This season has been something of a reality check for Celtic, not that their power is diminishing by any stretch but having operated a level beyond their rivals for so long, it’s a telling reminder of the uncertainties in football and how competition is never too far away.
The last 25 years have brought tremendous success to Parkhead as the Hoops have become the major force in Scottish football under a succession of fine managers and with some truly iconic players passing through.
Our friends at Football Whispers select a best XI of the ‘modern era’ of the club.
Artur Boruc (2005–10)
By definition being a goalkeeper is a unique role on the field and often the very best are unique individuals. A description that perhaps underplays the character of Boruc, aka ‘The Holy Goalie’, who made 221 appearances for the club and earned cult status for his behaviour during Old Firm games and slightly off-kilter off-field antics.
But aside from that, Boruc was fundamentally a fine keeper who had his faults and mistakes but was an outstanding shot stopper and a fantastic entertainer. The Pole was among the nominees for the Scottish Players’ Player of the Year in 2007 and a year later was one of five goalkeepers on the shortlist of the FIFPro World XI, a remarkable achievement for a Scottish-based player.
Jackie McNamara (1995–2005)
You don’t spend ten years as a starter at Celtic without good reason, with McNamara’s longevity and commitment to excellent spanning six different coaches at Parkhead. He was a manager’s dream: loyal, passionate and fully committed every time he stepped on the field.
Capable of playing anywhere across the defence, as he often did, although right-back was his home, really, and where he impressed the most. Scotland’s Young Player of the Year in 1996, Players’ Player in 1998 and Footballer of the Year in 2004, he won four league titles and the hearts of countless Celtic fans.
Virgil van Dijk (2013–15)
The Dutchman’s time in Glasgow was only brief but, as a mark of how fortunate the Hoops were to have him, look where he stands in the game right now, as one of Europe’s very best. Over two seasons he was comprehensively the best defender in Scotland and also one of the best forward players, his trademark runs from deep allowing him to score 15 goals in 115 games.
Centre-backs in the Premiership are sometimes unfairly castigated for being 6ft-plus throwbacks, who like nothing more than a big booming clearance or powerful tackle. Van Dijk could do all that but, boy, could he play and wasn’t too long until the biggest secret in British football was out.
Johan Mjallby (1998–2004)
Given he made his debut in the famous 5-1 victory over Rangers in the 1998/99 season, there was maybe always going to something special about the Swede. A big, powerful centre-back who was also a fine technician and was often experimented with in midfield.
He played his best football under Martin O’Neill, displaying a calmness and composure at the back, starring domestically and in Europe during the Champions League and 2003 UEFA Cup run. Mjallby also served for fears years as Neil Lennon’s assistant manager.
Tom Boyd (1992–2003)
The defender’s time at Celtic was real boy’s own stuff. Having been a Hoops fan as a schoolboy he got the chance to play for the club after a failed spell at Chelsea. Although the first few years were challenging, largely in the shadow of Rangers, he grew into the role of captain and famously led the side to their first league title in 10 years in 1998, while also preventing their rivals winning a tenth in a row.
That he retained the captaincy under the Martin O’Neill revolution speaks volumes for his persona, professionalism and ability. Because for all his statesmanlike qualities, Boyd was also a fine footballer who could play anywhere across the back four but excelled mainly at left-back with his rampaging runs down the flank.
Paul Lambert (1997–2005)
Few players in Scottish football have oozed authority like Lambert who arrived in Glasgow as a Champions League winner – having man marked Zinedine Zidane out of the final – and brought a combination of class and control, silk and steel, plus plenty of leadership, to Wim Jansen’s midfield.
Although he played the majority of his time at the club in his 30s, he was a consummate professional who left everything out on the field every single game. An integral cog of the 2000/01 treble-winning side, he also captained the team to the 2003 UEFA Cup final only to lose to Jose Mourinho’s Porto.
Scott Brown (2007–present)
There have been more natural and more skilled midfielders to wear green and white but none have possessed the same kind of dominating presence as Brown. His snarling and snapping has been the life force for so much of Celtic’s success this decade.
However, that combative style has almost superseded his abilities with the ball as Brown is a fine passer and his drive from deep has been a much-needed asset under five different managers. A captain in the truest sense in how he leads and sets the example; he may not be universally adored, but his commitment can never be questioned.
Shunsuke Nakamura (2005–09)
Type “greatest free-kicks” into your search engine and it won’t be long until you stumble across some of Nakamura’s finest. The Japanese was just a wizard from dead-ball situations. But such is the YouTube generation, his other traits as a player are often forgotten or glossed over.
For four seasons he was comfortably the most creative player in the Scottish top flight, a midfielder capable of spotting passes few in the stadium could anticipated. His touch sublime with a way of playing that was always in his own time. Nakamura also managed to combine with a relentless work ethic. A true fans favourite for a multitude of reasons.
Stiliyan Petrov (1999–2006)
John Barnes didn’t leave much of a legacy at the club, but his decision to spend £2.8million on a Bulgarian teenager proved a masterstroke and helped lay the foundations for the Celtic midfield for the first half of a decade. Petrov wasn’t just a fantastic box-to-box midfielder who had all the touch and technique but could also get stuck in and was a constant threat in the opposition penalty area.
The fantastic aspect of his time at Celtic was also that fans got to witness his development from prospect to fully fledged professional, without him being poached by a club south of the border. He was part of ten trophy-winning sides, including the 2000/01 and 2003/04 trebles.
Aiden McGeady (2004–10)
One of the most gifted to slip on a Celtic shirt, McGeady was very much one of those, “you’d pay to watch him” sort of players. Yes, he could be maddingly inconsistent at times but that was part of the appeal because he brought a sense of fantasy to the team, a real unorthodoxy plus he was one of the club’s own having come through the academy.
His early years saw him often play second fiddle to Nakamura or Shaun Maloney in the playmaking stakes, but from 2007–09 he established himself as a force at the club. He embodied the concept of the enigmatic and mercurial individual who lurch from anonymous to influential from one game to the next but he was just too much fun to leave out of this team.
Henrik Larsson (1997–2004)
Could it be anyone else? It’s testament to Larsson’s time at Celtic that he’s spoken about with the same reverence as the Lisbon Lions and in creating an all-time XI, he’s one of the few, if not the only, player from the modern era who commands inclusion.
The Swede is unquestionably the finest ever non-Scot to play for the club. His goal record of 242 in 313 games was Messi and Ronaldo-esque before those two superstars had even become professionals. If anything, his talent deserved more than just four league titles. But, then again, it shows the level of competition he was operating in at the time, where he still emerged as the very best.
*Odds subject to change