Every season of football has its own story, and 2021/22 has been no different.
First and foremost, it was the one where we got the fans back into the stadiums. If nothing else, that made it brilliant. 2020/21 was quite miserable in my view, and I don’t just mean that as a Celtic fan! I tried watching several games across the course of that season and it’s just such a different game without the atmosphere. No amount of fake fans input by the TV companies could really make up for that, and I think the hardest part of it was knowing that Scotland finally made it to a major tournament for the first time in 23 years and there was barely a person in the stadium to see it happen – whether it was at Hampden against Israel or the clincher in Belgrade.
Compare that with the electric atmospheres at Hampden this season. The Israel game was my own return to football having been at Celtic’s last game before the pandemic and I’ll admit I was emotional watching the place rocking… and that was just the light show before the game! By the end of what was one of the best Scotland games I can remember attending, it was like I was back to my younger days where every game mattered more than anything else in life and I was bouncing along to Freed From Desire like I should know better at my age!
We nearly slumped back to having no fans attending but thankfully sense prevailed in Scottish Football for once and the winter break was shifted to try and keep the fans in as much as possible despite new temporary restrictions coming in. It was a gamble, there was no guarantee the fans would be back after the break, but it was one that paid off as there was only the Boxing Day fixtures that did still get caught up in those. That was bad enough, but still far better than ploughing on through a busy period of fixtures behind closed doors once more.
So has this season been a success for the Scottish national team? Finishing second in our group for the first time since 2003 probably suggests it was, but we know the job isn’t done yet. We’ve had to wait for our playoff against Ukraine, and although most of the world will want another good news story for a country with far more on its plate than football, we’ll be looking to get ourselves to Cardiff for the showdown for the final place in Qatar.
In the women’s game it’s looking like a similar story. Miles behind a dominant Spain but still sitting in a decent position for the qualification playoffs. I think the success for the women though has been making Hampden their home just like the men.
If it was bad enough watching on from home as Scotland qualified for the Euros, imagine how it felt being a St Johnstone fan watching your team clinch an historic cup double and not being at a single game of it. Then imagine telling them that when they come back they’ll get back to Hampden again in the League Cup but lose eventually winners Celtic, but they’ll also let go of the Scottish Cup by losing to lower league Kelty Hearts and they’ll face a playoff for Premiership survival against Inverness Caley Thistle. St Johnstone staying in the top flight following that playoff win probably sees this season as some kind of success in the end, but that’s quite a fall from grace.
They aren’t the only club to have had a fall from grace lately. Aberdeen’s season began brightly under their new manager Stephen Glass, but then seemed to collapse after their League Cup defeat at Raith Rovers. A defeat at Motherwell in the Scottish Cup and a bottom six finish for the first time since 2013 saw Jim Goodwin come in to replace Glass and, as yet, not really sort out the problems. A big summer lies ahead for them – and a short one with them making their debut in the League Cup group stages.
Hibernian were another who expected much but delivered little. Like Aberdeen, they started well and even made the League Cup final. But by the time that came around they had sacked Jack Ross after a poor run of form in the league and ultimately lost that final too. Shaun Maloney came in later, but was quickly back out again as he failed to get Hibernian either into the top six or into the Scottish Cup final after losing to Hearts in the semi final. Three visits to Hampden sounds quite good on the face of it, but clearly not enough and new manager Lee Johnston has quite a task ahead of him to improve things.
When you start reflecting on how the other teams performed in the league, you start to find that there’s a similar pattern across most of the teams. Livingston blew a top six finish right at the death against Motherwell but then convincingly finished seventh with more points than half the top six – as you would when you don’t have to play the better teams in Scotland. Motherwell themselves barely won a game in 2022 but somehow managed to do just enough to not only get top six but also clinch a European place for next season. St Mirren were in the hunt for a top six finish most of the time too, but losing Jim Goodwin to Aberdeen and bringing in Stephen Robinson hasn’t really seemed to have had the desired effect. Still finished between Hibernian and Aberdeen though, well clear of relegation.
There’s only really a few certainties in the league. Dundee have had a miserable season and rightly been relegated. The sacking of James McPake just as they started to win a couple of games was only the second more bizarre decision at the club after the one that saw them bring in Mark McGhee to replace him. I would love to say that surely he is now finished as serious contender for any managerial role anywhere, but then again he got this gig because of who he knows and that’s sadly rife within football. In fairness, they did okay in the cups, losing to St Johnstone and Rangers in the quarter finals of both tournaments. But its the Championship for them again next season.
Ross County had a good season as well. Many had them as favourites for the drop, myself included, but they managed to make the top six and although they’ve finished sixth and missed out on a European spot they can be more than happy with their season. Their cup runs were pretty non-existent, but that was mostly due to Covid forfeits in the League Cup and a narrow defeat to Livingston in the Scottish Cup.
Dundee United are probably the other certainty. Like Dundee they were knocked out of the quarter final of both cups by Hibernian and Celtic, but a fourth place finish in the league is further progress after their return to the top flight last season. European football back at Tannadice for the first time since 2012/13 is a great return for Tam Courts in his first season in charge. A good season for them and a horrible season for their city rivals, it’s probably good fun being a United fan in Dundee right now!
Then we come to the top three. Hearts finished miles ahead of Dundee United, but also miles behind the top two. They made the Scottish Cup final, but lost in a game they probably could have won – especially if Ellis Simms had scored the best chance of the first half. Hearts will likely see it as a successful season, but one with some missed opportunities. You have to think that most neutral observers will look at all three trophies being back in the hands of the big two in Glasgow who were streets ahead of everyone else in the league and sigh. Hearts were as close as anyone to preventing that, and they didn’t really come close enough.
If Hearts are mixed feelings, then it’s nothing compared with the top two. Both Celtic and Rangers will claim a successful season, but both will probably also claim the other didn’t have a successful season at all by comparison.
When Rangers started the season, they were off the back of an unbeaten league title having stopped Celtic winning ten in a row. They wanted to retain that title, and knew that Celtic had a massive rebuild ahead. They were six points clear at the top of the league at new year but by the time they had hosted Celtic at Ibrox before the split and lost they were six points behind. Ultimately Rangers lost the league title that would have given them that elusive Champions League group stage football next season.
But then again, but the time that happened they actually had a better path to the Champions League. Any season that sees a Scottish team in a European final is a terrific season for that team and anyone who says otherwise is at it. Rangers might have lost that final in the most heartbreaking of ways, but they were there and as Celtic fans themselves will tell you from their own experience of Seville in 2003, you don’t trade those memories for anything.
I know, I was there!
I remember that summer well. Rangers won a treble and it felt like the most undeserved thing on the planet. For me it was very clear. Celtic were the better team, had the better head to head against Rangers that season, had lost the League Cup final to a dodgy offside decision and lost in the Scottish Cup away to Inverness in a game just after beating Liverpool at Anfield where players were rested. Even the league itself came down to goal difference, where in other countries like Spain the head to head would have given it to Celtic, and in fact Celtic of 2002/03 won more points in the league than not only this season’s Celtic but most of the champions that have come and gone since!
The confidence going into the 2003/04 season for Celtic, despite Rangers winning that treble, was not only massive but it was also spot on in the end. Celtic did go out and prove the point, winning two of the three trophies, winning twenty five league games in a row and clinching the title without losing until it was already done, beating Rangers five times out of five, and even knocking Barcelona out of Europe during that period too. It was such a great season that it was the subject I chose to write a book about. So I can definitely imagine that Rangers fans will most likely have a similar confidence right now about season 2022/23, and there is already talk from Rangers players themselves about possibly winning the treble next season.
Of course, winning the Scottish Cup on Saturday does mean that Rangers finally ended their long cup drought and didn’t end a season that seemed to promise so much empty handed. So with that and a defeat on penalties rather than extra time, they’ll even claim it was a better season than Celtic’s 2002/03. I’m sure the league points total difference will be the counter to that particular claim!
As for Celtic? Well there’s no doubt the fans are relieved Rangers didn’t win the Europa League, that’s football rivalry for you, but there’s also no taking away from their own achievements and that has been evident among the Celtic support after both the Dundee United game that clinched the title and the Motherwell game that saw the trophy presentation. The fans were out in force to celebrate both times.
My own predictions at the start of the season suggested that I had faith that Ange Postecoglou would come in and turn round a demoralised and defeated Celtic. The 2020/21 season was a spectacular collapse from a team who had won the previous eleven trophies. It’s an oddity that Celtic actually won a trophy in a trophyless season – the quadruple treble was clinched in the December after all! The Celtic team that ended it had to be cleared out last summer and rebuilt, including a new manager bringing in his new style of play which had to be learned on top of that. That wasn’t going to happen overnight, so I fully expected Rangers to skoosh the league and probably scoop up the League Cup as well. If Celtic would win anything, I felt it would be the Scottish Cup after a second transfer window had come and gone.
It’s kind of amusing how I managed to get it completely the wrong way round!
In actual fact, Celtic’s turnaround was remarkably quick. Sure, they had a dreadful start to the league and were quickly knocked out of Champions League qualifying. But some of the Europa League qualifying showed signs of what was to come, and by the time the League Cup came round they were starting to click. Celtic would go on to win that, thanks to one of the new heroes in the door – Kyogo Furuhashi.
There was definitely an element of luck for Celtic along the way. The moving of the winter break helped Celtic regroup when they were struggling to put a fit team on the park. Kyogo was fit just long enough to win the cup and then wasn’t seen again for four months. But there was also Postecoglou’s mantra of “we never stop” that got Celtic over the line. Late winners were seen on crucial days away to Ross County and at home to Dundee United among others.
The night Celtic hosted Rangers and blew them away in the first half was probably the day many people thought Celtic were really back. It was definitely the night Celtic took top spot off Rangers. It also showed my prediction wasn’t far off, given it was the Japanese contingent of Daizen Maeda and Reo Hatate that took all the plaudits that night, two men that had joined in the January.
Following that up with a win at Ibrox in April made sure that the six point deficit became a six point advantage and it was then a matter of when not if Celtic would win the league. Celtic will need to do better at finishing Rangers off than their last two games against their rivals would suggest though if they are to go on and continue to build on this success, having led in both the Scottish Cup semi final and the final league game with other great chances to extend their lead only to be pegged back in both. Extra time in that semi final killed off the hopes of a fifth treble in six seasons.
But Celtic will also need to build in Europe. Given the rebuild job that was required, Europe was almost a free pass for Celtic this season. That won’t be the case next season, even accepting they are straight into the Champions League group stages. Rangers fans rightly rip into Celtic’s record in Europe, having not won a knockout stage tie since that Barcelona tie in 2004 I mentioned earlier. That plus the fact that Celtic were knocked out of all three tournaments this season alone has given Rangers fans plenty of ammunition.
There were certainly exciting performances in Europe from Celtic this season, but that owed as much to leaking goals as it did to scoring them. Picking up more points in the Europa League group stages than Rangers doesn’t matter if you don’t make it out of the group and they do! But perhaps most galling is that Celtic continue to lose to lower budget teams like Midtjylland and Bodo/Glimt, the same hallmark of far too many of Postecoglou’s predecessors. Automatic qualification for the Champions League group stages mean no qualifiers this season, which is a welcome change I’m sure, but that level of competition will not be forgiving and the potential draw is already looking pretty daunting.
How both Celtic and Rangers build from here leaves an intriguing summer ahead, but it also leaves a rather depressing one for the rest of Scottish football. These two are miles ahead already, and with one getting the Champions League riches and the other in with a great chance of qualifying to join them, it will only make the disparity even worse. Only the fact that Hearts are also guaranteed group stage football really gives any cause for optimism on that stage for Scottish football.
Women’s domestic football is looking rather hauntingly familiar too. Glasgow City’s dominance finally came to and end after a record fourteen titles in a row, but given that league was won by the familiar name of Rangers you do start to fear that it’s heading the same way as the men’s game. The other domestic trophies aren’t looking any better given Celtic picked up the League Cup and will face Glasgow City in the Scottish Cup final this weekend. I’m sure neutrals might be glad to see Glasgow City facing the possibility of a trophyless season, but I’m pretty sure they would have hoped the trophies were going anywhere except those two!
But there’s definitely hope for Scottish football elsewhere in the pyramid. Since it was brought in for 2014/15, we’ve seen Edinburgh City, Cove Rangers and Kelty Hearts not only join the SPFL but they’ve now all risen out of League Two and indeed Cove will be playing in the Championship next season. Bonnyrigg Rose will look to be the next since overcoming Cowdenbeath in this season’s playoffs.
The pyramid is far from perfect and many of us would love to see it opened up further with so many other ambitious clubs looking up, but even what we have feels like an exciting change that we’re at least seeing some benefit from. Already it feels like the SPFL is getting strong as a consequence. For years we’ve looked at the Championship and thought that it’s the most competitive division of the four. It isn’t going to be any weaker next season, but League One is now looking like it might challenge for that title given the names that will be involved.
Hopefully in the coming seasons we’ll continue to look across not just the top flight but also the other success stories down through the divisions and the different leagues below the SPFL. Whether it’s how Dick Campbell’s Arbroath nearly shocked everyone to reach the top flight, the historic name of Queen’s Park in the second tier once more, or the continued restructuring of the East and West of Scotland leagues from conferences to divisions, there are plenty of stories for all.