Celtic’s first eight league games were the key to their bid for the Scottish domestic treble this season, according to Brendan Rodgers. The champions can clinch their sixth successive title – and their first under Rodgers – with a win away to Hearts on Sunday and it was at Tynecastle that they opened their account with a 2-1 win on Aug 7, before beating contenders such as Aberdeen and Rangers in the next few weeks.
“In the first eight games you can’t win the title, but you can lose it,” said Rodgers. “In those games we put down a marker. We were not at our fluent best but we showed good signs mentally. We then gained confidence from the Champions League. We thought, ‘Right, we have qualified for the group stage but we need to play the game in a better way.’
“Winning at Hearts on the first day was important as was beating Aberdeen at home. Then the Rangers game was a good moment for us but, even then, I didn’t think we were set. I knew there was still plenty improvement to come.”
December proved to be a key passage as Celtic won eight successive SPFL games – including the second Old Firm league derby at Ibrox – and followed their 3-3 Champions League draw at home to Manchester City with a 1-1 draw at the Etihad. “We showed a great determination in that month,” said Rodgers.
“Everyone could see there were nine games, tough games, Champions League games. We won eight and drew one in that month. We had to show a different side. We were playing a lot of games. Some very good, some probably a bit of a grind for the supporters.
“I don’t think that’s anything to do with the players. That’s what was thrust upon them. How they dealt with it was brilliant really. They’re all important but that month, with so many games, was huge.”
After the 5-1 rout of Mark Warburton’s Rangers on September 10, Rodgers revealed that he had delivered an emotional pre-match address, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the death of his father, Malachy, and the 31st anniversary of the passing of Celtic’s greatest manager, Jock Stein. This time he will dedicate the acquisition of the title to another Parkhead favourite, Tommy Burns.
Burns died of skin cancer on May 15, 2008. He was Celtic manager between 1994 and 1997 but did not win the title, despite going through the 1995-96 league season with only a single loss, to Rangers at home in their fifth fixture of the campaign.
“I think of the great man, Tommy Burns, who never ever won a title here and you think of the commitment he gave to the club and the privilege it is for me to lead the club when we actually do get over the line,” Rodgers said.
“There will be many thoughts for many people and I hope they can be proud of the work we have done. Yeah, it’s been a great season so far but we want to get the job done as quickly as we can. If we can, to then win the league while unbeaten is a great achievement. Then we can really focus on the Scottish Cup semi-final against Rangers.
“That’s why I can’t really give the players too much rest, because they lose rhythm and we have to be careful of that. We want to arrive at the semi-final in the best possible place we can be. I’m one of the ones who is never satisfied to be honest. After the League Cup win I was happy, I was happy for the players, I was happy that we’d won it. It was our 100th trophy but we had to look forward to the next one. We have got goals to achieve.
“It will be a brilliant achievement when we do it and the pleasure for me is that relationship between the training field and the pitch, how well they have done. I’ll be happy, but not totally satisfied.”
Meanwhile, Richard Foster and Danny Swanson were sent off for fighting with each other as St Johnstone slipped to a 1-0 defeat to lowly Hamilton on Saturday. The pair were shown red cards at half-time after a brawl that saw players and staff from both sides clash.Hamilton, who climbed off the bottom of the Scottish Premiership with the win, grabbed a vital goal in the 89th minute through Alex D’Acol.
Rangers suffered an early scare but recovered to claim a point in a 1-1 draw at home to Motherwell. Pedro Caixinha’s side dropped further behind Aberdeen in the race for second place after going behind to a Louis Moult header. Joe Garner notched his fifth league goal of the season to pull Rangers level.
Kris Doolan’s brace saw Partick tighten their grip on a top-six place with a 2-1 win over Ross County, while Kilmarnock had to settle for a point as Inverness dropped to the bottom of the table following a 1-1 draw. Kris Boyd’s penalty broke the deadlock, before Billy McKay grabbed an equaliser.