Celtic’s 5-0 win over Hearts last weekend clinched the club’s 48th Scottish league title and their sixth in succession, moving a step closer to a record-breaking 10-in a-row. But the achievement did not get the approval of everyone with plenty suggesting the win counted for little in a league with no real rivals.
With the Scottish League Cup already in the trophy cabinet thanks to a 3-0 win over Aberdeen, Brendan Rodgers’ men are on course to win the club’s first domestic treble since Martin O’Neill’s side managed it in the 2000/2001 season. Rangers achieved the same feat under Alex McLeish two seasons later.
Fittingly, it is Rangers who stand between the Bhoys and a place in the Scottish Cup Final and a shot at the domestic treble. However, the Gers are yet to beat their fierce rivals this season or, indeed, since a bad-tempered game at Ibrox in March 2012 which saw three players dismissed.
So how do the 2001 treble winners compare to the modern-day side?
The tale of the tape
What makes Celtic’s 2001 treble-winning season so remarkable is that it followed one of the darkest seasons in the club’s recent history. Under the stewardship of Liverpool legend John Barnes the Bhoys finished second, 21 points behind Rangers and were knocked out of the Scottish Cup by Inverness Caledonian Thistle, prompting the famous Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious headline the following day.
Barnes was duly sacked in February with another ex-Red, technical director Kenny Dalglish, finishing the season in caretaker charge of the team. Former Wycombe Wanderers and Leicester City manager O’Neill was brought to Parkhead in the summer to get the club back on track. And he did just that.
Rodgers, on the other hand, arrived in Glasgow at a time when Rangers had only just returned to the top table of Scottish football and were far from the power they have historically been. That is a filter which the entire comparison must be viewed through.
However, on their respective league records alone, the 2016/17 iteration come out on top. Rodgers’ side are yet to lose in the Scottish Premiership this season and, with 82 goals scored, could conceivably break 100 for the season. O’Neill’s treble winners won 31 of 38 league fixtures, losing three and finding the back of the net 90 times.
The key men
The undoubted star of the 2000/01 Celtic side was Swedish striker Henrik Larsson. Signed from Feyenoord for just £650,000 in 1997 he became one of the club’s all-time greats and rammed home 174 league goals in just 218 starts during a seven-year stay at Parkhead.
Larsson, who retired in 2013 after spells at Barcelona and Manchester United, enjoyed the best season of his Celtic career. Fifty three goals in just 50 appearances won him the European Golden Boot.
Striker Chris Sutton and Slovakian playmaker extraordinaire Lubomír Moravčík were the next highest scorers on 14 each. Other stars of the team included future Celtic boss Neil Lennon, tricky winger Alan Thompson and future skipper Jackie McNamara.
This season the poster boy for Celtic’s success has been summer signing Moussa Dembélé. Picked up – like Larsson – for a nominal fee of £500,000 from Fulham, the French forward has bagged 32 goals for the Bhoys from just 35 starts.
The 20-year-old Frenchman is a Tottenham Hotspur transfer target and has a £40million price tag on his head. If he leaves Celtic he will do so a fans’ favourite but without the lasting legacy of Larsson.
Alongside Dembélé, Scott Sinclair and Stuart Armstrong have also enjoy the best seasons of their careers. Winger Sinclair, who played for Rodgers at Swansea City and in Chelsea’s youth sides, has rattled in 19 goals in 25 Scottish Premiership starts – two more than Dembélé has managed.
Midfielder Armstrong has found his goalscoring boots too, hitting double figures for the first time in his career with 12 in the league. The 25-year-old, who has benefitted from being playing in the middle instead of the left-hand side of midfield, has also earned him a Scotland cap at long last.
Stylistically Rodgers’ team have the edge on O’Neill’s more workmanlike side. But in a lull period for Scottish football, how many of the side will be remembered fondly aside from Dembélé, Sinclair and Armstrong? The 2000/01 team includes numerous names Hoops fans hold dear to this day and a bona fide legend in Larsson.
Celtic Park Legacy
When O’Neill lifted three trophies at the end of the 2000/01 campaign it marked the beginning of a golden period for the Bhoys. The following season the Hoops retained the SPL title before reaching the UEFA Cup Final in 2003, only to be beaten by José Mourinho’s Porto in extra-time. Mourinho and Porto were Champions League winners the following season.
In five seasons under O’Neill there were seven trophies and four title wins. This season Rodgers has achieved the bare minimum expected by cantering to the title. The real test of this side and its legacy will start next season. A 7-0 shellacking at the hands of Barcelona in this season’s Champions League group stage
Rodgers’ predecessor, Ronny Deila, was relieved of his duties after cleaning up on the domestic front but failing to make real progress in Europe. In two seasons’ under the Norwegian, Celtic failed to get beyond the play-off round of the Champions League and only made it to the round of 32 in the Europa League.
There is an argument to say that in tangible metrics alone Rodgers’ side will better the achievements of O’Neill’s iconic team if they lift the Scottish Cup and clinch the treble.
However, the caveat which will always be applied to any silverware lifted by the Bhoys lift between 2013 and 2016 is that Rangers were not rivals in any sense other than historical. And for that reason, O’Neill’s time have the edge – for now.