69 games undefeated domestically is a stunning record. Scottish football gets a lot of flack, and it is not my place to say whether this is fair or not. It gets branded as a “tin-pot league” by many, especially south of the border. No matter what country and what league you are discussing, 69 games undefeated is truly remarkable. It is a record that started on Sunday, May 15th 2016, with a 7-0 thrashing of Motherwell in the final game of the season – Ronny Delia’s final match in charge of Celtic. After winning only one trophy, the league, which is a requirement rather than an ambition since the liquidation of Rangers, Celtic was scraping by. The owners convinced former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers to overhaul the squad at Parkhead and ensure that the Bhoys increase the gap between themselves and Aberdeen, as well as the newly promoted Rangers. What occurred since his employment has been a football revolution, qualifying for the group stages of the Champions Leagues twice, winning the league and every trophy available to them, avoiding domestic defeat during his entire tenure at the club. This came to an abrupt end at Tynecastle on Sunday, where Craig Levein’s Hearts side defeated Celtic in spectacular fashion, their first Scottish defeat since St Johnstone away in the penultimate game of the 2015/16 season.
Many teams have tried and failed to end the undefeated run, from rampant Aberdeen teams, to the intimidating crowds of their fierce rivals Rangers, right down to cup matches against lower league opposition such as Albion Rovers. In the 2016/17 season, their full domestic unbeaten season, they played 47 matches, winning 43 and drawing four. In 2017/18, they have so far played 22 domestic games, winning sixteen and drawing five. 69 games later and Brendan Rodgers’ side travelled to Edinburgh on Sunday December 17th 2017, looking to continue his unbeaten run. The signs were good for Celtic, not just had they gone 69 league games without defeat, but they had scored in every league match for two and a half years, a 1-0 loss to St Johnstone in March 2015 being the last time they were shut out. They may have not been shut out for over two years, but keeping clean sheets has not been an issue.
In their 69 undefeated games, the Hoops have managed a flabbergasting 38 clean sheets, thanks mainly to goalkeeper Craig Gordon. He has been the number one goalkeeper for much of Brendan Rodgers Celtic career, despite the challenge by former Swansea goalkeeper Dorus de Vries. Former Arsenal invincible Kolo Touré didn’t play hugely last season, but was an invaluable squad asset. Kieran Tierney has been a revelation over recent years while the likes of Mikael Lustig, Dedryck Boyata and Erik Sviatchenko have all been pivotal in keeping the opposition strikers at bay.
Captain Scot Brown had been in for a fair bit of flack during the Ronny Delia era, but under Brendan Rodgers, he revitalised his career. He proved to be a link between defence and attack, allowing former Dundee United AMC Stuart Armstrong to flourish. Rodgers was able to lure Patrick Roberts on loan from Manchester City and lure Scott Sinclair from Aston Villa. The most impressive signing thus far has been the signing of Moussa Dembélé on a free transfer from Fulham. Having Dembélé as well as Leigh Griffiths has meant that Celtic have a surreal amount of firepower. This is easily shown by their 197 goals in the impressive 69 game streak.
Despite the untenable form of Celtic during Brendan Rodgers revival, there were certainly some signs that they were flagging. Their Champions League campaign was a worry. They were in a very tough group, matched up against PSG, Bayern Munich and Anderlecht. They managed to edge out the Belgians to get Europa League football after Christmas, but they won only once, losing the other five games. They scored only five goals and shipped eighteen, which encompassed a 0-5 and 7-1 defeat to PSG home and away, and a nerve-wracking 0-1 home defeat to Anderlecht. In the league, they were unbeaten, but they were dropping points with more frequency. Their season started off in familiar form, but then the draws started tallying up. They dropped points to St Johnstone, Hibs, Kilmarnock, Motherwell and Hibernian. The Motherwell draw involved a bullshit controversial penalty, while their draw against Hibernian, only a week before their defeat to Hearts, was only a draw due to a last minute Mikael Lustig goal-line clearance. Celtic have been looking vulnerable for a number of weeks now, and Hearts manager Craig Levein had said in the build-up to the match that he would need Celtic to have an off-day if the Jambos were to succeed.
Hearts have suffered a turbulent year since former manager Robbie Neilson swapped Edinburgh for the bright lights of MK Dons. Promising laptop-maestro Ian Cathro had been given a good chance to build a successful name for himself under the shrewd management of owner Anne Budge and director of football, Craig Levein. Things just didn’t work out for Cathro, unfortunately, and after more than a fair chunk of time, he was dismissed. There was some scepticism from Hearts fans when it was announced that Craig Levein was to take over first-team management of the team, the more cynical Jambos questioning that it was a cost-cutting measure to ease the financial hole generated by rebuilding parts of their stadium.
Levein took over at the beginning of September and began to rebuild from the disastrous eight months. He has managed fifteen games since his return to the dugout at Tynecastle. He has won six, drawn five and lost four, with two of those losses including defeats against Rangers and away to rivals Hibernian. This is an impressive record, considering that up until mid-November, they couldn’t play a home match due to stadium renovations. They had a number of games rearranged to play away from home, while some of their “home” fixtures were moved across Edinburgh to Murrayfield, the national rugby stadium. Since reopening the new and improved Tynecastle Park, Levein’s men have played six home matches in a row, drawing the first three and winning the last three, including ending the invincibles run…
Both Hearts and Celtic have had a very different couple of years, Celtic forgetting what defeat felt like against Scottish teams, while Hearts, well, the taste of defeat is a little more familiar. The build-up to the match may have had some questioning Celtic’s defensive capabilities, but the majority were questioning how many goals Celtic would put past the Gorgie boys. Celtic walked on to the Tynecastle pitch on their 70th domestic outing since their most recent loss to St Johnstone, 585 days ago. Hearts may have been on a decent unbeaten streak, but when Craig Levein named two teenagers in his starting XI and a further two on the bench, one of whom came on to play. Of these four teenagers, two were only sixteen years old. Harry Cochrane and Jamie Brandon both started for the Jambos, with Anthony McDonald playing the final 25 minutes. Surely this mismatched team of old has-beens and new were no match for the Invincibles.
It was a sixteen-year-old who got the ball rolling, as young Harry Cochrane took advantage of a Kieran Tierney slip, taking control of the ball at the edge of the box and striking his left footed shot beyond Craig Gordon to give Hearts the lead a quarter of an hour in. Hearts doubled their lead ten minutes later, and the goal scorer would have been ecstatic at the prospect of ending the undefeated run. Northern Ireland and Ex-Rangers forward Kyle Lafferty hit an ambitious 25-yard strike, his shot dragging wide of Gordon, hitting off the goalpost and trickling into the net. This stemmed from another error by Celtic, as Callum McGregor lost possession cheaply, allowing Manuel Milinković to take the ball away and play in the gangly Northern Irishman.
Celtic would have been torn to shreds by Rodgers at the interval, but it evidently fell on deaf ears, as Hearts had a third just minutes after the second half kicked off. Croatian centre-back Jozo Šimunović made a hash of a long ball by from Connor Randall, the defender caught between heading the ball clear or kicking it. He fell on his backside, allowing Milinković to take the ball round the out-rushing Craig Gordon and slot the ball into the back of the net. Celtic’s fate was sealed in the with fifteen minutes to go when Craig Gordon felled Ross Callachan in the box to concede a penalty. Milinković blasted the ball low and hard to not just end Celtic’s unbeaten run, but to hammer them in the process.
The run may have ended for Celtic, but it certainly won’t be a long-term problem. If anything, the defeat may push Celtic on a level. There have been discussions that the undefeated run is hindering the side, that they are playing a tad too cautiously to maintain their run, a stark distance to the free-flowing performance that they showed at times last season. Now they may get that swagger back, and what better way to rebuild than a home match against bottom of the league Partick Thistle. They have already won one trophy this season, they WILL win the Scottish Premiership, and it will take a special performance by another side to stop them winning the domestic treble once more. They are out of the Champions League, but they are in the Europa League now, and have a chance of winning a couple of euro games having been drawn against Zenit St Petersburg in the round of 32. Credit must go to Heart of Midlothian, they did what teams have been trying and failing to do for over eighteen months.
Craig Levein said before the game that to beat Celtic, the Bhoys would need an off day, and Hearts would need to perform out of their skin. Well, that is just what happened. That young Hearts side is not the best team that Celtic have played over the past couple of years, but they did what few teams have done in that spell and just went for it. They had the balls to take the game by the scruff of the neck, play fast, play hard and just attack. Craig Levein’s reputation had taken a bit of a hit since his Scotland managerial days, but he is starting to show some of the tactical nous that served him so well at Dundee United a decade ago. While Celtic winning the league is inevitable, the bigger question is how will Hearts respond. They are playing catch up after a horror start to the season, along with the stadium fiasco, but if they can continue this level of performance continuously then they may be able to give the European places a real go. To conclude this article, all I can say is congratulations to both teams: to Celtic, for an astounding undefeated run, encompassing some of the finest football that I’ve seen in Scotland, and to Hearts, for going down in history for ending the invincibles run.