Having sat down, probably for the final time this season, to plan fixtures, I now know that I should be on track to get all of the grounds visited on the schedule that I wanted to keep.
That has meant a very busy festive period, with more to come in the next few days.
Tonight’s trip was to Celtic Park. While a lot of the grounds I have visited over the course of writing this blog have been on the lesser known end of the scale, Celtic Park is surely right at the top end of the best known grounds in Scotland.
With good (commercial) reason, Celtic get an enormous amount of coverage from all of the main media outlets. That means that every Scottish football fan that wants to access any kind of news about the game will inevitably come across a story about Celtic. We all know what the stadium looks like, as we probably do with most top flight grounds regularly on television. We all have an idea of their history, of signing targets and of interest in their stars.
There is no question that Celtic, as well as Rangers make up a huge part of the SPFL’s marketing of our game. They are, without doubt the country’s biggest clubs, and so much of the overall package is built around them.
This season, Celtic have taken massive strides in cementing their status as the best team in the country on the pitch.
They have spent the money they saved in the absence of Rangers on a manager with a big reputation, in Brendan Rodgers. Very few people would have predicted that they would have been able to lure a manager of his calibre in the current financial climate of Scottish football.
They have backed him with big signings. Spending over £4 million on Scott Sinclair, for example, showed a level of ambition that many Celtic fans I know felt their board lacked in recent years. At the other end of the scale they have continued to pick the occasional gem up at a reasonable fee. Mousse Dembele for £500k for example, may prove to be the bargain of the decade for Celtic if they can sell him for even a quarter of the fees being touted in the media.
It is no surprise that they have won 17 of their 18 games so far this season, and they look so far ahead of all opposition, that we could be looking at a very long period of Celtic domination of our game.
Of course, it would be remiss of me not to say, Celtic absolutely should be dominating. They have huge financial advantages over the rest of the league.
The real challenge for Brendan Rodgers and his signings will come in Europe. This season they performed fairly well, with a tally of three points from a group including Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Mönchengladbach approximately three more than most would have anticipated. For that participation they received a small fortune.
It will be a test for the board to decide whether to reinvest, with the aim of improving performances in Europe, or to settle for the domestic league and cup wins which are all but guaranteed. Brendan Rodgers may not stick around too long for the latter.
As well as the good work the club have done on the pitch, they have made one of the most radical changes of any Scottish club to their ground in recent memory.
The introduction of a safe standing area is a great idea, and one that I think most football fans would be in favour of, if the costs weren’t so prohibitive.
Arriving at the ground, I was impressed. Objectively, Celtic are a football club, just like every other. A business, trying to make a profit. Yet their marketing at the ground plays on the message of ‘A Club Like No Other’. The statues and display of history around the stands are fantastic, and help to build on the message they are trying to promote. Starting from the formation of the club, large panels tell the story up to the 2015 League and Cup double.
They are an example for the rest of Scottish football. Through their own action, and those of fans, the club has managed to create a strong brand. They are at the same time anti-establishment, yet part of the establishment. Vendors sell unofficial scarves saying Celtic have the best supporters in the world. It’s subjective, and its hyperbole, but they sell. The club and its supporters know their history, and celebrate it.
The club and its fans are not afraid to talk themselves up, or to allow others to do so. More Scottish clubs should have the confidence to promote themselves and celebrate their own rich histories in the way that Celtic do. The statues of club legends, for example, would be a welcome (if expensive) touch at most clubs.
It’s well reported how great an atmosphere Celtic Park has for a big European game, but I have been there for run of the mill league games where the atmosphere was poor. The addition of safe standing, and excitement on the pitch has changed that. The atmosphere for tonight’s game against Ross County was never going to blow the roof off, but there was a bit of noise and excitement in the stands.
My seat was in the Lisbon Lions family stand, complete with games consoles and table football in the concourse. This was a real positive and will surely help the club in winning the next generation of fans.
The stadium itself is huge. As well as the Lisbon Lions behind the goal there is the North Stand running the length of the pitch. Behind the opposite goal is the Jock Stein Stand. These are modern, large stands. The South Stand is smaller and looks older, running along the touchline behind the dugouts.
The match started fairly evenly, with neither side creating any real chances in the early period. The first big chance came for the home side, when Scott Sinclair rose highest to head just wide.
Celtic kept pressing, and the breakthrough came from an unlikely source. Defender Eric Sviatchenko hit a low shot from long range which dribbled past Scott Fox in the County goal.
They doubled their advantage just before half time when Stuart Armstrong turned left, right then left again before sweeping a shot in to the bottom corner just before half time.
The second half followed a similar pattern, with Celtic dominating possession but failing to create too many major chances.
County rallied late and were unlucky not to have grabbed a consolation goal after Craig Gordon pulled off a great reaction on his line.
Few would dispute that Celtic are the best club in Scotland on the park at this moment in time. They comfortably beat Ross County tonight, and looked as if they could have gone up another gear if required.
With this season’s league title all but wrapped up, Rodger’s attention in the transfer window will surely be on adding (to an already strong squad) the quality required for the Cups, and more importantly, Europe next season.
Celtic 2 Ross County 0