Last week was a bad one for Celtic. It was very nearly a catastrophic one, though. The Champions League qualification collapse at home to Cluj was bad enough, but a League Cup exit to second-tier Dunfermline Athletic would have sunk the Scottish champions into something very close to a crisis.
The Hoops managed to escape such a fate, scoring an extra-time winner through James Forrest, but there was still an inquest into yet another abject performance. After a strong start to the Scottish Premiership season which saw Celtic score 12 times in their opening two fixtures, a sense of malaise has now been allowed to fester.
Leigh Griffiths was quick to admit after the defeat to Cluj that apathy could set in, correctly predicting empty seats for the following home match against Dunfermline. “It’s up to us to put performances on to put bums back on seats,” said the striker, perhaps deflecting somewhat from the criticism angled by many at the club’s board.
“This is how it feels to be Celtic, downsizing again as you know. The Celtic board are gambling 10-in-a-row,” read a banner displayed by the Green Brigade supporters group before Saturday’s game hinting at the disgruntlement within the club’s fanbase over the decisions made by Peter Lawwell recently.
The hiring of Brendan Rodgers back in the summer of 2016 was a watershed moment for the East End club. Before that, Celtic had seemingly been meandering down a path of mediocrity, taking for granted their position at the top of the Scottish game. Empty seats were a common sight towards the end of Ronny Deila’s two-year tenure, with the whole top tier of Celtic Park even closed on occasion.
Rodgers’ arrival reenergised the club and ensured there were few empty seats for the near three seasons he was in charge for. It wasn’t just that the Northern Irishman was the most successful Celtic manager since Martin O’Neill, it was in the way he reversed the contraction of the club which had been apparent before his appointment.
That contraction, however, has resumed following Rodgers’ exit. It was evident in the hiring of Neil Lennon and in the transfer market activity conducted over the summer. Celtic are undoing all the good work done by Rodgers and it has only taken a matter of months for the Northern Irishman’s legacy to be dismantled.
Of course, the growing sense of malaise has much to do with the ominous challenge building on the other side of the city. Rangers have promised a title tilt before, but they might just be for real this time, winning eight of the nine competitive games they have played so far this season. Their 6-1 demolition of Hibernian and 7-3 aggregate dismantling of FC Midtjylland caught the eye.
All of a sudden, the prospect of Rangers ending Celtic’s league title streak at eight doesn’t seem so farfetched and this is starting to dawn on many of a green and white persuasion. Some Celtic fans have pointed the finger at Lennon, whose questionable decisions contributed to the Cluj loss, but there is something bigger going on at the club.
For so long, Celtic have been Scottish football’s dominant force. They still possess the country’s strongest squad, both in terms of quality, winning mentality and proven track record. But while Rodgers’ time in charge should have given the Hoops a platform to build around the era of glittering success on top, an opportunity has apparently been missed.
Celtic may well keep their Scottish Premiership crown this season and edge closer to the fabled achievement of 10-in-a-row. They might even get to that milestone. But it feels like their downsizing, as the Green Brigade label it, will sooner or later result in a drop-off. The past week pushed them closer to that point.