If at first you don't succeed try, try again. That's certainly the story of Motherwell's…
Saturday’s Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Motherwell could go all sorts of ways. Celtic could win, Motherwell could win, both teams could even draw and then continue missing penalties until everyone just gets a little bored and wanders home. But let’s be honest: Brendan Rodgers’ side will almost certainly be lifting the trophy come full time.
This week my colleague Niall Murray honed in on Curtis Main’s abilities and whether his gladiator-like demeanour could cause enough issue and we even dedicated a whole podcast to what Motherwell could do to stop the Scottish champions, but despite all that we kept coming back to the same conclusion: this Celtic team just always seem to win.
That’s not just hyperbole. They literally always win. Or at least they never seem to lose when other teams do. Last season Rodgers’ team went unbeaten – we all know that – but this concluding campaign has been far more interesting.
Rather than the shiny, effortless manner in which Celtic glided to the treble last season, we’ve seen the Parkhead squad stumble, trip up and take some bruises along the way. However, when the going got tough, Celtic just kinda kept going. And in a number of ways that’s actually more impressive.
It’s all well and good for Moussa Dembele to be tapping in goals when Kieran Tierney is single-handedly skipping past entire teams, or for Callum McGregor to be zipping in between defensive lines that have long since gave up trying to defend the green and white stars around them, but it’s another thing entirely for Rodgers’ side to drop off entirely but still make sure they win the games that truly matter.
Putting European football to the side, the first “test” of the season came against the club’s coming opponents, Motherwell, who took to the League Cup final with a fearless, gung-ho approach to Celtic that had sorely been missing in Scottish football. In a league that had grown tired of Aberdeen’s quivering attempts and the disfunction of Rangers, here was a club – a squad, a team – led by Stephen Robinson that would run through walls (or opposing players) with glee.
Then along came James Forrest. Well, not the old James Forrest. The new and improved James Forrest, who no longer ran down dead ends on the wing but could instead cut inside and finish perfectly-curled shots on his weaker foot. Celtic needed someone to step up and quickly extinguish the fire in Motherwell’s belly and so the winger did exactly that.
Sure, the Scottish champions were helped by a dubious penalty decision that not only reduced the Steelmen to 10 men but also allowed Celtic to double their lead, but by that moment in the game Rodgers side were on the ascendancy. They were undoubtedly helped along the way, but were by no means awarded the win without merit.
Then came Aberdeen. Who dared to dream of sticking the knife in to Celtic’s unopposed title run as they sat just nine points behind Rodgers side in late February. On a cold, Sunday afternoon at Pittodrie the camera crews and attentive media built up a potential six-pointer only for Dembele and Tierney to ruin the show. Celtic may have drew with St Johnstone in the previous game and lost to Kilmarnock a few weeks before that, but this squad weren’t going to throw away a game that actually mattered.
Yet, perhaps the most pivotal game throughout this entire season came at Ibrox in March. Just one month after bursting Aberdeen’s bubble, Rodgers’ side once again found themselves surrounded by the murmurs of a title race. Rangers were just seven points behind the reigning champions and if Graeme Murty’s high-flying side could snatch a win the Scottish Premiership would be blown wide open.
And they almost did it. Rangers made Celtic bleed, twice, in a match that saw Josh Windass open the scoring only for Daniel Candeias to retake the lead 26 minutes in. Dembele evened the scoring just before half time but when Jozo Simunovic was sent off in the 56th minute all of Scottish football sat up and began to pay attention. Was this moment in which Celtic’s seemingly infallible side would falter?
No, it wasn’t. As if stunned by sheer surprise, Murty chose to keep things exactly as they were once Celtic went a man down while his counterpart in the opposing dugout drew up a contingency plan that involved bringing Jack Hendry on for the wandering Tom Rogic and then Odsonne Edouard came on for the ineffective Forrest. Two minutes after the second substitute Celtic had snatched the winner through the recently-added French striker.
That match killed Rangers’ season and confirmed Celtic’s seemingly immortal status within Scottish football in a single moment. Just one month later these two sides would meet again but instead of another tense affair, Celtic walked to a 4-0 win. Their bitter rivals had thrown everything they had at them and Celtic were still marching on. Still standing. Still winning.
Of course, Celtic have obviously lost games this season. Hearts truly humbled them with a 4-0 thumping at Tynecastle, Neil Lennon’s Hibs side ruined any hopes of winning the league title in April and even Aberdeen stole a win in the final game of the campaign. But none of these games ever jeopardised the task at hand. They never got in the way of what truly mattered: trophies.
And this constant winning isn’t just limited to performances on the pitch either. Celtic’s recent financial results are a marvel in their own right, showcasing a reservoir of resources that the club haven’t even considered dipping in to yet. If there is a secret panic room at Celtic Park for when Rangers finally get their act together it will most likely resemble Scrooge McDuck’s bottomless pool of gold coins.
If you need further proof of Celtic excelling in every arena then you need only look at the back page of your newspaper of choice (or this morning’s TL;DR news) to find the chiselled glare of Rogic looking right back at you. There you will see that the club have once again avoided the scenario of one of their key players running down their contract and leaving Celtic Park for free.
That, of course, is no coincidence. Whether it be Rogic, Kristoffer Ajer, McGregor or Tierney, Celtic are already ahead of the curve in squad planning. A key player hasn’t left the club for free since Shunsuke Nakamura and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink both departed in 2010. If Rodgers is the best coach in Scottish football then his boss, Peter Lawwell, may be one of the best chief executives in British or even the whole of European football.
We can admire each of these facets of the club in their own right – and plenty has been written with that exact intention – but once we take a step back and take another look at the Glaswegian behemoth standing before us we undoubtedly see something different.
Celtic is a series of well-oiled cogs and expertly designed leavers that come together to build a machine that dominates Scottish football through thick and thin. They’re a collection of excellent players, a team of outstanding coaches and a staff of industry-leading administrators. There’s no luck or good fortune to Celtic’s success on the pitch. Their money is well earned, their squad is well coached and the club is perfectly ran. And that’s why they keep winning.