Celtic celebrations tempered by absent foes

Celtic manager Neil Lennon spoke of his immense pride at retaining the Clydesdale Bank Premier League title yesterday, but Rangers’ absence from the top flight this season for the first time since the foundation of league football in Scotland in 1890 had turned the traditional two-horse race for the championship into a one-horse canter from the outset.

Celtic celebrations tempered by absent foes

Celtic manager Neil Lennon spoke of his immense pride at retaining the Clydesdale Bank Premier League title yesterday, but Rangers’ absence from the top flight this season for the first time since the foundation of league football in Scotland in 1890 had turned the traditional two-horse race for the championship into a one-horse canter from the outset.

A 4-1 win over Inverness at Celtic Park sealed the club’s 44th league title confirmed what everyone in world football had expected would happen, even last summer when the Hoops dropped two points at newly-promoted Ross County in their second SPL game of the campaign.

It is not Lennon’s fault that the Ibrox club re-emerged into the Irn-Bru Third Division last season after their well-publicised fall into administration and then liquidation, but he and Celtic – and indeed the whole of Scottish football - have been affected.

The Northern Irishman and his players have regularly railed against suggestions that their stumbles in the SPL have come as a result of complacency borne out of not having Rangers breathing down their necks.

Earlier this year, Charlie Mulgrew admitted he would have Rangers back in the SPL if it was down to him and while he was criticised for saying it by some of his own fans, he was unarguably echoing the thoughts of most of his team-mates.

In yesterday’s newspapers Lennon addressed former Celtic striker Andy Walker’s claim that this season’s title triumph would be less satisfying than last year’s championship win, describing the comments as “total nonsense”.

But Walker only said what most people believe to be true.

Celtic’s victory over Inverness means they can reach 84 points, the current lowest SPL title-winning total, set by the Parkhead club in 2006-07 when, like this season, they qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League.

There have been impressive performances at different times from Fraser Forster, Victor Wanyama, Scott Brown and Kris Commons, allied to the consistency of Joe Ledley and Mulgrew.

However, without the tension associated with a traditional Old Firm title race, where every dropped point which allows the other side an advantage is dissected, scrutinised and explained, it has appeared difficult at times for Celtic to get motivated for domestic games.

Dwindling home crowds suggest it has been difficult for the punters to get excited too.

There have been some impressive displays by Lennon’s men, including a 4-0 win against Hearts at Tynecastle last November, a 4-0 home win over Dundee United in January as well as a 6-2 win over the same opposition at Parkhead the following month.

However, Champions League hangovers saw them draw at home with Hibernian, lose at Kilmarnock and at home to Inverness.

Celtic also surrendered a two-goal lead at Ross County to lose 3-2 and there were unexpected defeats at Easter Road and at St Johnstone, as well as a loss at Motherwell.

Amid all that, the Scottish Communities League Cup campaign ended with a shock semi-final defeat by St Mirren at Hampden.

Celtic’s quality came to the fore in the Champions League when there was real competition.

Lennon’s reputation was enhanced by guiding the Hoops through two tricky qualifiers before taking on and beating one of the biggest names in European football.

Bottom seeds Celtic overcame Barcelona on a memorable night at Parkhead and beat Spartak Moscow home and away in their group to finish second to the Catalan giants at the expense of Benfica and the Russian club, before losing to Italian giants Juventus in the last 16.

It was a remarkable achievement and one for which this season will be best remembered.

A cup final date against Hibernian at Hampden next month promises a glorious end to the season.

Meanwhile, Hoops fans can look forward to another attempt at entering European football’s elite club competition next season, albeit Celtic will have to hurdle three qualifying rounds to get to the group stages this time.

However, while Celtic fans in a stadium 7,000 short of its capacity celebrated, their appetite for another tilt at a Rangers-less SPL will be revealed when the next batch of season tickets go on sale shortly.

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