IT is getting to that point in Celtic's year when the counting begins, for Neil Lennon and for Peter Lawwell.
No club likes to look as though they are getting ahead of themselves but when they have a 21-point advantage they can be forgiven for believing the fat lady has sung. Celtic's inevitable coronation as Clydesdale Bank Premier League champions will come soon enough. For the party planners it is all about doing the arithmetic and projecting ahead on the fixture list to the likely day on which their points total becomes unsurpassable.
Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Motherwell, St Johnstone and Ross County sat closest to Celtic going into this midweek's fixtures although it would be laughable to describe them as a chasing pack. The gap between Celtic and the rest is more likely to widen than narrow in the remaining weeks, even if they do not take full points from tonight's test against Motherwell at Fir Park. "You are looking at the fixtures that lie ahead and you are looking at Inverness, Motherwell and St Johnstone and Ross County," said Lennon. "I can't see all of those teams winning all of their games, and some of them have to play each other as well.
"You are coming to the stage where you are counting it down but that is for me to do and not the players. There is no sign of complacency about them. The sun is starting to come out and there is a sense the season is unwinding."
Not only remaining fixtures are being counted down. In only four-and-a-half months' time, on July 17, Celtic expect to play their first qualifier in next season's Champions League. A board meeting will be held in April and it is likely to be then that Lennon gets the first indication about how much he will be given in the transfer market.
Lennon's bargaining position will be stronger than ever. It is thanks to the team he assembled that Celtic took in more than £20m from the Champions League this season, slashing their bank debt to just £130,000 and increasing turnover by 71%. The sale of Ki Sung-Yueng for £6m was another feather in Lennon's cap given that he bought him for £2m, as has been the blossoming into highly lucrative assets of three of his other signings, Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Fraser Forster.
There is harmony between manager and chief executive about the Celtic model – buy skilfully, develop talent and sell it on for profit – but Lennon's parallel responsibility to win domestic trophies and be competitive in the Champions League means it is not one-way traffic. The club must also permit him to invest in his side.
"I've not spoken to Peter yet. We have a board meeting in April and we may touch on it then, or we may not speak until the season's over. But we are looking at players for next season, that's the objective now. You have to be careful that you don't get blasé about it and say I want £4m here and I want £5m there. If we bring a player in for £3m or £4m there has to be a resale value. Further down the line we have to be able to sell him for a profit. I would imagine that would be the remit for any players that we do bring in.
"Bringing over £20m into the club this season has given me huge satisfaction on so many fronts. The club is stable now for the next three or four years and the debts are well manageable. I might even get a few quid to spend, although the flip side is that we will lose a couple of players, if not more, during the summer anyway. We are financially robust and the majority of that is down to the efforts of the players.
"Having to balance the books is something new to me. As a player all you think about is success. But as a manager you have to think about the future of the club and where we will be in three years' time. We are in the midst of a recession and the economic climate in Scottish football is not great so for us to have the season we have had is fantastic. There was huge pressure on us to qualify for the Champions League group stage this season. There was huge negativity going into the games. No-one gave us a prayer really, they thought qualification would be difficult – and I did, too, because it came so early and our previous attempts at it had not been great – but we seemed to find the right blend, we got the timing right, we got the pre-season right. That put us in good stead for the remainder of the season."
Not everyone has been so pleased with the windfall enjoyed by Celtic this season. Rangers supporters understandably resent their great rivals coining it in, while fans of the other Scottish clubs don't see much being done for the prospects of a competitive top flight if the champions rake in millions while they receive buttons. "I can't help what other people think," said Lennon. "That happens in every country: AC Milan want Inter Milan to fail, Spurs want Arsenal to fail, Man City want Man United to fail, but it's very engrossing in this country because we seem to dominate the footballing landscape."
Never more so than now. Rangers faced far stiffer competition when they won the title by 21 points in 1999-2000, but if results go Celtic's way tonight they will lead this championship by 24. For those who are counting, they are on course to be Scottish champions by the biggest margin since the leagues began 123 years ago.