Nine in a row. Throughout my entire life, and long before, it’s been something of note. At first it was talk of the past when a Celtic team managed by Jock Stein outstripped the six in a row achievements of one of his predecessors, Willie Maley. When I was moving through school it was the turn of Rangers to achieve the long run of consecutive league victories under the guidance of first Graeme Souness but mostly Walter Smith. Most recently, Neil Lennon has bookended Celtic doing it for a second time, with a couple of titles from both Ronny Deila and Brendan Rodgers in there as well of course.
Fans, as fans will always do, love to debate what was and wasn’t a true achievement. Celtic fans point to the financial backing of the Bank of Scotland that Rangers got through their nine, which ultimately cost them dearly. That of course meant that Celtic’s current run was done without a Rangers in the top flight for four of the nine seasons. Throw in the awarding of the Scottish Premiership title to Celtic for season 2019/20 via the SPFL board room rather than finishing the job on the park and the cries of asterisks and tainted titles is louder than ever.
Regardless of what you may think of the merits, the record books show nine consecutive titles for Celtic in the 1960s and 1970s, nine consecutive titles for Rangers in the 1980s and 1990s, and nine consecutive titles for Celtic in the 2010s up to the present day.
But are they comparable? Here I take a look at the record books to try and put these triumphs into a wider context of both overall domestic success and European campaigns.
The most recent nine has had a few quirks for Celtic. Right at the very beginning, Neil Lennon’s Celtic found themselves in the Europa League group stages, not because they had won on the park but because Sion had ignored a transfer ban. That group stage campaign was a tricky one as Celtic replaced Sion after the draw was made, and although there was a win over Rennes as well as draws away to Rennes and in both games against Udinese, Celtic were knocked out at the group stage.
The 2012/13 season saw probably Celtic’s biggest triumph as they not only qualified for the Champions League but beat Barcelona at home after a narrow and late defeat in the Camp Nou a couple of weeks earlier. But defeat to Juventus followed in the next round and that was the end of that. 2013/14 also saw Celtic reach the group stage, but a hiding from Barcelona was the low point of a campaign that only saw one win and five defeats in a group of former winners along with AC Milan and Ajax. 2014/15 saw another paperwork exercise help Ronny Deila’s Celtic out, as Legia Warsaw fielded a suspended player in the final few minutes of a tie long won on the park… which turned it into a 4-4 away goals win for Celtic. Defeat to Maribor followed, and while Celtic made it through the Europa League group stages it was more disappointment in the knockout rounds with defeat to Inter Milan.
2015/16 was even more miserable as Celtic once again failed to negotiate Champions League qualifying, falling to Malmo in the playoff round, before finishing bottom of the Europa League group with no wins and three draws.
2016/17 and 2017/18 both saw Celtic negotiate the qualifying rounds of the Champions League under Brendan Rodgers, and although there were some exciting nights like a 3-3 draw with Manchester City or a 3-0 win away to Anderlecht, there were record thrashings like the 7-0 in Barcelona, the 7-1 in Paris, and the 5-0 at home to Paris Saint-Germain. Those now stand as Celtic biggest away defeat in Europe and Celtic joint biggest home defeat ever. Celtic finished bottom of the group in 2016/17, but third in 2017/18 saw them drop into the Europa League once more only to lose to Zenit St Petersburg once there.
Defeat to AEK Athens in 2018/19 under Rodgers and Cluj in 2019/20 under Lennon once more have seen Celtic fail to make even the playoff round of the Champions League in the last two seasons. However, the Europa League group stages have been successfully navigated in both seasons, only for Celtic to fall to Valencia in 2018/19 and Copenhagen in 2019/20. The latter was even more disappointing after a record setting campaign in the group stages that saw Celtic pick up 13 points, beating Lazio home and away in the process.
Sadly, other Scottish teams have barely registered during this period. Rangers failure to qualify for either group stage in 2011/12 most likely escalated their financial downfall later that season, but no other Scottish team has even made it to the Europa League Playoff round since Hearts lost to Liverpool there in 2012/13. Indeed, it was only in 2018/19 that Rangers managed to make it not only to that point but through all four rounds of qualifying, finishing third in their group. They then surpassed that feat in 2019/20 by once again navigating all four rounds of qualifying but this time finishing second in their tight group and then overcoming Braga in the knockout round. Indeed, at the time of writing they are still in the Europa League last sixteen and have been for months since the second leg away to Bayer Leverkusen – originally scheduled for 12th March – will now take place on 6th August. It would be a remarkable comeback if Rangers could progress past Leverkusen though, being 3-1 down after the home leg.
Domestically, Celtic’s most recent dominance has been completely unprecedented. Back to back trebles was achieved under Rodgers for the first time ever, and that was then followed by a third consecutive treble started by Rodgers and finished by the returning Lennon. With the League Cup and League also secured and Celtic currently in the semi final of the Scottish Cup which will be finished before the end of the calendar year, Celtic have picked up eleven consecutive domestic trophies and could conceivably make it twelve – though Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibernian will all want to have their say in that.
Indeed, Hibernian are the last team outside of Celtic to pick up a trophy, with that Scottish Cup victory in 2015/16 finally ending the infamous hoodoo that lasted 114 years. They probably should have added the League Cup to the cabinet that season, but Ross County won that particular final to pick up their first domestic trophy.
First trophies have been something of a theme in recent years with Inverness winning the Scottish Cup in 2014/15 after victory over Falkirk, and St Johnstone beating Dundee United in the final the season before that. Celtic won the final against Hibernian in 2012/13, and prior to that was the infamous 5-1 victory for Hearts in the Edinburgh derby final.
In the League Cup, Celtic’s only other victory came in 2014/15 under Deila when they beat Dundee United in the final. Celtic lost to Kilmarnock in 2011/12, while the other finals saw St Mirren beat Hearts in 2012/13 and Aberdeen beat Inverness on penalties in 2013/14.
Overall then, as they did the first time Celtic have won five out of nine League Cups. They’ve also won four out of eight Scottish Cups so would need to win this season to match the number of trophies won by Stein’s nine-in-a-row Celtic. The other trophies during that period have gone to Kilmarnock, Hearts, St Mirren, Aberdeen, St Johnstone, Inverness, Ross County and Hibernian all picking up one each.
In the league, Celtic’s first title under Lennon in 2011/12 came as Rangers collapsed into financial destruction. The ten point deduction for entering administration meant that Celtic’s title victory over the holders was a gap of a full twenty points, but despite the deduction Rangers still finished eleven clear of third placed Motherwell.
Motherwell would finish second in 2012/13, sixteen points behind Celtic, while in 2013/14 they were a whopping twenty nine points behind in second place. In 2014/15 under Deila it was an eighteen point gap back to second placed Aberdeen, while in 2015/16 the gap was fifteen points.
The biggest gap of all came in 2016/17 when Rodgers’ Celtic went the entire domestic campaign unbeaten to claim the invincible treble, and having beaten Aberdeen in both cup finals it was also Aberdeen who finished in second place a full thirty points behind. The gap between Celtic on top and Aberdeen in second was down to nine points by 2017/18, and it was a similar nine point gap to second place Rangers in 2018/19 with Lennon back in charge. When the league was curtailed in 2019/20, Celtic led Rangers by thirteen points, although Rangers had played a game less at the time so it could have been ten. With eight games still to play though, only Rangers still had even a mathematical chance of catching Celtic and even that was looking increasingly unlikely.
In summary, a majority of League Cup wins and half the Scottish Cup wins with one still to be decided and a recent domestic dominance over four seasons that is utterly unprecedented. A few decent results in Europe, but far more disappointment overall, and nothing of note from any other Scottish team in Europe either. And definitely a few quirks in terms of suspensions, bans and curtailments!
The real question now is will Lennon’s Celtic be stopped at nine like Stein’s Celtic and Smith’s Rangers? Or will ten in a row finally be achieved in the men’s game just as it was by Glasgow City in the women’s game in 2016?
We’ll find out in due course, starting this weekend.