Perhaps the most annoying aspect of Celtic’s unbelievable run of titles is the constant, ceaseless barrage of comments bemoaning a lack of competition in the league.
Fans of Port Vale, Grimsby or Hereford angrily clacking, “tinpot league mate”, into their keyboards every time something Scottish pops into their view. While it is true that Celtic tower above the competition, such moronic assessments ignores a key aspect to Celtic’s success – the ability to fight-off the corrosive effects of inertia.
Inertia is a cancer to triumph, slowly gnawing away at an entity until it crumbles into obscurity.
History is littered with examples, from the macro to the micro. On the global scale we have seen countless empires rise to prominence only to grow soft in luxury. Decadence robbing folk of the ideals that made them such ferocious conquerors. The Persians, the Scythians, the Huns, (not that type of Hun), the Mongols, all peoples who rose from harsh, unforgiving landscapes to dominate their geopolitical worlds, before eventually resting on their laurels and becoming a soft target for newer, tougher tribes.
This phenomenon is best described by historian and philosopher Voltaire who said, “History is filled with the sound of silk slippers going down stairs and wooden shoes coming up.”
On a smaller scale, such lethargy infects triumphant football sides all the time. Consider Manchester City. Despite having all the money in world, a litany of world-class players and a string of good coaches, the Citizens have never retained a league title. Apathy invades their dressing room, standards drop, the clinical edge lost.
If you are in doubt as to how hard it is to maintain such a lengthy run of successive league wins you only have to have a quick look around Europe. In Switzerland Basle, who have won every league title since the 09/10 season, look doomed to a second place finish this season. Eleven points behind Young Boys with just six games remaining. In Greece, perennial champions Olympiakos have succumbed to inertia, trailing city rivals AEK Athens by nine points with just five games remaining. Having won every league since the 10/11 season it is a huge shock.
The manager most wary of losing hunger was Sir Alex Ferguson. Speaking in 2016 he said, “With complacency, you do not see it happening, you do not see where it is coming from. But, when it hits you, you cannot get out of it, you can’t eradicate it.”
Manchester United may have dominated the Premier League when Ferguson prowled the technical area, yet even he saw his sides briefly flirt with inertia. His solution to this was to regularly jettison older players, those who may have looked at their burgeoning medal collection and deemed it enough. Gary Pallister, Dennis Irwin, Steve Bruce, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Bryan Robson were all ruthlessly cut from the squad, despite enjoying a close bond with their gaffer.
Ferguson went on to say, “I had to remember that I was manager of Manchester United, not their father and I had to go and tell them their time had come.”
As Celtic approach their seventh league title in a row, there may come a time when players who have formed a huge attachment to the fans need to be cut adrift. Craig Gordon has shown himself to be unparalleled in the traditional aspect of goalkeeping, perhaps the best pure shot-stopper we have seen in the last three decades, yet sadly he has proven himself to be singularly unsuited to Brendan Rodger’s passing style. Goals are consistently lost thanks to his lackadaisical distribution, either passed to the opposition or lazily chipped into the crowd.
Mikael Lustig, a favourite amongst many fans, looks like a man pulverised by time. His legs can almost be heard creaking in the stands. For a position that requires him to be piston-like in his movement, he is increasingly unsuited.
Jozo Šimunović, thanks to his heart-stopping challenge against Kenny Miller, is something of a cult hero, yet an inability to learn from mistakes and make genuine improvement, means he is destined for the exit door.
The one player who you would assume to be the ideal candidate to contract complacencies’ fatal disease would be the captain, Scott Brown. Given his age, the injuries he has suffered and the medals he has won, it would be easy for him to slowly slide into vocational dotage. Yet he fights in the engine room with a tenacity that seems to burn brighter than ever. Colliding into crunching tackles, noising up rivals, yet still maintaining the awareness to rotate the ball with dizzying speed, Brown has been by far and away the best player in Scotland this season.
Brown’s intense presence seems to be the antidote to contentment.
Rodgers himself seems well aware that the greatest threat to the club’s domination comes from within, saying, “complacency is something we have trained to avoid and it’s my job as the leader to ensure that it doesn’t come in.” Rodgers also said, “It’s fairly simple, it’s something I mentioned when I first came in: we need to be allergic to it.”
Complacency finds a way into squads when a club’s objectives are vague. With the mythical ’10 in a row’ palpably sitting on the horizon, everyone connected with the club are pulling in the same direction, with the same goal in mind.
Too often Celtic’s domestic brilliance is waved away, denigrated due to a financial advantage. The fact that the club has batted away the ever-encroaching beast of complacency and racked up trophy after trophy is barely even acknowledged, much less celebrated.