Is Celtic’s invincibility compromised by an uncompetitive league?

Words By Stephen Tudor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 28, 2017
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The last time Celtic lost a domestic game of football was away to St Johnstone on May 11th 2016. By then they had long since sewn up their 47th Scottish league title and Hoops boss Ronny Deila was satisfied enough with their season’s work to drop seven first team players.

That summer the Norwegian coach left Celtic Park having faced criticism throughout his two-year stint for too often over-seeing uninspiring fare. Celtic are said to have ‘flat-lined’ during that period which probably explains why they only won the league by 17 points and 15 points respectively under his charge. Apologies, but sometimes sarcasm is unavoidable.

A lack of inspiration is certainly not an accusation that can be flung the way of Deila’s successor Brendan Rodgers who, it can be stated with under-statement, has healed the bruises of his managerial reputation since taking the reins in east Glasgow. After revamping his forward line with Moussa Dembele and a revitalised Scott Sinclair, instilling in his players the right kind of arrogance, and unlocking the full potential of a top quality squad, Rodgers has yet to lose to Scottish opponents since his appointment, accruing in the process an unbeaten run of 65 games undefeated across all domestic competitions. The Ulsterman recently called it a ‘phenomenal achievement’ and it undoubtedly is, although a caveat is required even if it does feel somewhat mean-spirited to offer one up.

An invincible season is mind-blowing, while to continue the run three months into the following campaign is proof that this present Celtic side is exceptional in both application and attitudinal hunger. Yet to an extent their accomplishment is only comparable to their own past glories. This in essence is no bad thing because any motivational guru or business expert worth their salt will always insist that the only worthwhile competition is ultimately with yourself and to that end Celtic have broken a century old in-house record for consecutive wins and draws. Frankly too, it has to be said that if avoiding defeat across an entire season in the SPL is anything less than a magnificent achievement then why hasn’t it been done before? Even the great Lisbon Lions ‘only’ managed a run of 28 games before being bettered on the day by inferior foes.

In a broader sense however Celtic’s stranglehold on the SPL under Rodgers is indicative of its very possibility.

Firstly we have to bring up Rangers and their temporary demise in 2012. Until the Gers endured liquidation and were refused re-entry to the league, the two Glasgow giants historically carved up the silverware between them and from 1985 did so exclusively as regards to the league title. In recent times Celtic have enjoyed the dominance all to themselves.

The scale of this is stunning. In the past six seasons Celtic have amassed a total of 555 points. Their nearest rivals Aberdeen have accrued 379, with St Johnstone and Motherwell trailing even further in their wake with 330 and 329. That’s not a one horse race: that’s a tiger in a crèche.

Away from the pitch the vast gulf is just as pertinent. Earlier this year Rodgers revealed that he has an annual budget of £20m. Around the same time Motherwell manager Steve Robinson disclosed that the Well are unable to increase players’ wages by £500 a week. Rodgers’ salary meanwhile is ten times the entire first team squad of several clubs competing in the SPL.

None of this of course sees any blame attached to Celtic. What are they supposed to do? Request a points handicap each August? Weaken their European aspirations by donating a percentage of their wealth to poorer peers?

It does however damn a ludicrously uncompetitive league where the chief interest to neutrals lies in the faint hope of a shock upset on any given Saturday. A headline in the Daily Record in October of last year said it best – ‘Celtic have already won the league and it’s making a joke of Scottish football’. It is hard not to envisage that same sentiment being aired again this time out, perhaps just prior to Christmas when the Hoops face their closest rivals Aberdeen at home.

There are other uncompetitive leagues across Europe. Of course there are. Yet in each example there is either a duopoly, or a duopoly that is occasionally broken up by a third team just to keep things interesting.

In Scotland there is one and one alone. Furthermore it’s tempting to believe that should their reserves be permitted to compete they would be challenging for second spot within the space of a few seasons.

Again Celtic are not to blame. To resort to hoary cliché they can only beat what is put in front of them. The problem is that they are. Every single week.

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