Celtic must rue the part they have played in the ludicrous modern-day promotion of pre-season friendlies. On the same weekend as West Ham swaggered to a 6-2 win at Celtic Park, Rangers defeated Real Madrid at Ibrox. In football terms, neither result is remotely relevant; these outcomes did, however, fuel the narrative of Glasgow’s green half being in disarray as those in blue seek to turn last season’s title win into a period of dominance.
When the real stuff started, Midtjylland followed the trend set by Ferencvaros, Cluj and AEK Athens by bundling Celtic out of the Champions League at the qualifying stage. Less than a decade after reaching the last 16, Celtic are consistently unable to get into the same competition as Europe’s elite. One of Celtic’s key assets, Kristoffer Ajer, has reached the heady heights of the Premier League newcomers Brentford and another, Odsonne Édouard, is being pursued by Brighton.
As the Scottish top-flight season begins on Saturday, Ange Postecoglou’s immediate aim does not involve turning Celtic into credible title challengers. The illusion of a two-horse race – as exciting as the Premiership gets – should prevail for a few months at least owing to the general paucity of opposition to the Old Firm. Rangers excelled domestically in the last campaign, a side worthy only of the Europa League’s last 16 made to resemble Brazil of 1970 at home. Steven Gerrard’s sat 25 points clear of Celtic who, despite total capitulation, were 14 ahead of Hibernian. Supporters of other clubs may laugh at Celtic’s plight but it is a grim – largely economic – reality that they can sleepwalk into a top-two finish.
Postecoglou must somehow and quickly stem an incessant flow of negativity towards his club while preserving his reputation. Celtic’s new manager is not to blame for this troubled scene – albeit his striking comments over recruitment failings weren’t exactly good for the brand – but has it within his gift to lift the mood. Whether he can do that as those in the background scramble around – again – for new players remains to be seen. The first Old Firm match, which will determine so much in terms of attitudes at least, is only four weeks away. For now at least, Celtic are not remotely equipped to go toe-to-toe with their oldest foes. Postecoglou has looked disillusioned, frustrated and agitated even before a league ball is kicked.
It is amusing now to witness concerted criticism of Celtic’s hierarchy. If anyone dared to point out that the club lacked appropriate strategy during a run of nine titles in succession, they were ridiculed. Tanking Ross County and Hamilton – which was lapped up by supporters, oddly excited about competitive non-events – masked planning issues that came firmly to the fore when Rangers finally delivered a serious challenge. Postecoglou could be the man to turn things in Celtic’s favour – it is far too early to judge the Australian – but he has been dealt a dreadful hand by a club which drowned in its own hubris. Dermot Desmond, Celtic’s key shareholder, is typically silent when he should be explaining to supporters how on earth it came to this. Dominic McKay, the new chief executive, used Postecoglou’s June unveiling to deliver bland corporate soundbites.
Gerrard’s extended thoughts on the season will not be known so long as the Rangers manager dedicates so little time to the media. The club will begin the season with minimal coverage owing to a standoff over a plan to charge thousands of pounds for access. Gerrard, in fairness, can depict limited engagement with the press as perfectly successful given the emphatic nature of last season’s title triumph. Nonetheless, this does augur well for the long-term reputation of the club.
The former Liverpool captain is on record as stating – correctly – that Rangers must improve in domestic cups. Callum Davidson guided St Johnstone to two trophies last season; Rangers’ title win meant Gerrard has claimed one from a possible nine.
Gerrard has elevated Rangers to a position where it would be an almighty shock if they did not retain the league flag. Being the hunted rather than the hunter requires a psychological switch but that should not be beyond Gerrard, who at base level understands the demands of operating at a major club. Questions rightly remain over Rangers’ off-field position – Champions League qualification would help – but on it they are in rude health. This Rangers team are stable and have assets. Crucially one, two or three of those players could be sold without much impact on Rangers’ domestic strength. It is logical to assume the career plans of Ryan Kent, Glen Kamara, Alfredo Morelos and others do not end in Glasgow.
The joust between teams who can finish no better than third is at least interesting. Hibs’ fragility was shown in the latter stages of cup competitions last season but there is no current reason to believe they are not the favourites for that particular race. Hearts, back in the top flight, should challenge their city rivals but are in need of defensive reinforcement. Aberdeen’s likely trajectory under Stephen Glass is difficult to predict but anything less than a meaningful push for third would represent underachievement.
In theory, the division should be boosted by the presence of Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow derbies for the first time since 2004-05. After an embarrassing delay, the Scottish Professional Football League even found a title sponsor. That branding should be attached to another Rangers championship canter. If it isn’t, Postecoglou will have performed an epic turnaround.