When the final whistle blew for the end of the 2020/21 Scottish Premiership season at Easter Road on the 15th of May 2021, no one knew what lay in store for Celtic over the next few weeks, never mind season.
However, almost a year on from that goalless draw with Hibs, the club have made one of the most miraculous recoveries. A 26 point deficit has turned into a 4 point lead in the space of a year and saw Celtic be crowned Scottish Premiership champions for the 2021/22 season.
Along with the league title, Celtic also triumphed in the Scottish League Cup as an admirable double was achieved.
The appointment of Ange Postecoglou among others has galvanised the football club and aided them in becoming champions of Scotland just over a year after that status was taken away from them.
Today, I’ll be recounting Celtic’s recovery over the past twelve months and looking at the journey the fans, players and manager have endured.
From rejection to impulse
When Neil Lennon stepped down as Celtic manager, it was overwhelmingly expected Eddie Howe would take the Northern Irishman’s place in the Parkhead dugout.
However, after weeks and months of newspaper reports and fan bickering the move eventually fell through, much to the shock of many. A statement from Celtic’s official website read:
“We can now confirm that Eddie will not be joining the Club, for reasons outwith both his and Celtic’s control”
In the hours following this statement, if you looked up bookies odds on the next Celtic manager, you would find a man named Ange Postecoglou to be the favourite to take over the position.
Very few Celtic fans knew who Postecoglou was once his name was linked with the job and I’ll admit, I didn’t as well.
At the time, the Australian was managing in Japan with Yokohama F. Marinos where he had great success, winning the J. League title with the club in the 2019 season. In fact, Postecoglou has brought success wherever he has been, winning the Asian Cup with the Australian national team as well as helping the Soceroos qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Postecoglou also took Australia to the 2018 World Cup but resigned soon after qualifying for the tournament.
It may not have been the appointment the fans were hoping for but after Postecoglou was announced as the manager of Celtic on the 10th of June 2021, the support got right behind the Australian and embraced him as one of their own.
His charisma and magnetism enticed the Celtic fans. If their adoration of their new manager wasn’t widespread, it soon was when the club released a ‘Mic’d up’ video of Postecoglou taking a first team training session. The fifty six year old proved himself as a guiding figure yet one who wanted to impose his style of play on the team, emphatically stating:
“We never stop, we never stop! We stop at half-time, and we’ll stop at the end of the game when we celebrate. If the opposition want to stop, that’s good for us, we’ll f****** take advantage of it”
The recording of this video proved to be a sheer master-stroke from Celtic and it marked a clear change in feeling around the club going into the 2021/22 season. There was a sense of optimism among the Celtic support ahead of the new campaign and many couldn’t wait to see what the season had in store.
The beginning of the process
Celtic would travel to Wales for a pre-season training camp in summer 2021 and play three games whilst there.
These were Ange Postecoglou’s first trio as Celtic boss and it cannot be denied they went rather swimmingly. 3-1 and 2-1 wins over Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton Athletic were followed up by a goalless draw with Bristol City before the Hoops headed back to Glasgow to play their first few home games of the season.
However, a 1-0 loss at Celtic Park to Preston North End kickstarted a string of bad results which included a 6-2 thumping at the hands of West Ham and early Champions League elimination which was inflicted by Danish champions Midtjylland in a 3-2 aggregate loss.
Moreover, Celtic’s league campaign got off to the worst possible start at Tynecastle with the Bhoys losing 2-1 to Hearts. Postecoglou’s men had already fell three points behind arch rivals Rangers just one game into the season.
Despite Abada doing well in his early Celtic days by scoring on his debut in the aforementioned loss to Midtjylland, it is Kyogo who stole the limelight as a result of his first few displays in green and white. The Japanese striker netted against Jablonec in his first Celtic appearance and when he played at Celtic Park for the first time, he and his teammates put on a show.
Kyogo bagged a magnificent hat-trick and man of the match award in the 6-0 win over Dundee, making him an instant fan-favourite in Glasgow’s east end. This win itself proved to be somewhat of a momentum shifter for Ange Postecoglou and his team yet it also disclosed exactly the style of play he wanted to implement: enticing, attacking football that rouses supporters off their seats. If the backing wasn’t there for Postecoglou from some shades of the Celtic support after this sumptuous victory, it is hard to see when it would come.
After putting Dundee to the sword, Celtic went on a run of good results including League Cup progression against earlier nemesis’ Hearts, Europa League group stage qualification in a hard-fought tie with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar and yet another 6-0 victory in the league, this time against St. Mirren.
This run of positive form seemed to set Celtic up perfectly for the first Glasgow Derby of the season at Ibrox however it wasn’t meant to be. A second half Filip Helander header saw Rangers run out 1-0 winners against a Celtic team which saw the likes of debutant Josip Juranovic and Odsonne Edouard and Ryan Christie who were sold the next day, all start.
Edouard and Christie, who were actually showing some respectable form under Ange Postecoglou, jumped ship for Crystal Palace and Bournemouth respectively on transfer deadline day. That night though, Celtic were able to get three crucial deals over the line.
Giorgos Giakoumakis was the Eredivise’s top scorer in the 20/21 season and he joined on a five year deal from VVV-Venlo meanwhile Cameron Carter-Vickers and Jota were signed on one year loan deals, with options to buy, from Spurs and Benfica respectively. It would take Giakoumakis a while to prove himself at Celtic with Carter-Vickers and Jota making instant impacts from the off. The former proved to be a rock at the back for Celtic throughout the 2021/22 season and the current calls to sign Carter-Vickers permanently are truly just. Jota on the other hand, has showed great panache going forward and the overall contributions he’s made in Glasgow have been invaluable.
Getting back to the state of affairs at Celtic after Ange Postecoglou’s maiden Glasgow Derby as manager and heading into the first international break of the season, the Hoops sat three points behind their city rivals. A position that granted, was not ideal but one that fans would probably have accepted after losing their first league game of the season.
Bumps in the road
In the period between the September and October internationals, Celtic endured a rocky run of results.
The first game back after the summer transfer window slammed shut saw Celtic run out 3-0 winners at Parkhead against Ross County. In spite of the victory, it looked as if it may be one of those days for Celtic before the floodgates were opened by debutant Cameron Carter-Vickers on the 64th minute.
After this win, the Bhoys begun their Europa League campaign. Celtic put up a fight in Seville against Real Betis but a team which consisted the likes of Albian Ajeti, Adam Montgomery and Ismaila Soro in the starting eleven eventually fell to a 4-3 defeat. This match showed gradual signs of progress under Ange Postecoglou and that Celtic could go to tough away venues in Europe and compete by playing the football the new manager wanted.
A 3-0 win at home to Raith Rovers in the league cup quarter final was sandwiched in between two rather unhelpful league results. Celtic were defeated by Livingston at the Tony Macaroni Arena and played out a 1-1 stalemate with Dundee United a week later.
At this point, the Hoops knew they could afford only a minimal number of slip ups before the end of the season yet flamboyant winger Jota was fairly frank in his views, saying:
“We are still in September. The last time I checked there are no champions in September”
In hindsight, Jota was unbelievably accurate with these comments and almost immediately after he made them, the Portuguese helped Celtic to a cornerstone victory at Pittodrie.
It looked as if it would be yet more dropped points on the road for Ange Postecoglou’s men going into the closing stages of the match however when Tom Rogic played Adam Montgomery in behind the Dons’ defence and the teenager got to the bye line and fired across goal for Jota to convert, it seemed like a turning point in Celtic’s season.
It was the first away win since Valentine’s Day and the catalyst for a run of form which saw just one defeat in all competitions until the turn of the year.
Elongated purple patch
After the win away to Aberdeen, Celtic went on a tremendous run of form which currently stands at 31 league matches without defeat.
The Celts would return from international duty after the Aberdeen game and comfortably win 2-0 away to Motherwell. Ferencvaros then visited Celtic Park in Europe with the Hoops running out 2-0 victors once more, this time on a Tuesday afternoon. The sheer volume of supporters that turned out for this match went to show the backing Ange Postecoglou and his players were getting from the fans.
Celtic’s form from this point on until the end of the calendar year was almost impeccable. Some eye-pleasing football was played in high scoring away victories over Hibernian and the two Dundee clubs however Ange Postecoglou’s men also found numerous ways to win, grinding out single goal triumphs over Aberdeen, Motherwell and Hearts, all in the league.
Throughout this period, the form of Kyogo Furuhashi and Jota was particularly pleasing. The Japanese scored 8 goals and set up a further 2 from October until the end of the year whilst Jota’s 8 goal contributions in the league saw him earn back-to-back Player of the Month awards in the Scottish Premiership for October and November. The Portuguese also scored 2 goals and assisted once in Europe in this time frame as he aided his team in securing continental football after Christmas, albeit in the newly formed Europa Conference League.
After they made sure of Europe in the new year, Celtic played out a highly competitive match in Germany against Bayer Leverkusen, narrowly losing by three goals to two after leading with just under ten minutes to play. This match was yet another indicator of the progress Postecoglou was making with his team, in spite of the loss.
In the league cup, Celtic would take on holders St. Johnstone on a cold November’s night at Hampden. The Hoops won the game by a goal to nil with a James Forrest strike sending Celtic into their maiden cup final under Ange Postecoglou.
Before the showdown with Hibs in mid-December, Celtic had to make an arduous trip to the Highlands to take on Ross County.
As a result of the gruelling fixture schedule at this time, there were injuries to several key players going into the clash with the Staggies. The aforementioned and influential duo, Jota and Kyogo, were ruled out for this game with appearances for academy bhoys Owen Moffat and Adam Montgomery being handed out. Right back Josip Juranovic started at right wing and Liel Abada was utilised as a makeshift striker.
Despite these hindrances and a red card to Carl Starfelt in the match itself, the Celtic players would battle on and epitomise the nonstop mentality the manager had instilled in them at the forefront of the campaign. A 97th minute winner came from a man who enjoyed an almost unbelievable transformation in the 2021/22 season, Anthony Ralston.
He was expected to depart Celtic last summer, he had made just 8 Celtic appearances in the 3 seasons prior to the most recent one, he was deemed as not good enough however Ange Postecoglou was able to mould Ralston into a key clog in his Celtic squad.
In the aforementioned Ross County match which didn’t look as if it was going Celtic’s way, Ralston nodded home at the back post to secure an invaluable three points for his team in Dingwall and nicely set up the League Cup final against Hibs four days later.
Hampden was decked out in green and white for the 2021 Scottish League Cup final and a Paul Hanlon goal just after the start of the second half raised anxiety levels among the Celtic support.
However, just seconds later, a man whose name was an utter surprise to read on the team sheet in the first place, got Celtic level. Kyogo Furuhashi magnificently controlled a Callum McGregor pass to fire home and make it 1-1 on the 52nd minute.
Twenty minutes later and with eighteen to play, Tom Rogic played a quick free kick over the top of the Hibs defence. Kyogo latched on to it and tremendously lobbed Matt Macey whilst the Hibs goalkeeper was somewhat stunned by the sharpness of the move. It was a goal that was arguably one of the best of Celtic’s season and how fitting that it secured the first part of a double and Ange Postecoglou’s first major honour as Celtic boss.
The celebrations were widespread that Sunday night after Celtic got back in the business of winning silverware although the sweetness of the triumph was somewhat sucked out of it the following Wednesday when Celtic travelled to Paisley.
The hero of the recent final was nowhere to be seen in the Celtic squad which drew a blank against St. Mirren however Kyogo was back in for the trip to McDiarmid Park on Boxing Day.
The Japanese though, would pull up injured just fifteen minutes in and sustain a reoccurrence of his previous injury that would eventually keep him out for around four months. Nonetheless, Celtic ran out 3-1 winners in this match with fellow countrymen Liel Abada and Nir Bitton finding themselves on the scoresheet.
The Hoops would go into a winter break that was brought forward by a week or so (much to the reluctance of some), trailing their city rivals by six points – a gap that was substantial but in no way insurmountable, as Celtic would go on to show in the new year.
New year, no dip in form
Celtic would recharge at Lennoxtown over the winter break, not making any errors of judgement to go abroad such like that of the 2020/21 campaign.
Also, the January interval provided Ange Postecoglou with the opportunity to strengthen his team and even before the transfer window opened, the Hoops had conducted the majority of their business, announcing the signings of three Japanese players in Daizen Maeda, Reo Hatate and Yosuke Ideguchi, all on New Years Eve.
The two former would play a significant part in Celtic’s first game back after the winter break with Hatate winning the man of the match award and Daizen Maeda scoring four minutes into the 2-0 home win over Hibs.
However, as Kyogo remained out through injury and Maeda among others jetted off on international duty at the end of January and beginning of February, Celtic’s squad became somewhat thin on the ground once more. As a result, Greek striker Giorgos Giakoumakis had to step up to the plate and take the responsibility of being Celtic’s number nine on his shoulders.
Giakoumakis had previously been written off by some of the Celtic support after his late penalty miss in a 0-0 draw with Livingston back in October however the twenty seven year old proved his goalscoring abilities when they were needed. He netted in consecutive matches against Alloa in the Scottish Cup and then away to Hearts in the league as Celtic ground out a crucial victory with a Liam Boyce penalty miss keeping the score at 2-1 to the Hoops late on in the game.
In this one, there was yet another debut man of the match performance, this time from young midfielder Matt O’Riley. The twenty one year old joined from MK Dons for a minimal £1.6 million fee (Transfermarkt) and has showed great promise in his time at Celtic so far, scoring 4 goals and setting up 2 in all competitions.
After the win over Hearts, focus partly shifted to the delayed Glasgow Derby with Rangers however prior to this, Celtic had to negotiate a home game with Dundee United and done so by the skin of their teeth, a 90th minute Liel Abada winner when the Bhoys were down to ten men showed their grit once more. Rangers’ 3-3 draw with Ross County earlier in the day set Celtic’s midweek clash with the Gers up perfectly as Ange Postecoglou’s men knew that if they tasted victory, they would go top of the league for the first time under the Australian and in a long, long while.
The rare occasion of an evening Glasgow Derby is one that is to be savoured and the Celtic players certainly made this one just that. The distinctive aura and incredible atmosphere in Celtic Park that night, combined with the passion of the fans, invigorated the men in green and white whose early pressure would pay off.
Reo Hatate put on a midfield masterclass in this game and his thorough strike through a sea of bodies put his team 1-0 up four minutes in. Celtic would continue to pound the Rangers goal and just before half time, the Hoops got their just rewards. A quick fire double from Hatate once more and Liel Abada put Celtic three goals in front going in at half time.
The visitors were clearly shell-shocked by the vitality of the Celtic Park crowd and the way their opponents came flying out the traps.
There was never going to be a way back for Rangers after going 3-0 down and the second forty five petered out as Celtic moved a point clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership.
Ange Postecoglou’s men knew they would have to back up such a mommumental victory to keep their status as league leaders and they did so in contrasting ways, winning 4-0 away at Motherwell with a vintage Tom Rogic display helping them to said triumph then taking all three points away from Pittodrie in a 3-2 win in which they led by two goals to nil at one point.
After these two crucial league victories, Celtic’s attention would turn to Europe and the Scottish Cup. However, as they done so, they would experience their first hiccups of 2022.
A slight snag
Raith Rovers made their second cup visit of the season to Celtic Park in mid February and it was a similar outcome to their first as the visitors suffered a 4-0 defeat.
The following Thursday after this match, European knockout football returned to the east end of Glasgow as Norwegian side Bodo/Glimt made the trip in the Europa Conference League.
Ultimately, Celtic were outplayed by a side that may have been underestimated by some. A 3-1 home defeat on the night and eventual 5-1 aggregate loss showed how far Celtic still had to come under Postecoglou, in Europe, at least.
Sandwiched in between the first European tie with Bodo was a home game to Dundee in the league. Although it may have seemed like it was going to be a routine victory, the pressure was on Celtic to extend their lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership due to Rangers’ 1-1 draw with Dundee United earlier in the day. The match itself turned out to be a topsy turvy fixture with a Giorgos Giakoumakis hat-trick helping Celtic to a 3-2 victory as the Greek finally gained the acclaim of the majority of the Celtic support, if he had not already after his couple of goals at the end of January.
This game was a major test of character for Celtic. Their status as league leaders and the pressure to strengthen their position was substantial yet it did not phase them whatsoever. It was at this point many believed this group of players could go all the way and the man who played a huge part in the win over Dundee, Giorgos Giakoumakis, was rather buoyant in his views after the game. He bullishly told Clyde 1 Superscoreboard:
“I think we will win the championship. It’s something that we really want, for the club and for the fans”
After any hopes of a European comeback in a 2-0 second leg loss to Bodo/Glimt were washed away, Celtic travelled to Easter Road in the league. However, Ange Postecoglou’s men would stagnate in the goalless draw but Rangers’ throwing away of a two goal lead at home to Motherwell meant the Bhoys’ three point lead at the top of the league was preserved.
Celtic would go on a six game winning run after the draw with Hibs as they secured their place in the Scottish Cup semi-finals along with taking a huge leap towards the title.
The run in to the split
With the annual split looming in the distance, Celtic would go on a run of form which put them in a prosperous position going into said stage of the season.
A routine 2-0 win at home to St. Mirren proceeded a match in which Celtic finally ended a fifteen year hoodoo as they won at the Tony Macaroni Arena. Despite a missed Callum McGregor penalty, the Hoops secured a 3-1 victory over Livingston, a side who had caused them difficulty earlier in the campaign.
After securing their place in the Scottish Cup semi finals thanks to a 3-0 win at Tannadice, Celtic defeated Ross County 4-0 at Celtic Park with yet another Giorgos Giakoumakis hat-trick being witnessed by the home support.
This victory set Celtic up pleasantly for the third Glasgow Derby of the season at Ibrox where a critical three points were picked up by Ange Postecoglou’s men. It showed the mettle and character of the Celtic team that after going a goal down three minutes in in a hostile environment, they were able to fight back and go in at the break 2-1 up thanks to goals from Tom Rogic and Cameron Carter-Vickers. In the second half, the Hoops were utterly rigid as they held out to move six points clear at the top of the league.
This win showed once more how Postecoglou’s men were finding a range of ways to win which contrasted the highly attacking style of football that was once described as ‘kamikaze’ like by a certain ex-Celtic manager.
What was vital after the win at Ibrox was that Celtic followed it up otherwise it would be meaningless. And follow it up they did, piling on the agony and putting on the style in a 7-0 win at home to St. Johnstone. In this game, there were six different scorers and all of them were signed during the 2021/22 campaign, going to show the scale of the reubuild Celtic faced yet just how successful it turned out be.
Also in the St. Johnstone game, there was a long awaited return for talismanic striker Kyogo Furuhashi. It was his first appearance after a hamstring injury kept him out for almost four months and when the Japanese was brought on as a substitute for the final fifteen minutes, he received a rousing standing ovation from the Celtic fans.
Kyogo’s return coupled with the stellar victory over St. Johnstone meant Celtic went into the Scottish Cup semi final with Rangers with hopes of a potential treble.
However, these hopes were banished when a lacklustre display saw the Hoops lose out by two goals to one in extra time. This loss now meant that all focus for Celtic was on the league going into the split and this concentration would eventually pay off a few weeks later.
The making of champions
Celtic didn’t let their defeat in the Scottish Cup semi-final phase them as they went into the post-split fixtures in search of the title.
First up was a trip to Dingwall to take on a Ross County side who hadn’t lost at home since the last time the Hoops paid a visit.
Here, Celtic would secure a 2-0 victory in spite of some tentative moments in the match itself. Kyogo Furuhashi bagged his first goal since returning from injury with a majestic header to put Celtic in front early on with Jota adding a second late on after Ross County were slowly but surely beginning to threaten.
This win set up a potential title showdown with Rangers a week later at Celtic Park.
Taste victory, and the Hoops would move nine points clear at the top of the table with three games to go, practically securing the title in doing so.
However, the celebrations were slightly delayed as the two Glasgow giants played out a 1-1 stalemate.
Jota continued his hot-form when he opened the scoring in the first half when he latched on to a Daizen Maeda cross although Celtic would go on to miss several big chances to make double their lead and they were punished when Fashion Sakala hit a low, driven effort inside Joe Hart’s near post to equalise midway through the second forty five. In fact, the hosts were fortunate to go on to lose the game with Rangers almost dominating the closing stages however a draw seemed a fair reflection of the overall swing of the match.
Despite mixed emotions immediately after the game, the majority of the Celtic support seemed content with the draw that preserved their team’s six point lead at the top of the league along with a vastly superior goal difference.
In the remaining three games after the final Glasgow derby of the season, the Hoops needed just four points to crown themselves as champions of Scotland, in spite of any Rangers slip ups that was.
Three of those invaluable points came at home to Hearts in Celtic’s penultimate home game of the season. Ellis Simms gave the visitors a shock lead three minutes in however Celtic would fight back and take the lead prior to half time through goals from Japanese duo Kyogo Furuhashi and Daizen Maeda. Matt O’Riley then calmed any nerves in the second half with an emphatic strike with Giorgos Giakoumakis adding a fourth at the death.
The Celtic squad then embarked on a victorious lap of honour at full time with their manager closely following them. There was a feeling in the air that the Hoops had completed the job of bringing the title back to Celtic Park and with them leading their closest challengers by six points with two games to spare, along with preserving their significant goal difference advantage, this notion was certainly true.
However, at least a point was needed at Tannadice in the midweek to officially win the league and said point was exactly what Celtic gained.
A characteristically powerful Giorgos Giakoumakis header gave the title-chasers the lead early in the second half however Dylan Levitt’s tremendous strike had United level no less than twenty minutes later. After the equaliser, neither side really pushed for a winner with Celtic content to keep possession and see out the match, despite the score being 1-1. And that’s how it finished, a goal a piece. The final whistle blew and the celebrations within the Celtic camp begun.
After the win over United, Celtic had done it. They were officially crowned champions of Scotland at a ground where said status was taken away from them last season.
The reality that an overhauled squad, assembled by a new manager who came from halfway across the world, had won the league title in its first season together, was finally beginning to set in.
It is hard to find anyone who believed the Hoops would be in this position after last season’s exploits yet the transformation the club has gone under in the space of less than a year has been seismic and a lot of that is down to Ange Postecoglou. The fifty six year old has firmly made himself a hero in his eleven months in Glasgow through his application of highly enticing, attractive football along with his charismatic persona which has engrossed not just Celtic supporters but football fans up and down Scotland.
I could list a plethora of comments and quotes right now which censured Postecoglou’s arrival and Celtic’s title credibility but I believe the manager, squad and club’s achievements this season, of which I’ve thoroughly recounted in this article, rigorously speak for themselves.
All I have left to say now is that Celtic Football Club are champions of Scotland once more (boy have I longed to write that).