This series takes a nostalgic walk back along the path that led us to three consecutive trebles. To conclude, we have Dave Flanigan (@davflan) to talk us through the third treble – the record breaking Treble Treble.
With successive trebles, successive seasons in the Champions League group stages, and main rivals Rangers appointing a rookie manager in Steven Gerrard, Celtic could hardly realistically have been in a more consummate position of strength going into season 2018-19.
Champions League qualification was the early-season focus as ever, and a routine 6-0 aggregate win over Alashkert, marred only by a bizarre early red card for Jozo Simunovic in the home leg, was followed by a rematch against Rosenborg, last season’s 3rd round opponents. Despite falling behind early, a fine Ntcham goal and a double from Edouard saw Celtic through the first leg, the second finishing 0-0 in Trondheim. AEK Athens presented a much sterner opponent in the next round, Viktor Klonaridis cancelling out Callum McGregor’s deserved goal after some early Celtic domination at Parkhead, and AEK defended stoutly to secure a 1-1 away draw despite playing the final half hour with 10 men. The AEK tie sandwiched a trip to Tynecastle, with Hearts going on to set the pace in the Premiership in the opening months, and with one eye on the task in Greece midweek, a depleted Celtic lost 1-0 in a game they never looked like winning. That taskbecame ever-more difficult with a fit Dedryck Boyata apparently refusing to play following interest from Fulham, as Celtic crashed out of the Champions League following a 2-1 defeat in Athens, a late Scott Sinclair consolation unable to rouse an unlikely comeback.
From winning an unprecedented double treble and clinching a deal for a new record signing in Odsonne Edouard in the opening weeks of the transfer window to an acrimonious third round Champions League qualifier exit and a public fallout between the team’s star centre half and the manager is a situation that truly only Celtic could self-inflict.
Many fringe Celtic players have a single match that they can hang their hat on as their own from over the years, but few would underwhelm like Cristian Gamboa’s late pair of assists to win an uncomfortable 3-1 League Cup victory at Firhill,and the mood of the support would not be roused by a tepid 1-1 away to Suduva, the opponents for the Europa League play-off, that midweek.
With the Green Brigade condemning Boyata’s no-show in Athens before Hamilton’s visit to Celtic Park that weekend, it would of course be the Belgian’s second-half header that clinched all three points on another difficult day against clearly inferior opposition. Some light relief came in the form of the home leg against Suduva, Celtic progressing to the Europa League Group Stage to face Red Bull Salzburg, RB Leipzig and Rosenborg for the 5th and 6th times in less than 18 months.
Whilst Celtic’s patchy early season form in all competitions continued into September, off-field matters would descend into farce with Moussa Dembele taking to Twitter to claim Rodgers had broken his word (about what could only be speculated), the Frenchman signing for Lyon a day later in the dying hours of the transfer window and becoming Scottish football’s most expensive export for the best part of £20m in the process. Despite a dominant, Olivier Ntcham-inspired 1-0 victory (a score line wholly unreflective of the Celtic’s superiority) in the first meeting with Steven Gerrard’s Rangersthat weekend, full crisis was declared after conceding a last minute winner at Rugby Park a fortnight later. This was a week following an insipid goalless draw away to St Mirren, a late Leigh Griffiths winner being required to break a stuffy Rosenborg rear-guard in the first Europa League group matchin the midweek.
Luckily, Rugby Park would be a turning point, as a Celtic went on a three month domestic unbeaten streak. Tetchy wins in Perth in the League Cup following another late Griffiths winner and at home to Aberdeen in the league would round off both September, and Celtic’s rough domestic form, as October began a six-week domestic winning streak with a deluge of goals. James Forrest helped himself to four goals in a 6-0 win against St Johnstone, the second game in Perth in 10 days. Hibs were served a 4-2 defeat at Celtic Park in one of the games of the season, summer loan-signing Filip Benkovic scoring his first for the club, supplementing his run in the team. Momentum would not be slowed by back to back Europa League away defeats to Salzburg and Leipzig across the month, and a 3-0 League Cup semi-final victory over Hearts at Murrayfield marked the emergence of new star: Ryan Christie. After a couple of games on the periphery of the team in Rodgers’ first season, Christie had spent a fruitful 18 months on loan at Aberdeen, and his influence on the Celtic team until the close of the year would be telling. After coming on at Murrayfield to have a hand in the first two goals and blast home the third from 25 yards, Christie formed a stellar midfield alliance with Callum McGregor and Tom Rogic following an injury to Scott Brown, scoring in back to back 5-0 victories at home to Hearts and away to Dundee before a crunch Europa League time at home to Leipzig in early November.
The 2-1 victory over Leipzig would mark Celtic’s finest performance of the season, Kieran Tierney firing in an early opener, with Edouard’s eventual Christie-crafted winner coming straight from kick-off and 14 in-game seconds after Leipzig’s second half equaliser in an appropriately pulsating Celtic Park European night under the newly-installed disco lights. Despite a domestic blip that weekend away to Livingston, a game also marred by a nasty injury to Kristoffer Ajer, Celtic resumed scheduled programming with a routine 3-0 win at Hamilton and bucked a trend to win away to Rosenborg in the Europa League to round the month out, Sinclair scoring the only goal.
December’s excessive, cramped schedule undoubtedly marks it as one of the defining months of the season, and Celtic opened it with silverware, Christie’s goal on the stroke of half time deciding a tight, awkward League Cup Final against Aberdeen with Sinclair missing a second half penalty that was farcically awarded for a Scott McKenna handball in the box that was arguably neither handball, nor in the box. An excellent 5-1 over Kilmarnock at Celtic Park (Rodgers’ first over Steve Clarke at Celtic) would be the exception in the first half of the remaining eight December fixtures, however, as Celtic lost a late goal at Fir Park in a 1-1 draw, lost 2-1 at home to Salzburg in a match best remembered for an obscene Craig Gordon howler (but still qualified for the Europa League knockout rounds courtesy of Rosenborg’s late equaliser against Leipzig) and put in an anaemic display at Easter Road to crash to a 2-0 defeat. Three wins would follow, however, two routine displays at home to Motherwell and Dundee, which marked the true first team arrival of Mikey Johnston, replacing the injured Edouard, (and absent Leigh Griffiths who had been excused from first-team duties until the end of the season) and a thrilling 4-3 Boxing Day win at Pittodrie courtesy of a match-winning cameo from the aforementioned Frenchman and a hat-trick from Sinclair. Ibrox was the only remaining hurdle for 2019, and it was one at which Celtic stumbled spectacularly. McGregor played at left-back, Johnston started in Edouard’s place up front, and they were the only silver lining on a day in which Celtic were overrun, outfought and lucky to only lose 1-0, going into the New Year top on goal difference with a game in hand. It was Celtic’s first loss to Rangers since the 2016 Scottish Cup penalty shootout and first defeat at Ibrox in six and a half years.
After a three week winter break to lick their wounds, Celtic began 2019 with a run of seven domestic games without conceding a goal, scoring an average of three goals in the process. January loan singing from PSG Timo Weah scored one and assisted another away to St Johnstone to affirm his place as the cult hero of the month, and Scott Brown scored the goal of the season with a thunderous drive from distance in yet another game against The Saints, this time in a 5-0 Scottish Cup win. This would not be his most significant goal of the week, however, as a deflected 96th minute winner at Rugby Park a week later finally put daylight between Celtic, and Rangers in second. The European campaign would that same week, however, as Celtic fell 3-0 to Valencia over two legs, a particularly insipid 2-0 home defeat effectively killing the tie after the first leg.
The Scottish Cup final in May will likely, quite rightly be viewed as this season’s iconic match, but it’s difficult not to assess with the hindsight the February win over Hearts at Tynecastle on Wednesday the 27th of February equally, if not more significant in the story of Celtic’s 2018-19 season. News broke on the morning of the game that Brendan Rodgers – mastermind of the Double Treble, life-long Celtic fan (allegedly) – had accepted an offer from Leicester City to replace Claude Puel as manager with immediate effect. Neil Lennon, having left Hibs by apparent mutual consent a month prior, would take charge of the club for the second time in the interim. This was a Celtic team relinquished of the figureheadof its recent success, at a match at a ground that saw the end Celtic’s invincible run of almost 70 games 14 months prior. Easter Road awaited in the Scottish Cup quarter final three days later, Celtic’s grip on the Treble hang in the balance until an injury time Edouard winner to spark jubilant bedlam in Tynecastle’s away section and on the away bench. A battling 2-0 victory over Hibs followed; with or without Rodgers, Celtic stepped up and delivered when it mattered.
With the return of #Lennyball in full swing, another Edouard injury time winner took all three points at Dens Park before the third Glasgow derby of the season followed at the end of March. Celtic stormed into an early lead with yet another critical Edouard goal and gained a man advantage after Alfredo Morelos lashed out at Scott Brown for a fifth red card of the season in a one-sided first half, before then on-loan Glasgow Cathouse regular Ryan Kent equalised for Rangers who rallied hard after half time. Celtic too would finish with 10 men in a frantic final twenty minutes, losing both Dedryck Boyata on what would be his final appearance for the club, and Kieran Tierney to injury without a sub to replace the latter, before James Forrest slotted home Edouard’s cut-back in the 87th minute to win a game that should have been out of sight by half time.
With the league effectively won, a fatigued Celtic squad limped to the close of the season. Exhaustion would become grief in the final week of April, as on the 22nd of April, Celtic’s greatest ever captain, leader of the Lisbon Lions, arguably the greatest footballer ever to grace the club, Billy McNeil passed away following a several year battle with dementia. An emotional Celtic support honoured him in the lead up to Saturday’s match, one which was won poetically by Jozo Simunovic, a centre half wearing Cesar’s number 5, scoring in the 67th minute to seal a 1-0 win over a resilient Kilmarnock side.
Three 0-0 draws in six weeks had delayed in the inevitable title party, but a customary 3-0 win at Pittodrie in early May finally mathematically sealed Celtic’s 50th league title, the same scoreline against the same opponents at Hampden securing Celtic’s place in the Scottish Cup Final a fortnight prior. Unfortunately, there was still time for a second tactically inept defeat at Ibrox of the season before a league and Scottish Cup Final double header against Hearts. A youthful Celtic side triumphed 2-1 in the league closer at Celtic Park with a double from Mikey Johnston, highly anticipated youngster Karamoko Dembele making his debut much to the delight of the home support. Only the Cup Final stood between Celtic and a third successive Treble.
Football’s most significant moments frequently last only a matter of seconds but are remembered as lasting minutes. Like Tony Watt setting himself for a shot from Fraser Forster’s punt upfield against Barcelona, like the first of Larsson’s headers dropping into the far side netting in Seville, like Tom Rogic’s shift onto his right foot at Hampden to win the Invincible Treble, Mikael Lustig’s headed clearance from the centre circle trickled at Edouard’s feet untouched for what felt like an eternity before the Frenchman lifted the ball sumptuously over the onrushing Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal to complete a 2-1 Celtic comeback, win the Scottish Cup and seal the Treble Treble, in typically dramatic fashion. Beyond a symbolic changing of the guard moment, the outgoing cult hero assisting the fans’ new champion, how fitting that Lustig’s desire and awkward, almost accidental effectiveness was capitalised upon by Edouard’s vision in making a run that few would consider worth making, and finishing in a style under immense pressure that even fewer could dream of; both players’ Celtic careers in microcosm.
In direct contrast to the unstoppable juggernaut of 2016-17’s Invincibles or the unfussed swagger of 2017-18’s Double Treble winners, 2018-19 was a season often fraught with adversity and doubt within the Celtic support. The process was different, but the end result was the same. Even if the Treble Years stop at three, it has been a magnificent few years to be a Celtic fan, with an even bigger prize looming in season 2020-21. Long Live the “Finder” Years.