The Dull Invincibility of Being a Celtic Fan

Can your team win so much that you sort of want them to lose?
November 17, 2017, 10:56am
Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Alamy

Last season, Brendan Rodgers' "Invincible" Celtic side strolled to victory in the Scottish Premiership, finishing atop a three-figured points tally and separated from their nearest competitors by a margin of 30. Goals came in fours and fives throughout the season, racking up 106 in the league alone by the time the final final whistle had blown. As Rodgers' patient passing game exhausted and overwhelmed opposition after opposition, the league itself was little more than a formality by Christmas time, and the question of who would be crowned champion gave way to lesser curios of which side would win the battle for "Best of the Rest" – and by just how large a margin they would trail the victors.


To conclude a 5 – 2 victory of St Johnstone back in February, the Glasgow side pinballed 25 passes between every hooped jersey on the park before a rabona-flicked cross was nudged on by a neat back heel from Moussa Dembélé, sliding beyond the goalkeeper to round off a hat-trick. The fact that Celtic had gone into the interval trailing by a goal only served to add a pantomime edge to the Harlem Globetrotter-esque display they finished the match with: sort of like the way a WWE star allows themselves to be beaten to a light bloody pulp early doors on to make their eventual triumph all the more spectacular, Celtic clawing at itself with a palmed razor blade, Celtic panting exhausted on the floor, Celtic sitting slowly upright, the crowd roaring, Celtic fizzing five past Zander Clark. That goal served as a perfect microcosm of a season in which ultimately Celtic were found not just to be better than everyone else in Scotland, but better in the way that Floyd Mayweather proved to be better than their Celtic soul brother Connor McGregor. Moments of pluck and admirable endurance aside, both bouts were drawn inevitably towards a single victor and a simple truth: the two did not belong in the same ring. While the media spent months doing everything in their power to surround that multi-million dollar mismatch with enough shadow and mirrors to create the illusion of a true contest, the build-up coverage to this season's SPFL began at a point of resigned realism. This was a big departure from the run up to Rodgers' inaugural season where the return of Rangers generated excited chatter of an Old Firm resurgence, a fierce belief that Celtic's years of lazily sweeping up uncontested titles had left them doughy and disengaged, ready to be skewered by a battle-worn and highly motivated Rangers side. Unsurprisingly in retrospect, this proved to be a false prophecy. Whilst Rangers' reputation as a major club with a huge following and glittering history had remained intact and untarnished by recent years, their actual ability as a football team had not. The self-image which fans carried proudly in their minds was quickly shown to be at odds with their reality as a side that had only just made its way back to Scotland's top flight. So after a year of increasingly weak attempts to stoke the dying embers of the Old Firm fire back into their former blaze, coverage of this season's Ladbrokes Premiership began with the iron-clad assumption that it too would belong to Celtic. Across the board, pre-season think pieces crowned the champions in their opening lines before moving on to more fertile ground like the return of Hibernian, Caixinha's controversial new-look Rangers and the predicted fate of an Aberdeen side newly refurbished to deal with the loss of several key players. Celtic's winning streak relegates the rest of Scottish football – all the highs and the lows, David and Goliath wins and unexpected losses – down into second place. And it is hard to argue. After concerns of a summer raid upon their own most highly prized assets proved fruitless, Celtic have begun the new campaign not only intact but actually strengthened. Early signs suggest new French star Olivier Ntcham might shine as brightly as his countryman Dembélé did last time around. Patrick Roberts has returned, a fan favourite fittingly clad in the club's beloved number seven jersey, while young Kundai Benyu also looks full of potential. Youth academy products Calvin Miller and Anthony Ralston have begun biting at the heels of the main players, rounding out a largely youthful squad which seems likely to only get better as it matures. The summer's other new signing Johnny Hayes acts as something of a case in point: a key player whose departure has left a void in this season's Aberdeen now warms the Celtic bench, fourth choice wideman at the time of writing. In the opening stages of the new campaign, Rodgers has delighted in demonstrating the depth of his new squad in an almost sadistic fashion. Looking to rest players in the midst of an early season fixture pile-up, he made eight changes to his side and tore apart Kilmarnock in a 5 – 0 victory. Playing them again less than a fortnight later, he fielded a team with five teenagers and a backline all below the age of 21. They walked to a leisurely 2 – 0 away win. At this point it was not uncommon to hear the claim that Celtic were now the "two best teams in Scotland".

Celtic's true focus now will be on Europe as they try to battle their way out of a tough group. And fair enough: they do taste the unfamiliar tang of defeat there. Up against a team fielding a frontline valued some way over £400 million, they endured a Karmic reversal of sorts: PSG slaughtered Celtic 5 – 0 in front of their home crowd by operating within a completely different financial realm and overawing them with each attack. Having swept aside a lacklustre Anderlecht side and suffered a predictable 3 – 0 loss to Bayern, they will now set their sights firmly on third place and a run at the Europa League, and these midweek games will remain the key source of excitement and interest for Celtic fans this season. On the domestic front, though, the main question being asked is whether they can see out another season unbeaten. Given that they finished so far ahead last term and seem only to have gotten stronger, it is entirely reasonable to suggest that they might. If we leave aside Europe, Celtic's domestic dominance prompts a sort of thought experiment about being a sports fan that reveals an odd question which sits at the heart of it – how long can you enjoy watching your team win for? Even the most zealous fan must eventually tire of seeing their team turn in for half time with a three goal lead, of watching game after game in which the result is a forgone conclusion. Superhero movies struggle to make invincible characters interesting because the lack of real danger takes the thrill out of the ride. As much as we might cheer for one character, we have to believe that they might lose to enjoy watching them prevail. Celtic's unerring domestic success highlights the odd paradox of being a sports fan: in some way, deep down, all fans want their team to lose. Not today. Not this game. But eventually. They want to win while believing they might not. They never want to lose but would hate to always win. It is a bizarre mind-set integral to any game, a Jedi mind-trick necessary to invest emotion in something that has value only within its own closed system. In truth, to be a sports fan is to relish the frustration, outrage and disappointment of defeat as much as the joy of victory. One can't exist without the other, at least not with any significance or satisfaction. Defeat gives meaning to victory the way death gives meaning to life – the zen of sports fandom is to accept both sides of this Ying-Yang simultaneously, of betting against yourself while pretending not to do so.

Watch: Rangers vs Celtic - Football's Most Dangerous Rivalry

Traditionally these stakes never feel higher in Scotland than on Old Firm day, though the first Glasgow derby of the 17-18 campaign played pretty close to last season's script. Celtic were in control for the vast majority of the match, out-passing and out-classing their rivals and coming away with a clean, comfortable 2 -0 victory. There was that same sense of extra gears left unused by the men in green whilst the blues burned out trying to stay in the game. The same feeling that Celtic might have won by a lot more and could never really have lost. Every match statistic at the end of the game supported this idea – Celtic had 11 corners to Rangers two, 18 shots to their six, seven on target to their one. At the final whistle, the gulf between the Glasgow giants felt as wide as ever. But for about half an hour in the first half, things were different. Celtic's play was hurried and clumsy, harried by the swarming blue shirts. Rangers attacked on the break, fast and hard, the no-nonsense opposite of Celtic's slow, steady style. The battling Morelos battered defenders left and right, the backline rescued by an offside flag they didn't look sure of. A clumsy challenge in the penalty area left Morelos on the ground, the stadium held its breath then exploded as the whistle failed to sound. A deep Tavernier cross left the Celtic defence breached, the goal exposed, only to fall just beyond the flying form of that man Morelos again. For about half an hour in the first half, it felt like Celtic might not win. Much more than that, it felt like they might lose. Much more than that - it felt like they might lose to Rangers. Only the fans of a team with a true rival can understand the magnitude of that, can relate to the sense of impending nightmare it provokes. The feeling in the pit of your stomach every time the ball is carried anywhere near your side's goal, the leap of your heart every time possession is spurned, the fury at their players for diving, for fouling, for almost scoring, for FUCKING EXISTING. Every time the ball enters the box, your head puts on a horror show as your mind flashes back through every past defeat and forward into a slideshow of the smug faces you'll have to endure if this goes sideways, the headlines, the tweets, the immediate and complete erasure of any and all previous results as this match, this defeat, becomes all that matters. For the 30 minutes, defeat finally felt possible – and it was blood-curdlingly glorious. As someone who has supported Celtic since childhood, it was like being sucked back to and older era of the Old Firm when these games were everything, broiling cauldrons of burning rivalry fuelled both by the memory of their past battles and the knowledge that whole season pivoted on these matches. (And, as to this day, also fuelled by a whole bunch of other awful shit that has no place in football. Or anywhere. But that's a whole other topic.) I can't think about primary school without thinking about the Henrik Larsson era when Old Firm games were death matches, titans like Bobo Baldé and Lorenzo Amoruso going toe-to-toe and making the earth beneath them shake, Neil Lennon and Fernando Ricksen staring pure demonic malice into each other's souls for ninety minutes of bloodshed and brilliance. High School is marked in my mind by moments of magic from the likes of Jan Venegoor of Hesselink, the Dutchman with limbs longer than his name, by the rise of psycho-in-chief Scott Brown and the elegant genius of Shunsuke Nakamura. But it's also marked by the memories of green and white backlines torn asunder by Dado Prso's powerful strides and the ceaseless buzzing menace of Nacho Novo. I remember the great victories of Martin O'Neil's team as clearly as their UEFA cup final loss. I remember Helicopter Sundays that ended in the trophy flying off in both directions. I remember the dread of going to school the day after Scott McDonald swept the league from under Celtic's feet as well as the excitement after he put AC Milan to the sword. All of these memories are equally important to the Celtic I have known, equal parts in my Celtic story.

I don't take this stuff nearly as seriously as I used to as a kid. But watching the ball whip past Morelos as he hurtled after it, knowing it's a goal if he makes contact and feeling my heartrate double, I knew that on some level Celtic were still very much my team. Watching them tear apart team after team with the lethal grace of football samurai has been enjoyable, but it was the moment when it looked like they might succumb at Ibrox, the sudden recall of all what it's like to watch them lose hard, that really hit home how deeply ingrained in me this stuff is. The taste of blood, again. For now, Glasgow's green half get to enjoy watching their team play slick, adventurous football while notching up several goals a game and gradually laying claim to every bit of silverware in Scotland. It's a great time for them but, if it were to remain this way forever, you wonder how long it would be before their gifts began to feel like a curse. Life in Paradise must eventually grow stale because, deep down, getting what we want all the time is not what we really want.