Celtic’s season ripened to perfection beneath a strawberry moon on Saturday night on a historic night in the southside of Glasgow.
Considering much of the pre-match build-up suggested there was just one team involved, the first Scottish Cup final to kick off in the evening proved a better spectacle than many might have imagined.
Inverness Caledonian Thistle lost goals at two poor times – shortly before half-time and then midway through the second half – before scoring one of the great cup final goals themselves through their own ‘cup tie MacKay’, substitute Daniel. The on-loan Hibs striker stooped to score a thrilling header to put things in the balance with five minutes left.
Ange Postecoglou’s legacy seemed briefly in danger. But Celtic were not to be denied. Jota restored the two-goal advantage in injury-time and Postecoglou could relax and enjoy the final minutes of an epic season and, perhaps, his final moments as manager of “Scotland’s most successful club”, as a banner in the east end of Hampden asserted.
Those later revellers spotted drifting away from Hampden did so beneath a large, reddish moon that had risen in the sky above the national stadium. A strawberry moon, so called because Native Americans used it as a marker for when strawberries are ready to be picked.
Ripeness is all. The art of picking fruit is choosing the right time. Postecoglou will know his stock has never been higher. He bumped his chest with his fist and saluted the Celtic fans afterwards.
Rarely can a man’s gestures have been so analysed as his were on Saturday evening. Look! He’s not joining in with the trophy-lifting melee (which took place on the pitch for some reason in a further regrettable erosion of cup final traditions). It must mean he’s off. Postecoglou embracing each substitute with an extra-long hug as they left the pitch was more evidence to consider.
Whatever the manager did or did not do would have been taken as proof he was off to Spurs. Not hugging the subs would have been interpreted as coolness that could only anticipate an imminent severing of ties. Every action was deemed to be loaded with significance, every post-match utterance. Look, he’s standing with his hands in his pockets. He doesn’t care! He’s already checked out for north London.
Postecoglou had to expect all this. He danced around the subject of his future all last week. When, in March last year, Celtic announced arrangements for a mid-season trip to Australia that was heavily marketed around Postecoglou ‘coming home’, the manager quipped that at least it meant he would still be in a job then.
Now his own reluctance to address his long-term future, or even his future beyond enjoying the treble celebrations, which is all he said he had planned, seems to signal his intentions. Another Postecoglou-inspired trip, this time to Japan later this summer where Celtic are scheduled to play the manager’s former club Yokohama F Marinos, could well proceed without the main man.
if he is clocking off, then he did so by making history. Another treble constituting a world record eighth meant the Celtic fans hailed him at the end having been notably resistant to singing his name throughout the game. There might have been a mixture of reasons for that, including the suspicion that another manager is about to trade immortality for mediocrity, although that was of course an easier accusation to make in the case of Brendan Rodgers, whose mid-season flit to Leicester City while on the brink of the treble could be portrayed as an insult.
Another reason for the hesitancy to acclaim him might have been Celtic being initially unable to break Inverness down.
The champions seemed out of sorts. Passes were going astray. More passes were sent out of play in the opening half hour than the rest of the season combined. Reo Hatate, Tomoki Iwata and Matt O’Riley were all guilty. O’Riley’s shot after 35 minutes, easily gathered by Mark Ridgers, was the first on target.
Fears Celtic might fall prey to another Inverness humbling were eased by their opponents’ struggles to get out of their own half. It felt like a matter of time ‘til Celtic clicked into goalscoring gear, and so it proved.
As for Inverness, it was not a game too far, it was a month. They did better than anyone had a right to expect from a lower division team whose last competitive fixture was on 5 May and who had played two friendlies, against Dungannon Swifts and Nairn County, in the interim.
They gave everything, something summed up by the sight of midfielder David Carson hauling himself up off the deck after collapsing with cramp in the final minutes and hobbling upfield in a desperate attempt to join an attack as Inverness pressed for an unlikely equaliser.
Billy Dodds’ side rarely looked in danger of being overwhelmed. They scored an excellent, sweeping goal at the end where their fans all were. And the gasp from all ends of the ground when the fourth assistant signalled there were six minutes of time added on to be played told its own story. Remarkably, Inverness were still very much in it.
In contrast to their fellow underdogs in the FA Cup final, they managed to see out the first minute of the game without conceding. Indeed, they reached the 38th minute before Kyogo Furushashi scored with what felt like his first touch of any significance. What a striker he has proved and is proving for Celtic.
Never mind the threat of losing Postecoglou to Spurs, the danger the manager might seek to bring Kyogo with him to England, if that is indeed where he ends up, must be a major point of concern for Celtic supporters. How strange to fear being left feeling bereft after winning everything.