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Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou

How good are Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic team?

Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic sealed the club’s 53rd league title on Sunday with a 2-0 win at Hearts. This was a second successive league win for the club since appointing the Australian as manager.

It was also the 11th time in the past 12 years that Celtic have won the league title. Rangers of course secured the only non-Celtic league win of that period, winning in 2020/21 under Steven Gerrard. Gerrard’s title win ended a long journey for Rangers back from exile in the lower leagues for financial issues. However, it hasn’t proved to be a sea change as Celtic have quickly re-asserted themselves as Scotland’s top dogs.

Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic also beat Rangers to win the Scottish League Cup earlier this year. They play Inverness Caledonian Thistle on 3rd June for the Scottish Cup and the chance to win a Treble of trophies. But how does that compare to previous Celtic teams?

Celtic’s Greatest: The Lisbon Lions

Here is Celtic’s greatest ever team:

In 1967, this Celtic team won the European Cup. They defeated Inter in the Final, 2-1, at Lisbon’s Estádio Nacional. They were the first British team to win the trophy.

The Guardian called this “the greatest story ever told in Scottish sport”. That might even be underselling it. Celtic’s achievement was unique as they became European champions with a team not just full of Scots but full of Glaswegians. Every member of their 15-man squad was born within 30 miles of Celtic Park.

The idea of a side winning the Champions League nowadays with a team all born near their own stadium is unthinkable. Top clubs send scouts all around the world. Champions League winning teams are global, featuring players from multiple continents let alone countries or cities. The idea that a team picked from one city and its surroundings could dominate Europe was remarkable in 1967. It’s even less likely nowadays. I doubt any team will ever achieve this again. It’s a genuine football fairy tale.

Other European Success

With Celtic being so dominant nationally, perhaps it’s natural to look at their best seasons in Europe when working out which of their teams were best.

Celtic played in one other European Cup Final, in 1970. They were favourites to beat Feyenoord but Ernst Happel’s side stunned Jock Stein’s with a 2-1 win. Nonetheless, this run to the Final further cements Jock Stein’s era as the most successful in club history.

A regular in European competitions due to consistently strong domestic performances, Celtic would nonethless reach only one other European Final, when Martin O’Neill’s team reached the UEFA Cup Final in 2002/03. They put in a strong performance against José Mourinho’s Porto, but lost 3-2 in silver goal extra time. Porto would go on to win the Champions League the following year, further highlighting their quality as opponents.

English football fans are often derisive when talking about Scottish football. Unreasonable comparisons are made to third- or fourth-tier English sides. But you can’t level that at Martin O’Neill’s team, especially as their star player, Henrik Larsson, was so brilliant in short stints at both Barcelona and Manchester United even after he enjoyed his prime with the Scottish champions.

Doubles and Trebles

Over time, European football has become increasingly dominated by a handful of countries. The vast TV money differences between smaller and larger footballing countries has created a gulf. The Porto side mentioned above are the only team from outside England, Germany, Italy, and Spain to have won the European Cup since the 1990s. The increasing dominance of sides from those four countries has left those from nations like Scotland and the Netherlands firmly on the outside.

In that context, it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect a Celtic side to be successful in Europe. A more reasonable barometer might be to look at which Celtic teams have won the Double and Treble. As we discussed recently with regards to Manchester City‘s bid south of the border, multi-trophy seasons are often viewed as the barometer of a truly great side.

Celtic have won a Double of a league title and a domestic Cup in 20 separate seasons: 12 league and Scottish Cup doubles and 8 league and Scottish League Cup doubles. They’ve also won a domestic Treble of all three of these competitions on a further 7 occasions:

  • In 1966/67, the Lisbon Lions won this domestic Treble in addition to their European Cup success. This makes this technically a Quadruple!
  • In 1967/68 and 1969/70, they repeated the feat, for a further two Trebles under Jock Stein’s management.
  • In 2001/02, Martin O’Neill’s side we discussed above got in on the act with another domestic Treble.
  • Between 2016/17 and 2019/20, Celtic won a remarkable four domestic trebles in a row: a feat begun under the management of Brendan Rodgers and finished by Neil Lennon.

The last of these, the Quadruple Treble, was the most successful undisputed run of domestic dominance that Celtic have enjoyed. Winning every trophy for four years straight is a remarkable achievement no matter who you are up against.

Quality of Competition

In football you can only beat what’s in front of you. It’s not up to Celtic to make their league competitive or to worry about other teams. That said, this is important context when we talk about who are the greatest teams. It’s very possible Martin O’Neill’s side could have won the UEFA Cup in 2003, if they were up against someone other than José Mourinho and his Porto side that would shock Europe’s biggest competition the very next year. The Lisbon Lions story, already remarkable, is only grown by including a victory over genuine European giants Inter in the Final.

That said, the Scottish league is not known for being the most evenly-balanced or competitive:

This was only exacerbated during the period when Rangers were rebuilding after being in the lower leagues. As fun as it always is to win any trophy, there’s no doubt that the temporary return of Rangers to the summit of Scottish football made striking back under Postecoglou even more exciting for Celtic fans. It takes jeopardy and drama to create truly great moments in football or any other sport.

Riding that excitement, we’ve started to hear some pundits saying Postecoglou’s side are better than Rodgers’s.

Part of the argument is that Postecoglou’s side are more dynamic, attacking and exciting to watch: and who can argue with that? It’s an entertainment business and it’s great that Postecoglou’s side are capable of flowing attacking play that gets spectators to the edge of – or out of – their seats.

Where does Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic fit in?

It’s hard to argue with Jock Stein’s Celtic as the club’s greatest ever side. But more recent sides are harder to compare. There are fewer clear miracles, but still a lot of great successes under some very successful coaches.

Part of what makes football great is that everyone has a different opinion. Whilst this is often something trotted out by pundits to justify bad refereeing as “it helps create discussion”, there’s already plenty to discuss just talking about great players and teams.

Although there has been some early talk linking him with jobs in the English Premier League, Ange Postecoglou seems well-settled at Celtic and perhaps he will only add to his legacy at the club in the seasons to come.

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