Only two men had won the domestic double as both Celtic player and manager before yesterday: Jock Stein and Billy McNeil. But Neil Lennon has now added his name to those of the legendary pair after his side beat Hibs 3-0 to complete a double.
The Scottish Cup Final is the traditional end to the Scottish football season, so it’s time to have a look back over 2012/ 13.
Celtic started as the strongest of favourites to win the Scottish Premier League title. The liquidation of the former Rangers FC certainly made a 44th league success far more likely, but there are of course no sure things in sport.
Ultimately Neil Lennon’s side finished a handy 16 points clear of second placed Motherwell. A haul of 79 points from 38 league games was good but not exceptional, and a record of 24 wins, 7 draws and 7 losses was probably not as dominant as many would have expected. Form away from Celtic Park was poor at times, and with only 9 wins to show from 19 away matches there is much room for improvement.
There were, of course, mitigating factors. Lengthy injuries to several key players and the additional matches and travelling associated with a successful European campaign certainly impacted on league form. And the title was ultimately won – so does the margin of victory really matter? Indeed had a much bigger gap opened up it would simply have been seen as proof of the lack of competition, so Celtic were really in a no win situation.
Domestic cups are always a far less certain prospect than leagues. The best squad of players should prevail over the long haul of a league season, but shocks can happen on one off cup matches.
Celtics League Cup campaign started off with a 4-1 victory against Raith Rovers, with Gary Hooper netting all four. St Johnstone then offered little resistance, with Kris Commons the star man as his hat trick helped Celtic to a 5-0 victory. But an unexpected 3-2 semi final defeat against eventual cup winners St Mirren was to derail treble talk before January was out.
The Scottish Cup campaign began with an inauspicious 1-1 draw against Arbroath at Celtic Park. A 1-0 success in the replay on a cold December evening came courtesy of a fine Adam Matthews goal, his first for the club. Raith were beaten once more, this time by 3-0 to see progress maintained, with all of the goals coming in the second half. And the revenge 2-1 win over St Mirren in the quarter finals saw all of the goals come in the opening 20 minutes of the match.
The semi final against Dundee United at Hampden was one of the best matches of the season. Ahead within two minutes through Commons, Celtic soon found themselves behind, before Wanyama’s equaliser made the half time score 2-2. Commons’ second was then cancelled out by Daly’s second and a thrilling 90 minutes concluded with the sides locked at 3-3. Substitute Anthony Stokes was to be the extra time match winner, heading home for a 4-3 victory.
Yesterday’s final was a much more clear cut win, a 3-0 victory over a Hibs team who played with spirit but did not trouble Neil Lennon’s men unduly. A Hooper first half double, both from Stokes’ crosses, and one from Ledley in the second half made it a day to remember.
With domestic success always likely, the European campaign took on added significance. Two qualifying rounds had to be negotiated before the big names (and big bucks) of the Champions League group stage could be contemplated. An early season start meant that the first game was played before the league season had kicked off, a 2-1 home win over HJK Helsinki on 1 August. A 2-0 victory in Finland seven days later completed the job. Helsingborgs of Sweden were next, and a pair of 2-0 successes, away and then home, saw progress secured.
The group stages of the Champions League are where all of the big names of European football want to be. Celtic were in the fourth pot of seeds when the draw was made, and there was no way that an easy draw was likely. Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow came out of the hat, prompting ITV to tweet “goodbye Celtic”. Wasn’t that great motivation?
The six group matches began with a goalless draw at home to Benfica. Not the best of starts, with the home ties looking likely to be the best opportunity to pick up points. But the trip to Moscow saw a late Samaras winner give Celtic a 3-2 victory ahead of a mouth-watering double header against Barcelona.
Celtic’s match in the Nou Camp saw some heroic defending and an early lead courtesy of yet another Samaras away European goal. But an equaliser just before half time from Iniesta and a cruel injury time winner from Jordi Alba settled the match. The return at Celtic Park was one of the great European nights. Wanyama’s header put Celtic ahead in the first half and Neil Lennon’s tactic of forcing Barce wide was paying off as few chances were created.
Deep into the second half with the score still 1-0, substitute Tony Watt found himself through on goal as Celtic broke. With the calm of a veteran the youngster placed the ball into the corner of the net and, almost unbelievably, it was 2-0. A moment to savour for the 19 year old – and one that few who witnessed it will forget. An injury time goal from Messi wouldn’t affect the final outcome, and a famous victory was won.
It was back to earth with a bump in the next match, a 2-1 defeat in Portugal, the goal almost inevitably coming from Samaras. That set up a tense last game at home to Spartak Moscow where a late penalty from Commons finally secured a place in the last 16 knock out stages.
The tie against Juventus was to prove disappointing. A 3-0 home defeat effectively ended the tie in a game where weak refereeing saw the Italian team employ tactics akin to all in wrestling to nullify Celtic’s set piece threat. There was to be no miracle in Turin, a 2-0 defeat bringing a memorable campaign to an end.
For a team ranked 63rd in Europe to come through two qualifying rounds and a tough group to make the last sixteen was a tremendous achievement. Neil Lennon and his players should be proud of their efforts and the achievements of the season.
So how do we rate season 2012/113 overall? Two domestic trophies out of three and a significant European run makes it an excellent one in terms of results. Some of the football played at times left a little to be desired on the excitement scale, it’s true. But there is much to look back on with pride. And to build upon next season, with many young players now having gained a great deal of experience.
It is only six weeks or so until the qualifying campaign for next season’s Champions League begins. And there will be much talk of players in and out over that period.
But for now let’s just congratulate Neil Lennon and his players on a job well done this season.