Celtic Football Club made history in Scottish football last season, winning the double-treble in an unprecedented display of dominance that shows few signs of subsiding. For fans of the Scottish game, or those keeping an eye on the club, something of a revolution occurred last year in Glasgow.
Or maybe, to put it better, one is currently happening in Glasgow. Earlier this year, The Wolfe Tones announced that they’d be providing the half-time entertainment for Celtic at their home games. The band are known for their raucous renditions of Irish rebel songs, a firm favourite amongst those from the green and white side of Glasgow.
Although their songs are largely outlawed at their matches, they remain an unofficial soundtrack for the fans. The announcement was made on 1 April – April Fools. It was believable, though, like the best pranks are. It was believable because all the elements of the football club – culture, music, fans and players – are coalescing in Glasgow’s East End.
There is something inexplicable about certain levels of success and performance in sports; occasionally, teams transcend their existence on the field of play. It’s so often the case that these clubs are much more than the sum of all of its parts, however that doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking at the parts – especially with Celtic and their anomalous sustained dominance.
A combination of personal heartache, progressive thinking and a team spirit to rival Sir Alex Ferguson’s Class of ‘92 has seen Celtic have maintain their stature as Scotland’s undisputed kings of football – at least over the last few years.
The club were founded in 1888 by Irish Marist Brother Walfrid. He had seen the impact of Hibernian in Edinburgh and their work with the impoverished people amongst the city’s Irish immigrants and sought to emulate the way the discarded were given a voice through football. Brother Walfrid also saw Celtic as a charitable venture, something to help attract young men to the church and, like Hibs, keep young players on the straight and narrow.
Celtic were founded in opposition. As a forgotten and much-maligned people, the Irish of Scotland’s west coast now had a club that was a beacon under which they found not only shelter from the windy political times, but a guiding light to illuminate their path through an uncertain future. Celtic was now a place for Irish Catholics in Glasgow to experience a true kinship.
Nicknamed The Bhoys, Celtic adapted their name to draw an immediate link between Ireland and their home in Scotland. Initially named The Bold Boys, Brother Walfrid added the ‘h’ after the ‘B’ as a way of imitating the Gaelic lexicon that fused the two nations together.
Glasgow’s east end club quickly found success and developed quickly into a Private Limited Company. This gave them the financial freedom to begin utilising their economic resources to develop young players. Although the origins as a charitable club had morphed, their formative values still run strong through the club today.
Celtic have always embraced their Irish Catholic roots, becoming a symbol of ‘Irishness’ the world over. It was only in 1977 that they last removed the Celtic cross from their crest – although it’s since been present in other locations on the shirt – replaced with their iconic four-leaf clover. This season, it’s even made a return on their away kit.
The fervour surrounding the club has begun to manifest beyond the fans and through the players. Utilising Twitter as a direct link to their friends and followers, players are peppering their tweets with the symbolism of the club – clovers, Irish flags and green hearts. Saint Patrick’s Day this year was recognised by most of the players. They know their audience.
It’s hard not to notice this behavioural change. The club have just lifted their seventh consecutive title and only last season ended their famous 69-game unbeaten run. Their monopoly will be hard to topple since their previous closest competitors, Rangers, have suffered penalties due to financial mismanagement in 2012, seeing them re-enter Scottish football in the third tier.
Despite being Scotland’s most widely supported club and even one of the most recognisable and significant in world football, their carefully cultivated links to the Irish people and subsequent causes have nurtured their appeal as the rebel’s choice. When many clubs are turning their back on their history, Celtic have continued to embrace theirs.
Palestinian flags are a common sight at Celtic Park with fans raising them to not only show solidarity with the Palestinian cause, but seeing a parallel between theirs and Ireland’s history of land ownership. It’s also a way to symbolise the value of being the underdog. It’s an image that, despite their stature, they’ve managed to maintain. Indeed, internationally, Celtic are an ally to many other clubs with a left-wing presence and outlook.
Their 2017/18 campaign was a game-by-game demonstration of these feelings. After beating Rangers 5-0 and becoming league champions for the seventh year in a row, the celebrations went well beyond just fans of the club and Scottish football.
Celtic’s most prominent fan group, the Green Brigade, have begun to show some influence within the club, straying from the time-worn casual scene in the UK to the more impactful ultras culture of continental Europe. Their tifo displays, non-stop chanting and willingness to uphold a community-based ethos through their work with food banks and various other fundraisers have made them the figureheads of Scotland’s transition into this type of support.
An ever-present 12th man in the stands, the support has received the rightful recognition from club officials. Their attitude of being an insurmountable force has emboldened the players significantly in the way they act on the pitch. A cyclical effect has been witnessed whereby the two sides are exponentially driving the other.
The fans chose to reflect the club’s history with the recent double-treble celebrations. As Celtic wound through the streets celebrating glory in their first open-top bus – something previously shied away from on police advice due to the likelihood of violence – they observed a sea of fans awash with the Irish tricolour and green and white scarves.
Safe standing in England seems to be a matter of when, not if. Spearheading the contemporary movement on this is Celtic Park. The safe standing section was opened initially in July 2016 to overwhelming positivity. The North Stand Curve, the UK’s first safe-standing section in a major ground, has allowed Celtic’s colourful fans to flourish and has generated a genuine feeling of proximity between the players and the fans.
The £600,000 renovation was in place for manager Brendan Rodgers arriving, but it’s only been this year that its success has been well and truly proven, attracting not only the attention of English and European clubs fans, but official members of their supporters groups. After the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 and the subsequent government cover-up, standing at football has been seen as a taboo issue – wrongly scapegoated alongside the purportedly violent attendees of matches.
Flying in the face of this misconception, especially now that the truth of the tragedy has come to be public knowledge, safe standing is a logical move for clubs to make. It helps them retain their fan culture at a time where followers of clubs are beginning to feel isolated. In bucking the trend with such success, Celtic have pioneered the way to a new era of football viewing.
The experiment of safe standing is widely thought of as one of the driving factors in Celtic’s performance. It’s an illustration of just how wrongfully vilified fans were by the Tory government and is proof that fans are not only capable of behaving responsibly, but in doing so are giving the team such a huge boost.
During last season’s title-winning match, the players displayed a clear dominance on the ball, but equally, unabating confidence off of it. Swedish defender Mikael Lustig parted his shorts from his body at the waist and pointed to Rangers’ Jamie Murphy and then down into the gap. The insinuation – you’re in my pocket. Later in the game, celebrating their third goal, he took a policeman’s hat off of his head – the crowd went wild and the videos went viral.
Beyond being a spur-of-the-moment act of passion, the moment took on symbolic value. He was saying that they are untouchable. A typically hilarious Scottish tweeter captioned the image: ‘Whit ye gonny dae? Phone the polis? We are the polis’. Besides the humour, you get the point.
This supreme display of sureness had been present many times throughout the season. Another viral moment occurred when dynamic and aggressive club captain – and childhood Rangers fan – Scott Brown was facing the axe-like legs of numerous Aberdeen players, kicking him furiously out of visible frustration at their inability to bring him down.
When he finally fell, after having the ball blasted at him when he was sat on the turf, he picked himself back up and, avoiding his characteristically confrontational response, instead channelled the sentiment at the Celtic fans – he stretched out his shirt and exaggeratedly swaggered off. Look at me, do you know who we are?
Only days later he won the PFA Scotland Player of the Year award. A mirror of the skipper’s tale is young Kieran Tierney who won the Young Player of the Year for the third year in a row. After the club’s title win. he became something of a fan favourite by leading their chants from the pitch. It’s clear to see how the two forces bounce off of each other.
After winning the league, Brown commented not only on how good the team were, but also how close together they are. It’s sadly a rarely heard sentiment in modern football. Despite his notorious temper, Brown has been a superb captain for the club, quick to defend his players and consistent on the pitch.
At the beginning of last season, the club travelled to Windsor Park in Northern Ireland to face their ideological opposites in Belfast’s Linfield. During the tie, the Celtic players were pelted with projectiles – provoked, taunted and riled in a way that went well beyond even Glasgow’s sectarianism. After the game, the stray-dog media were hungry for a soundbite from Brown but got clear answers instead. “No, we don’t worry about that, we just concentrate on what happens on the park,” before going on to joke about the coins that hit him meant he left the match with a bit of extra cash.
Celtic remain a very Scottish phenomenon, despite their global appeal. It’s hard to fully understand the skills of the manager without seeing him back in England and tested against more profound obstacles. Likewise, it’s hard to think how good the players are without seeing them tested against larger teams.
Success in Europe has been underwhelming for a club that commanded an average attendance of 57,700 fans per game. Celtic’s ability to thrill and dominate within the Scottish top flight is evident, yet the true power of the club remains speculative.
Rodgers’ first season in control saw him take the club into the Champions League group stages for the first time since 2013, before a 7-0 masterclass from Barcelona saw them up against it. Even though they managed a 3-3 draw against an in-form Manchester City, it was too little too late. Last season the club were stopped in the last 32 by tournament middleweights Zenit Saint Petersburg. To cement their legacy and the manager’s reputation, their emphasis on European competition must be given greater importance.
Much focus is on turning their seven successive league wins into the sought-after 10 – but this seems a relatively shallow and egotistical goal, its purpose being bragging rights in the pub rather than a true claim to greatness. Celtic are winning the league with such convincing margins that they can afford to democratise their focus. Liverpool and Roma showed what a bit of heart can do in last season’s Champions League and should inform Celtic’s approach next year.
Is Rodgers capable of this? There’s very little to say that his time at Celtic has been anything other than a success, bringing through talented youngsters to mix with old heads and instilling a new sense of pride within the support and players. On his passion at the club, he stated: “My genuine love is improving people and making them better, helping the club improve and getting the chance to develop and win things and see people improve.”
Rodgers’ own journey to success at the club came after a hard battle fought against himself. A childhood Celtic fan, this is his dream job – leading the club to success is something he has a personal and emotional investment in. It’s his journey to glory at Celtic that was part of a long self-healing process necessitated by the loss of his mother and father in quick succession.
At Liverpool, when results began to deplete, attacks were becoming more targeted towards Rodgers’ character. His sabbatical after his Liverpool tenure gave him time to reassess what he valued and to think about how he could apply these lessons into his footballing philosophy.
Rodgers was, in some way, confident. If he could inspire himself to break through such a dark period, he could do the same with his players. He was unfairly judged at Liverpool as a failure – his success being attributed mainly to having Luis Suárez. The irony isn’t lost on Rodgers, though: “It is the same with Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool with the contribution of Mo Salah. But for a British coach, there always has to be a catch.”
Leading by example last season, Celtic have elevated the standards of what fans and clubs are expected to produce. The bar has been set high for the level of passion that is necessary to embody the fervour of football in a contemporary era of dullness.
Questions of eliminating poverty and inequality are some of the most complex our society face. Scottish football is suffering similar issues, albeit in a self-contained environment, but with equal difficulties – the league lacks funding and investment and it’s also a one-horse race. At the time of writing, there seem to be no clear answers. Celtic’s unquestionable dominance looks unlikely to subside any time soon, yet the effect has been interesting.
Instead of clubs throwing in the towel, they’ve been galvanised into chasing them down. While this isn’t the answer to Scotland’s footballing woes, it certainly is an unexpected occurrence. Celtic aren’t carrying the league; they’re leading the way for others.
Certainly, their dominance at the top of the table isn’t pleasant for others. The sad truth of Scottish football is that to finish second is the equivalent of finishing first – the complete antithesis of competitive sport. But if other teams can follow Celtic’s example as the holistic football club, it might not be too long before the game starts seeing a new upsurge in support and smaller teams receiving new investment – hopefully evening out the playing field.
What made Celtic’s season so remarkable was that beyond trophies, they gave fans an identity. Success on the field is one thing, but there is more to being a football club than just that – as the club has shown. To be a football club, certainly the kind that fans are longing for, means that success isn’t just measured in increments of points, but also in pride.
By Edd Norval @EddNorval