Ange Postecoglou hailed his Celtic players’ “extraordinary effort” in brushing off a slow start to the season to move to the cusp of league glory.
Celtic’s 4-1 victory over Hearts on Saturday put the Premiership title out of the realistic grasp of defending champions Rangers.
Goals from Daizen Maeda, Kyogo Furuhashi, Matt O’Riley and Giorgos Giakoumakis sparked celebrations among the Hoops support, although no-one within the club was declaring themselves champions just yet.
It was fitting that Celtic came back strongly from an early blow – when Ellis Simms netted for Hearts inside three minutes – as that has been the story of their season.
Defeats against Hearts, Rangers and Livingston in their first three away games, followed by a home draw with Dundee United, left Celtic in sixth place with 10 points from seven matches.
Few would have foreseen a newly-rebuilt Celtic team going on an unbeaten run from that point that now extends to 30 matches and getting on top of a Rangers side which went through last season’s campaign undefeated.
Postecoglou said: “I’m sure when the story is written of the season, I think people will probably reflect that it’s been a fairly outstanding effort on all fronts, no doubt.
“I know I talk a lot about this is just the first step of the rebuild and we are going to be better but I don’t say that to dismiss the extraordinary effort it has taken this year and the achievement of this group of players.
“After round seven when we had already lost three games and drawn one, you kind of know that if you are going to be champions this year, we are going to have to be pretty good from then on. And we have been pretty good.”
Postecoglou faced questions about their title hopes after that Dundee United draw on September 26 and, although he dismissed the fears, he accepts his players have been competing under major pressure since then with little margin for error.
“The key to that for us has been discipline,” he said. “As much as people wanted us to look further ahead or think about consequences, and it is a cliche when you go ‘one game at a time’, we really stuck to that mantra all year.
“We never looked beyond the next challenge, the next contest, to make sure we respect every opponent, bring our A game as much as possible, and not start letting our mind wander on consequences of any kind of result, good, bad or otherwise.
“It has served us well this year because if you started thinking about it back then, it would have been overwhelming to suggest we have to win 25 out of 30 games, including going to Ibrox and winning and winning here in a derby.
“You think of it that way and think ‘that’s a tough ask’ but we never really looked at it that way. We just thought ‘what’s the next game, what’s the next performance going to look like?’”
Hearts had John Souttar, Cammy Devlin and Michael Smith on their bench following injury lay-offs but manager Robbie Neilson admitted they were not ready to feature.
Neilson will look to reintegrate them at the right moment to give them a chance of facing Rangers in the Scottish Cup final on May 21.
Neilson, whose side face Motherwell on Wednesday, said: “We just brought them here to have them part of the group.
“We will see if they can maybe be part of the group on Wednesday and then maybe the three of them will be ready for Rangers at Tynecastle. We are just trying to get everybody ready for the final.
“Probably if it was a normal season we would have taken them out for the season but because we have got the cup final we do want to push them to come back. We just need to make sure we don’t push them too far.”