Raise the Flag

I almost feel sorry for Hearts.

Almost.

Last season, we opened our league campaign at Tynecastle – the first time the reigning champions had started away from home that I could remember – and we beat them 2-1 thanks to a debut winner from Scott Sinclair and no thanks to Jamie Walker diving to win a penalty to cancel out the James Forrest opener.

The next time we played them was in January, when we thumped them 4-0 to surpass the Lisbon Lions record of the first 26 domestic games unbeaten. Goals from Callum McGregor and Patrick Roberts as well as two from Sinclair managed to win the game comfortably despite not having a recognised striker on the park.

Our third meeting with Hearts was another landmark as we travelled to Tynecastle with the chance to clinch our sixth league title in a row. Of course, we did that in style by winning 5-0. Sinclair again was at the heart of things, scoring the first two goals before completing his hat trick from the penalty spot after both Roberts and Stuart Armstrong had put the game well beyond doubt.

And of course Hearts were the team who turned up at Celtic Park on the final day of the league season knowing that not only were Celtic going to get the trophy that day but if they didn’t beat Celtic then it was an invincible league season. In the end, it was the only game that Sinclair didn’t score against them but we still did enough thanks to Leigh Griffiths and Armstrong. That ensured not only an unbeaten league season, but that we actually only dropped eight points from a possible 114.

Of those four games, only the first came against Robbie Neilson’s side. When he left Tynecastle at the end of November, Hearts were deservedly sitting second in the league, eight points behind Celtic, albeit ahead of an Aberdeen team with a couple of games in hand and three games more played than Celtic. But by the time the season had finished, Hearts had dropped to fifth and finished as far behind second placed Aberdeen as Aberdeen finished behind Celtic.

Yes, we were a full 60 points ahead of Hearts last season.

Neilson’s departure for MK Dons saw Ian Cathro given his chance to step up from being an assistant at Valencia and Newcastle to take on the role of head coach at Hearts. What followed was an abysmal record that actually saw Hearts have worse form in the league than even Inverness who were relegated from the Premiership.

Of the thirty games that Hearts played under Cathro’s guidance, they won just seven. Included in the defeats was a Scottish Cup exit to city rivals Hibernian after squeaking past Raith Rovers after extra time in a replay, and most recently a loss to Peterhead in the group stages of the League Cup.

Indeed, their League Cup campaign finished with a draw and eventual defeat on penalties against Dunfermline, a result that saw them finish third in their group and knocked out before the four European representatives had entered the competition.

That was the final straw for Hearts, and Cathro was relieved of his duties earlier this week. Former Dundee United striker Jon Daly will be in charge at Celtic Park this season as once more we open our league campaign against Hearts – this time at least it’s at Celtic Park as flag day is back in its traditional spot in our season.

This year, the flag will be unfurled by our third treble winning Captain. Scott Brown joined Billy McNeill and Tom Boyd at the end of last season, a fitting way to mark ten years at Celtic. It’s not often we have players reach the testimonial mark of a decade with a club these days, but Broony has managed it and as such is one of the most decorated players in our history.

Seven league titles, three Scottish Cups, three League Cups – four if you count the one he won at Hibernian. Of the thirteen he’s won at Celtic, ten of those have been as captain and only McNeill has won more from that position. Admittedly, McNeill won 23 including the biggest of them all so Broony has a while to go to catch that!

He’s now played in 85 European games for Hibernian and Celtic, more than any other Scottish player in history. He’s approaching the top 20 of all time appearances for Celtic, having recently surpassed Tommy Gemmell.

The fact that you now have to continually mention Lisbon Lions when comparing Broony’s achievements should say it all about him. They’re on a different level when it comes to Celtic due to their victory in Lisbon, but there’s no doubt that Brown is part of the legend of Celtic even now.

That’s no exaggeration. As the captain of our current six-in-a-row team, he’s done what Willie Orr and Jimmy Hay did back in the early 1900s, and of course he could still potentially match or even surpass the nine-in-a-row of Billy McNeill. But even if we don’t reach that mark, the captain of the treble winning invincibles of 2016/17 will forever be part of our folklore.

How that particular story ends, while hopefully not ending for a good while yet, I’m excited to find out. And it all begins again domestically today.

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

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