The Three Nines – Stein’s Celtic

Posted on by K Kujawa

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.

Celtic 1965/66-1973/74

It cannot escape notice that, during their first nine in a row, Celtic won the biggest prize of all: the European Cup in 1967. That was achieved with a team whose furthest journey was for Bobby Lennox to come up from Saltcoats, a clear indication of just how local the talent was and therefore just how good Scottish football was back then.

But it was far from the only indication.

As Celtic were winning the European Cup in 1967, Rangers were also in the Cup Winners Cup final which they eventually lost narrowly to Bayern Munich in extra time. On top of that, Kilmarnock had made the semi final of the Fair Cities Cup, the predecessor to the UEFA Cup, where they lost out over two legs to runners up Leeds United. A month prior to the Lisbon heroics of Celtic, the national team had beaten the reigning world champions on their own patch. 1967 was undoubtedly Scottish football’s pinnacle.

For most of the other seasons of Celtic’s first nine, they were a force to be reckoned with in Europe. Narrowly missing out on the Cup Winners Cup final in 1965/66, they did make the European Cup final again in 1969/70 where they lost to Feyenoord. There were also two more semi final appearances against 1971/72 winners Inter Milan and 1973/74 runners up Atletico Madrid, as well as quarter final defeats to eventual winners AC Milan in 1968/69 and Ajax in 1970/71. Indeed, the only real disappointments during the nine were the Dinamo Kiev defeat in 1967/68, the Ujpest Dosza defeat in 1972/73 and the Anderlecht defeat in 1974/75 in the season the league run came to an end.

However, it should be noted that the competition was a lot smaller then that it is now. It took Celtic four ties to get to the final in Lisbon. Four ties now is what it takes just to get through qualifying! Nevertheless, this was a tremendous level of consistency.

But it wasn’t just Celtic.

The 1966/67 season aside, Rangers winning the Cup Winners Cup in 1971/72 was the other obvious high. But there were quite a few good runs from other teams in Europe too. In 1968/69, Dunfermline Athletic made the semi final of the Cup Winners Cup and Hibernian made the quarter finals in 1972/73. In the Fairs Cities Cup, Dunfermline made the quarter finals in 1965/66, Dundee made the semi finals in 1967/68 and Rangers made the semi finals in 1968/69.

Clearly, in the days before money ruled the game, Scottish football more than held its own against the other countries in Europe.

Celtic’s domestic dominance during this period was interestingly lop-sided in the cup competitions. During the first five seasons of the nine in a row, Celtic won the League Cup on each occasion. They then went on to lose in the final of the other four. This run actually formed nine of a total of fourteen consecutive final appearances for Celtic of which they lost eight and won only six. Rangers accounted for half of those defeats, while Partick Thistle, Hibernian, Dundee – managed by Lisbon Lion Tommy Gemmell at the time – and Aberdeen made up the rest.

In the Scottish Cup, Celtic completed the domestic treble in both 1966/67 and 1968/69. In between, Dunfermline Athletic lifted the Scottish Cup with victory over Hearts. Prior to those two trebles, Rangers picked up the trophy by beating Celtic while after the two trebles it was Aberdeen who stopped Celtic doing a clean sweep.

Of the other four Scottish Cup finals during Celtic’s first nine in a row, Celtic picked up three of them beating Rangers, Hibernian and Dundee United in the finals. The other one saw Rangers beating Celtic in the 1972/73 final to prevent them winning the trophy three times in a row – something only Queen’s Park (twice), Vale of Leven and Rangers (thrice) themselves had done at the time.

Overall then, Celtic won five out of nine League Cups and five out of nine Scottish Cups during their nine in a row, with Rangers winning three trophies and Partick Thistle, Hibernian, Dundee, Dunfermline Athletic and Aberdeen each picking up one.

Looking at the league, it’s worth noting that as Celtic won the first of their nine championships, it was Kilmarnock that were the reigning champions of the then eighteen team league. They finished a distant third in 1965/66 behind Rangers in second who were just two points behind Celtic when there were just two points for a win. The following seasons saw Celtic win by three points over Rangers in 1966/67, two points over Rangers in 1967/68, five points over Rangers in 1968/69, eight points over Rangers in 1969/70, two points over Aberdeen in 1970/71, ten points over Aberdeen in 1971/72, one point over Rangers in 1972/73, and four points over Hibernian in 1973/74. When Rangers finally ended the run in 1974/75, the final year of the eighteen team league, they finished seven points clear of Hibernian with Celtic finishing a further four points back in third.

In summary, a majority of both League Cup and Scottish Cup wins while picking up title after title. A crowning glory of a European Cup victory, while a second team also picked up a European trophy, and a few other great runs in Europe for other teams too.