In the second of The Celtic Way's Moments That Mattered series, we consider not a singular moment but a collection of them, all stemming from a decision made by then Parkhead boss Gordon Strachan in the aftermath of a wounding pair of losses back in 2008 that left the Hoops trailing Rangers in a seemingly insurmountable task but that ended up in one of the most emotional title triumphs in Celtic history…

To set the scene for this one, it helps if you read the next 200 words or so as if it were the opening scroll of a Star Wars movie. No, really. Try it.

Prelude: History slipping away

Successive 1-0 defeats – to league leaders Rangers and third-place Motherwell – leaves Celtic six points behind their Ibrox rivals, who also have two games in hand.

Manager Gordon Strachan, after the defeat to the Steelmen at Fir Park, concedes the prospect of him becoming the first Celtic manager since Jock Stein to win three league titles on the trot is slipping away.

"It's going to be near impossible," he said. "But we'll keep plugging away."

There is a glimmer of hope. Seven league matches remain - and two of them are against Rangers at Parkhead.

The Ibrox side, however, are on a tear. They haven't lost in the top-flight since October 28 and have reeled off 17 wins in their last 18 SPL matches. They're also in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup, at the same stage of the Scottish Cup and have the League Cup already in the cabinet.

With the pressure mounting and murmurs of his own tenure being inexorably linked with this season's outcome, Strachan makes the decision to rejig the heart of his team for the final seven games.

In the centre of midfield he places his faith in two largely unheralded figures: Paul Hartley and Barry Robson... what unfolds over the next seven games will create Celtic folklore.

Not the heroes Parkhead expected…

First off, it’s important to note that both men had played their part in big moments already that season. Hartley’s header ensured Celtic secured a crucial 1-1 draw away to Spartak Moscow in the Champions League qualifiers, while he’d enjoyed a big night as Strachan’s side became the first Hoops team to beat AC Milan in European competition. Robson, despite only joining the club in January 2008, scored with his first touch on his debut against Aberdeen and had also netted against Barcelona. 

It wasn’t just the decision to make Robson and Hartley the starting central midfielders that proved decisive, of course, but that’s the selection call most fans remember most. The fact two players of their supposed industrial ilk came to the fore at such a crucial time is, well, kind of romantic too.

In truth, both were far better technically than they are often given credit for; before his conversion to a sitter, Hartley was a goalscoring midfielder when he arrived from Hearts while Robson’s left foot was always capable of the sublime. At a team like Celtic, that doesn’t make you extra special though. This was a side, after all, containing the likes of Aiden McGeady and Shunsuke Nakamura.

Neither renowned for their goalscoring exploits nor their creative ingenuity while donning the Hoops, it is testament to their commitment and partnership that they have become more synonymous with the 2007-08 title win than the myriad of top players who played alongside them. Team-mates who, while talented, needed the platform that Hartley and Robson eagerly provided in order to reach this particularly gruelling finish line.

Celtic Way: Barry Robson scores against Rangers in 2008Barry Robson scores against Rangers in 2008

And reach it they did – even though it seemed inconceivable after those Rangers and Motherwell defeats.

Earlier slip-ups against Hibernian and Caley Thistle, as well as going out of the League Cup to Hearts in October and the Scottish Cup to Aberdeen just 11 days prior to the Rangers defeat, raised questions about the side’s ability to defend their domestic crown.

Now, six points adrift with two games still to give up to a team genuinely appearing to be in with a chance of a quadruple? It seemed to be becoming more and more likely the Hoops had been shot down in April and would never be riding high come May.

“Everybody had written us off for the title at that moment,” Hartley told TCW earlier this year.

“We were down and out, to all intents and purposes,” was striker Scott McDonald’s recollection of it.

Yet those two Old Firm games offered the hint of a chance. To even make those count, though, Celtic would need to ensure a flawless end to the season – seven wins from seven – and hope Rangers dropped enough points along the way to make it count.

Or, as Hartley put it: “We just had to go for it really…”

A magnificent seven: Laying the groundwork

Celtic had an immediate opportunity to do just that. Rangers had drawn against Dundee United the day after the Hoops had lost to Well and now, with a trip to Fir Park in their very next game, Strachan’s men could exact revenge on the Steelmen and close the gap at the top, however temporarily, to four points.

Captain Stephen McManus shouldered home an opener before scoring an own goal to make things antsy for a few minutes, but goals from strike duo McDonald and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink (two) ensured a 4-1 win. The only two changes Strachan made to the side were Hartley and Robson in for Massimo Donati and Scott Brown, the latter of whom was suspended. Robson bagged an assist while Hartley was man of the match. On such fine lines do titles swing.

The pair kept their places for the next match: Rangers at Parkhead on Wednesday April 16. It is a game that is variously remembered by what sounds like titles of rejected Friends episodes. The One When Robson Smashed Dailly; The One With Nakamura’s Screamer; The One With Cuellar’s Handball. It was, ultimately, The One With Vennegoor of Hesselink’s Last-Minute Winner. 

For a while, McDonald worried it would be remembered for another reason though.

“I missed a penalty against Rangers and I thought 'here we go again',” he told TCW earlier in the season. “Everybody was going to have the daggers out for me – and there was a five-minute period where I was shitting myself that I was going to be the fall guy for blowing the title. My world was ending before me. Thankfully Jan scored the last-minute goal to give us a 2-1 win. The feeling we took from that going into the second game was phenomenal.”

Celtic Way:

Before the second game there was the small matter of Aberdeen at home to take care of – which they did, just about. The Dons game was the only one of the seven in which Strachan did not start the Robson-Hartley midfield pairing, namely as the latter had picked up an injury. In the end a 1-0 win sufficed, Robson again providing the assist although this time for a young Giorgos Samaras to head in.

More importantly, though, the win over Aberdeen put Celtic two points clear at the top. Rangers, who hadn’t played a league game since the 2-1 defeat at Parkhead due to European and Scottish Cup commitments, would return to the east end with three matches in hand, yes, but they returned as the team in second place nonetheless.

"Gordon kept everything calm for the build-up to the second Rangers game,” McDonald recalled. “There was a lot of emotion both on and off the park but you have to keep calm in those situations.”

Easier said than done. While the April 27 Old Firm did not quite scale the dramatic heights of the previous edition, it still threw up five goals, a penalty and a sending-off. McDonald grabbed two plus the man of the match award but it was Robson who rattled home the winner from the spot, his fist pump celebration instantly achieving iconic status on the blossoming Celtic social media spheres of the time. Not bad going considering this was also the Artur Boruc ‘Holy Goalie’ match.

Piling on the pressure

Incredibly, in just four games Celtic had turned their second-place, six-point deficit into a top-of-the-table, five-point advantage. Of course, the spectre that loomed over it all was that Rangers had three games in hand. For Strachan, though, it was always just about winning the next game in the calendar, chalking up the points and at least making their rivals take their title rather than handing it to them.

Even better then that – a day after the Hoops had beaten Motherwell 2-1 at Fir Park to take that advantage to eight points – Rangers followed up their successive Celtic Park losses with a 0-0 draw at Easter Road on May 4. Seven points clear.

That was cut to four when Rangers beat Motherwell before the Hoops played next but, to their credit, they did not let it shake them. Hibs were dispatched 2-0 at Parkhead on May 11 with the knowledge the Ibrox side would play two more times to catch up in games. The expectation was that Celtic would enter the final day trailing by two points having fought valiantly to even be in the conversation.

It didn’t happen. Rangers dropped more points in their very next game by drawing 1-1 with Motherwell at Fir Park. Though important and potentially pivotal to Celtic’s trophy aspirations, that result was not met with the kind of celebrations it merited; Tommy Burns had died two days previous.

Celtic Way:

“It was an emotional time,” McDonald said. “Gordon loved Tommy and a lot of the players [such as Aiden McGeady and Stephen McManus] had grown up in the youth sides with him. It was a tough period.”

The players and staff vowed to do their bit to honour Burns by giving themselves every chance they could to win the league in his memory – Rangers’ dropped points at Motherwell allowed that vision to become clearer. When the Light Blues won their other game in hand – 3-0 against St Mirren – it meant that, for the first time in months, the destination of the SPL trophy was in Celtic’s hands.

Level on points at the top, Strachan’s side enjoyed a better goal difference by four and there were no longer games in hand for their rivals to rely on. One night would decide it all. 

Tannadice twists and turns…

By a scheduling quirk of fate, helped along by the season’s extension due to Rangers’ European run, the league decider would strangely take place on a Thursday evening and both potential titlists would be away from home.

For Celtic, that meant a trip to Tannadice not only for their first game since Burns’ death but just two days after his funeral and at a ground on which he had won the league title as a Celtic player 25 years previous.

Strachan opted to take the team to stay at Carnoustie before the decider, where McDonald remembers "he never slept for two days" amid the pressure of the final evening.

Rangers were up against Aberdeen at Pittodrie that night and, given the goal difference was not outrageous, a helicopter was scheduled to carry the SPL trophy wherever it must needs to. Scottish football loves one of those after all.

The game itself started in applause for Tommy Burns. It ended in tears, some of those also for Tommy Burns. But it was the good kind this time.

“Strachan fashioned a Celtic team with players that I'd happily go into the trenches with every day of the week,” Hartley recalls about that side. It should surprise nobody then that they listened to their leader even at the low ebb of that Motherwell defeat and kept ‘plugging away’ until the very end despite the apparent impossibility laid before them.

Celtic Way:

Although Vennegoor of Hesselink’s title-winning goal did not hit the net until the 72nd minute – from a Hartley corner, by the way – the stands populated with Celtic fans had erupted a full 10 minutes beforehand courtesy of Lee Miller’s opening goal at Pittodrie. Darren Mackie later added another for good measure as Rangers crumbled one last time.

There are plenty of match reports from that evening if you want to search for them. Some of the more colourful ones are really quite good. From both games.

What they collectively cannot do, though, is accurately convey the true weight of emotion attached to that night. Emotion tied up not just in the aftermath of a title win but in the indescribable, painful anticipation of its prelude. They cannot convey that pre-match fear that the helicopter might go the wrong way. Like 2005. They cannot convey the almost illicit feeling of occasionally experiencing a surge of confidence that it might actually go right. They cannot convey that vicious, visceral joy only truly found after achieving something hitherto told was beyond your reach. They cannot truly convey the influence of Tommy Burns on the whole thing either. That wasn't just consigned to the trophy, the game or even the season.

“Call it fate, call it what you like but there was something driving that Celtic team towards the title after Tommy died,” as McDonald put it. “It was just so special. It was a fitting way to end it.” 

In tribute to Burns, You’ll Never Walk Alone was emblazoned on the back of Celtic’s celebration T-shirts. You’ll Always Be With Us read the front. Much like the 07-08 title run.