlikely, law of averages and all of that but this season, this 2016/17 vintage were unrelenting and remorseless. Letting up never seemed like it was on the cards and each game was approached in a manner that said ‘we’re here to win’ and the as the collective confidence grew the individual performances continued to improve and this fed back in a loop to the manager who had put the system in place and made them buy into it 100%.
As the season progressed you just felt more and more of the games contained those typically Celtic ‘moments’ that must make this club a video-editor’s dream. The winner in that crazy 4-3 at Motherwell, the thrilling 3-3 draw with Man City where we looked, briefly, like a proper Champions League club again. There’s more; beating the huns 5-1 at Ibrox, THAT tackle by Jozo where he absolutely Benjamin Massing’d Kenny Miller, knocking them out of both cups wasn’t bad either, nor was the goal and celebration combo from Mikael Lustig in the same game. GBNF big man.
In typical Celtic fashion the best was left for last; that Scottish Cup final was a lot tighter and bittier than i had remembered it being, it was fairly close and Aberdeen missed a glorious chance at 1-1 to possibly nick it. As had so often been the case that season it was left to Tom Rogic to turn the game in our favour at a crucial moment. He may have his detractors, he can’t really play in Europe and he’s been injured more than we’d like but he was magnificent this season and THIS was his biggest contribution. Picking the ball up and slaloming through a physically drained Aberdeen defence and stabbing the ball home through the smallest of gaps at the keepers near post. The image of Craig Gordon dropping to his knees, head in hands, soaking in the moment while the Celtic fans go utterly mental in the background is up there with the most iconic Celtic images.
A treble is always something to be cherished, an undefeated one is that bit more special. I never thought, even as an optimistic 19 year-old that I’d see Celtic go an entire domestic season unbeaten and as joy goes, that season bypassed my gnarled, black, pessimistic late 30s core and made me remember what’s great about football and what’s special about this club in particular. Although it would transpire that maybe this was the height of the Rodgers era and though we may not appreciate the less than honourable manner of his leaving, few could argue the effect he had on the club and numerous players during his time here and nowhere is that more apparent than during the 2016/17 treble season. The first one in a long time. An historic one. One to be looked back on fondly. Just like 200/01.