Celtic shine amid off-field drama
In Scotland, season 2011/12 can already be ranked among of the most dramatic and unpredictable in the nation’s history. And that’s before we even consider the football.
That is due to the fact that, despite notable successes enjoyed by Celtic, Hearts, Kilmarnock and Motherwell, it is for the financial meltdown at Rangers that this campaign seems sure to be remembered. And no-one should be surprised. Rangers, after all, are not just any club, but Scotland’s record champions, with a tally of 54 national titles that is unmatched anywhere in world football. The sight of this giant brought to its knees, threatened by liquidation, has left the country’s national game facing up to some momentous questions.
A story from which we now expect the unexpected seems sure to have a few more twists and turns yet, and it is to be regretted that the chaos at Ibrox has overshadowed laudable on-field achievements elsewhere. Celtic certainly emerged as worthy and impressive champions, with the 20-point margin by which they took the title lessening the significance of the ten-point penalty dished out to their rivals for calling in the administrators.
Having succeeded in striking a successful balance between defensive solidity and attacking adventure, Neil Lennon’s side – with Charlie Mulgrew, James Forrest and Gary Hooper all outstanding - proved to be in a class of their own. And yet their hopes of a domestic treble were dashed by two of the Scottish game’s lesser-lauded football institutions.
Kilmarnock, the Scottish Premier League’s oldest club, provided the sensation of the season when they beat the champions-elect 1-0 at Hampden to claim the first League Cup of their 143-year history. Hearts then went one better, seeing off the Bhoys in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup before thrashing city rivals Hibernian 5-1 in the first all-Edinburgh final since 1896. It was also a season to remember for Motherwell, who profited from Rangers’ woes by securing a place in the UEFA Champions League qualifiers, and for St Johnstone, whose steady progress yielded a place in the UEFA Europa League.
Sone Aluko (Rangers)
Inconsistency personified during three seasons with Aberdeen, Aluko was not a signing that excited Rangers fans when he put pen to paper in November after four months as a free agent. The Nigerian forward has, though, emerged as a much-needed shaft of light in the Gers’ otherwise gloomy campaign, bringing skill and creativity to an erstwhile uninspired attack.
James Forrest (Celtic)
Tottenham Hotspur have been repeatedly linked with this dynamic young winger, whose pace, trickery and directness established him as Celtic’s most potent attacking threat during the early part of the season. Still just 20, Forrest’s performances have already earned him five senior caps for Scotland, and he was a popular choice as the country’s Young Player of the Year.
Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic)
Ditched by Celtic in 2006 and brought back four years later as a reserve left-back, Mulgrew has blossomed into a brilliant ball-playing centre-half. Three separate Scottish Player of the Year awards are testament to the contribution made by a player who not only brings composure to the Bhoys’ defence, but offers a significant attacking threat due to his potency in set-piece situations.
25 – Keeping 25 clean sheets in 38 matches enabled Celtic to set a new single-season Premier League record. Their fans, of course, were more concerned by the adding of title number 43, a tally that leaves the Bhoys level with Nacional of Uruguay in joint-fourth position in the global standings. The duo also share the record for number of titles won without being their country’s record champions, thanks to the 54 and 48 championships claimed by Rangers and Penarol respectively.
The memorable moments
15 October 2011: Celtic had travelled to Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park 11 points behind Rangers, and with 17 minutes of the match left to play were 3-0 down. Had the result remained unaltered, Lennon would - as he later confirmed - have handed in his resignation. As it was, a comeback inspired by Forrest’s energy and two goals from Anthony Stokes rescued a 3-3 draw and provided a major turning point for both Celtic and their Irish manager.
28 December 2011: Little over two months later, the Bhoys met a Rangers side that had at one stage been 15 points clear in the race for the title. This lead having been steadily whittled down, Celtic went into the derby on the back of eight straight wins and with the chance to leapfrog their old foes at the top of the standings. Joe Ledley’s 52nd-minute header ensured that the opportunity was not allowed to pass, and Lennon’s side remained at the summit for the remainder of the campaign.
19 May 2012: Although their rivalry is generally fought out in the shadow of Glasgow’s Old Firm, Hearts and Hibernian’s meeting in the Scottish Cup final – 116 years on from the previous instalment – captured the imagination of the entire country. Sadly for the Hibees, their Hampden dream turned into a nightmare as the club’s Edinburgh rivals cruised to a 5-1 victory before returning to parade the trophy in front of 100,000 maroon-clad fans in the capital.