Tears and cheers in Scotland
As recently as 12 days ago, Rangers stood on the cusp of the greatest season in their history. With one cup final successfully negotiated, two more lying in wait and their championship destiny firmly in their own hands, an historic domestic and European quadruple seemed well within the grasp of Walter Smith's side.
Less than two weeks on, however, this season that promised glory and a place in Scottish football folklore has been indelibly stained by failure of the most heartbreaking sort. Of the four prizes they were chasing, Rangers allowed the two they coveted most to slip through their fingers, leaving Zenit St Petersburg with the UEFA Cup and, worst of all, Celtic with a third successive league championship.
While defeat in a European competition in which they had exceeded expectations was just about palatable, losing a title race they had led by six points with two games in hand just a month before was near-impossible to stomach. Even victory in Saturday's Scottish Cup final, albeit over second tier Queen of the South, couldn't prevent the question being asked: just when did Rangers' season begin to unravel?
Some at the club have complained that they were hampered by the Scottish Premier League's refusal to significantly extend the season, but although a punishing spell of four matches in eight days was hardly the ideal end to a 67-game season, even Smith admitted: "We only have ourselves to blame."
Like most great football dramas, the story of Scotland's season had a turning point, and it came in the 93rd minute of an Old Firm derby at Celtic Park on 16 April. With a win essential, the clock ticking down, the score at 1-1 and a missed penalty to reflect on, Gordon Strachan's Celtic found themselves roared forward for one final attack, which ended with Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink heading home a memorable winner.
Rangers remained at the summit, but the first seed of doubt had been sown, and when Strachan's side came from behind to deservedly edge another derby thriller just 11 days later, the sense of gathering momentum was unmistakeable. A Celtic side that had won just once in a miserable seven-game spell between March and April emerged triumphant in all seven of their final league fixtures, while Rangers dropped points at Hibernian and third-place Motherwell to hand their rivals the initiative going into a dramatic final night.
Celtic, leading only on goal difference, knew that, barring a remarkably lop-sided Rangers win at Aberdeen, victory at Dundee United would ensure the title was retained. In fact, cheers and songs of celebration were ringing out from the Bhoys' support long before Vennegoor of Hesselink headed the game's only goal, as news of Aberdeen's unfolding triumph at Pittodrie filtered through on radios and mobile phones.
While Rangers licked their wounds, Celtic savoured the completion of a comeback that had seemed the stuff of fantasy just a few weeks earlier. The oft-criticised Strachan, who at one stage had admitted his side had "maybe left it too late for this season", even joined the legendary duo of Jock Stein and Willie Maley as the only managers in Celtic's history to win three successive titles.
As the celebrations began in earnest, captain Stephen McManus couldn't resist a sardonic dig at the critics. "For a supposedly bang average side with a bang average manager, we've managed to do not too badly," he said.
There was certainly nothing average about the 25 goals Scott McDonald plundered to finish as Scotland's top scorer, nor about the sparkling wing play from Aiden McGeady that put Shunsuke Nakamura in the shade and left the young Irishman clutching some richly-deserved end-of-season awards.
O'Donnell and Burns remembered
Yet if there was one individual who spurred Celtic on to cross the finishing line, it was Tommy Burns, a much-loved first team coach and former player and manager who died recently at 51, having served the club he adored for the best part of 35 years. Tens of thousands lined the streets for his funeral last Tuesday, and amidst the tears and tributes grew a fierce determination among the Celtic squad to 'do it for Tommy.'
There was relief therefore when a fitting tribute was provided, with the celebrating players and management sporting t-shirts emblazoned with Burns' image and the message 'You'll always be with us'. "Tommy was a great man and a great coach, a friend to all of us," said Gary Caldwell, with the party in full swing. "He would have loved tonight. This one is dedicated to him and his memory."
Of course, Burns' passing was not the only tragedy inflicted on Scottish football this season. The entire nation came to a standstill when Phil O'Donnell, who was signed by Burns at Celtic, collapsed and died while captaining Motherwell in a match against Dundee United.
From these immensely sad moments, however, emerged re-affirmation of the unifying powerful of football - even in a city as famously divided as Glasgow. It was of huge cultural significance, certainly, to see Walter Smith and his tearful assistant, Ally McCoist, among the pall-bearers at Burns' funeral, while the scenes of Rangers fans being applauded by their Celtic counterparts as they laid their scarves in tribute will also live long in the memory.
In such a season, it was fitting that the curtain came down not with Saturday's Scottish Cup final, but rather with a charity tribute game played out in O'Donnell's honour at Celtic Park yesterday. It might have merely involved some aging figures from Celtic and Motherwell's best teams of the 1990s, but all 60,000 tickets sold out weeks in advance as fans came together to acknowledge that, whatever their fellow Scot Bill Shankly might have had you believe, football really isn't more important than life or death after all.