Colin Watt with A Celtic State of Mind – Who will be key to winning 9-in-a-row?

Not long after Willie Collum blew for full-time in the Scottish Cup final on 25 May, thoughts were already turning to season 2019/20. A historic Treble Treble had been achieved despite all the turmoil and upheaval that the campaign brought with it. A season that had started well and gradually led to more and more discontent before an old stalwart returned to drag us over the line and into the history books.
 
It was almost unanimously accepted by the Celtic faithful that Brendan Rodgers would leave the club at the end of season 2018/19, but his departure in February led to major concerns within the fanbase, although the arrival of Neil Lennon united supporters for a while. His appointment on a full-time basis this season was met by a very mixed response and I will admit I was particularly vocal about Lennon not getting the job. To be honest, I still don’t think he was the right appointment but he now has the job and, to quote Celtic, “we move on”.
 
The summer transfer window of 2019 has been a complete mixed bag. It started brightly with Celtic agreeing a fee for Motherwell midfielder David Turnbull only for the deal to be on-and-off more than Scotrail’s train services. Eventually, when the deal looked to be complete – Turnbull was even interviewed by Celtic TV – it was announced that an underlying injury had prevented the transfer from going through and Turnbull is currently recovering from an operation. I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised to see Turnbull announced as a Celtic player before this window closes and perhaps this saga still has twists and turns to go.
 
So, who have we welcomed through the Celtic Park doors?

First in was a £7m purchase – Toulouse’s giant centre-back, Christopher Jullien. Fans have yet to see a lot of the Frenchman, however, his performance away to Nomme Kalju was certainly commanding and hopefully he will form a partnership this season with Kris Ajer that will solidify the back line. Joining Jullien was Luca Connell on a development fee from troubled side, Bolton Wanderers. The Irish under-19 star made his breakthrough to the Bolton first team last season as they struggled through administration. Connell has only made one appearance during pre-season, in the home friendly against Stade Rennes, but he looked a tidy player and hopefully someone who can break through to the first team this season.
 
Incoming full-backs… sort of? Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo and Hatem Abd Elhamed joined from Rapid Vienna and Hapoel Be’er Sheva respectively as the replacements for the expected departure of Kieran Tierney as well as the eventual replacement for Mikael Lustig. It is very early days in both players’ Celtic careers, but these are massive shoes to fill and they will need to hit the ground running to make a good impression amongst the Hoops’ fans. Bolingoli, a £3m signing, looked shaky in his first few games, however, his performance in Tallin looked like he might just have settling into the side. Very much an attacking full-back, it will be interesting to see how Lennon shapes the formation of the team with this in mind.

Fans have yet to see Elhamed in action, the Israeli international cost £1m from Be’er Sheva, where he had predominantly played as a centre-back. However, in an interview with Celtic TV, Hatem admitted he was more comfortable as a right-back and was looking forward to returning to play in that role. With Kris Ajer and Anthony Ralston filling that position so far, if Elhamed is indeed an out-and-out right-back then we should see a first choice back four starting to take shape.


 
Players come and players go and certainly this summer Celtic have seen a lot of players depart. Loan signings Oliver Burke, Filip Benkovic, Timothy Weah and Jeremy Toljan all returned back to their parent clubs with others like Scott Allan, Dedryck Boyata, Mikael Lustig, Christian Gamboa, Emilio Izaguirre and Marvin Compper (who?) all moving on to pastures new. In fact, in total, Celtic have shifted around 12 players from last season’s first-team squad along with other youngsters who didn’t quite make the grade at Lennoxtown.

Finally, we take a look at the hypothetical “like a new signing” players – Leigh Griffiths, Daniel Arzani, Vakoun Issouf Bayo and Marian Shved. Bayo, Arzani and Griffiths have returned from long-term injuries and certainly Griffiths has looked like he’s never been away, scoring frequently in pre-season and bagging an incredible free-kick at home to Kalju, a game in which his link-up play with Odsonne Edouard was terrific. Shved’s substitute appearance away in Tallin was certainly fruitful with a lovely strike from the edge of the box. These players should add depth to a side that at times last year missed a spark coming off the bench to change games.
 
Looking ahead to the start of the Ladbrokes Premiership season, our opening day brings the challenge of St Johnstone on what will be an emotional day at Celtic Park with the widows of Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers raising the league championship flag in front of a capacity crowd. St Johnstone have had a terrible pre-season so far, crashing out of the Betfred Cup in style, losing to Montrose, Ross County and Forfar Athletic, but they will still pose a threat to Celtic and it is vitally important that the journey to 9-in-a-row starts with three points at home.

The fixture gods look to have been kind to Celtic this season with what looks on paper to be an easier December schedule than the last few seasons. As expected, though, all eyes will turn to the clashes with Rangers starting on 1 September. After flag day, Celtic face Motherwell at Fir Park and a home tie with Hearts before the trip to Ibrox for the first of the big clashes this season. After last year’s terrible performances in the south side, fans will be expecting an improvement and a lot will come down to how Celtic perform both in the opening three games and in the rest of the transfer window.
 
Over the last three seasons, we as a fan group have been absolutely spoiled with success and, selfishly, I don’t think you’d find a fan out there who wouldn’t want another season of unrepentant success. A quadruple treble would certainly be an incredible feat but, for me, I’d be very happy with 9-in-a-row, Champions League group stages and one of the other two trophies, preferably the Scottish Cup. With four weeks of the transfer window to go, there is absolutely no excuses from Celtic not to go out and strengthen in order to achieve those goals.
 
CFR Cluj await in the 3rd qualifying round of the Champions League before a potential draw against one of the following:

* Slavia Prague;
* Young Boys;
* Apoel or Qarabag;
* Rosenborg or Maribor.
 
This is arguably a better draw than last season and I’d expect Celtic to overcome any of these teams over two legs. A provisional Pot 3 seeding for the group stage will lead to glamour ties and another chance for the Celtic faithful to travel to all corners of Europe – let’s be honest, the best part of the trip is not the game itself!

Season 2019/20 is certainly going to be one full of twists and turns and I stick by my prediction that Celtic will be lifting that Premiership trophy by the middle of May 2020. There will be times this season when it will be hard and there will be other times when we stroll to victory, but as a fan group we must unite to get behind the players on the park and play our role in this journey to 9-in-a-row. Let’s enjoy this season and remind everyone why ‘Glasgow is Green and White!’

Colin Watt

Listen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast

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