Good times roll for Celtic and Strachan in title win

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The Independent Online

At the moment of his deepest disappointment as Celtic's manager - in his first game in charge, in fact, on 27 July last year when his side were humiliated 5-0 by Artmedia Bratislava and the bleak prospect loomed large of a swift exit from Champions' League and job alike - Gordon Strachan's watch inexplicably stopped ticking.

On Wednesday night at Parkhead, after his side had beaten Hearts 1-0 to seal the Scottish Premier League title that lifts him to the peak of his managerial career so far, he revealed how time has stood still for him since that final whistle back in Bratislava. "The watch is still stuck at 10 past 11," he said. "I've not had it off since that night. It's funny because I've been at games on a Saturday and people have asked how long to go. I've looked and said. 'I don't know, it's 10 past 11'.

"I don't know why I thought it was important to keep the watch on all this time. It's just me, I suppose. It reminded me of that night and any time I felt I was getting above my station or things were going too nicely, it reminded me how football can kick you in the guts."

Having taken over the reigns from Martin O'Neill, viewed by many on the green side of Glasgow as the Ulster messiah, Strachan was always going to face some suspicion from fans. His history as a nippy, chippy former champion with Aberdeen did not help.

Yet in a single debut season in which he has bagged an SPL and CIS Cup double, he has offset the embarrassment of that Champions' League exit and a Scottish Cup blooper against Clyde to earn, at the very least, respect for his ambition, and a store of goodwill for next season.

It is not gratuitously churlish to point out that Rangers have been hopeless this season, thereby wiping out meaningful Old Firm tension at a stroke, and that Hearts, the whippersnapper pretenders backed by Lithuanian millions, imploded at the right time to leave Celtic with the title to throw away. Even Strachan said on Wednesday that he makes no claim to have a great side, yet.

But make no mistake, this is his side, built and gelled rapidly by him, in his image. And it is a side that has confounded all those who felt that he would struggle with O'Neill's legacy, perceived as an ageing team on big contracts winding down their careers while youth got frustrated.

The starting line-up on Wednesday contained five Strachan buys (the excellent Polish goalkeeper Artur Boruc, and his compatriot striker, Maciej Zurawski, who continues to settle; the Japanese playmaker, Shunsuke Nakamura, who can turn a game; and two Scottish full-backs at opposite ends of their careers, Paul Telfer and Mark Wilson). Two other young Scots, Shaun Maloney and Stephen McManus, were at Parkhead pre-Strachan but have only been promoted and flourished under him. Only four O'Neill mainstays - Bobo Baldé, Neil Lennon, Stilian Petrov and John Hartson, have been regulars this term.

Strachan has signed two more Scots on pre-contract deals for the summer, in Kenny Miller and Gary Caldwell, with compatriots Stephen Pearson, Ross Wallace and others (as well as the exciting young Irishman, Aiden McGeady), already involved in regular first-team action.

Strachan has spoken much in the past week about how little he concentrates on personal success, and how seeing players improve gives him the most satisfaction. "And making people happy," he said on Wednesday. "Making the fans happy." For now, job done. The wind-up to next season starts here.

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