A PICTURE was doing the rounds on Twitter within a few hours of the Scottish Cup's result of the day at Parkhead, captioned:
"A Celtic fan's season ticket lies in tatters after today's game". The photograph showed a broken tv remote control. The joke was a dig at the fact that the runaway league leaders, defending champions and cup holders were playing to a half-empty home ground, with the mild embarrassment of having closed off the stadium's top tier because there would be no need for the seats.
The attendance was 30,000, and Celtic are going to have to put on quite a Barnum and Bailey act to get many more than that at any home game between now and the end of the season. There are medical experts who will tell you that boredom is neither trivial nor benign. Anyone who needed to be persuaded of the harm apathetic, stay-at-home supporters can do to their football team had only to watch Celtic tamely bow out of the Scottish Cup.
The old place can be the most intimidating, stirring football ground in the country. What Neil Lennon calls "the thunder" sometimes writes the scripts for Celtic's most memorable performances. What Aberdeen came out to was a sweeping tundra of empty upper-tier seats. Celtic Park was stripped of its ability to intimidate them. Only the away section was packed with 3000 fans who behaved as if a cup tie between Scotland's two best teams was something special.
By tea-time the theme of many conversations was that Celtic's season was now "over". Being on the cusp of becoming champions again would have every other club in the country doing cartwheels, but Celtic are so far out on their own that they occupy a no-man's land where even winning the league gets a shrug of the shoulders.
There will be fireworks and confetti when the deed is done, of course, but competitiveness, jeopardy and anticipation cannot be manufactured without the raw materials. Lennon will win his third consecutive league title against the sort of backdrop which is anathema to him: half-empty grounds and yawning fans.
While keyboard fanatics claim they are delighted Rangers are not around, the truth stares genuine Celtic supporters in the face. What on earth can they do to quicken the pulse at any point between now and the Champions League qualifiers in July? This time last year they still had almost a month left in the Champions League and they went all the way to lift the Scottish Cup.
Losing to Aberdeen effectively put them to sleep until the summer. It also continued their inexplicably poor cup form since Lennon took over in 2010. From nine domestic cup campaigns there have been only two triumphs, in the 2011 and 2013 Scottish Cups. It was startling when the statistic was circulated on Saturday night that not since 1981/82 had the club gone out of both cups before even the quarter-finals. Yet they have rampaged though the SPFL Premiership unbeaten. How can they win at Pittodrie, Easter Road, Fir Park and Tannadice yet lose at home to Morton?
The falls are baffling. Yes, cup defeats to Rangers, Hearts and now Aberdeen can always be par for the course. But all of those as well as to Ross County, Kilmarnock, St Mirren and Morton? Only Scott Brown and Georgios Samaras survive from that County debacle and yet the team as a whole continues to be far more vulnerable and flat in cup ties than in the league. It is hard to find any convincing explanation for it.
Some of the ties (but not all) have been at Celtic Park or Hampden in front of crowds well below capacity. Maybe that has a deflating effect on them, but the same could be said of plenty of their league games too.
Teams would tend to be more adventurous against them in the cup than in the league, which might allow them a far better platform to capitalise on the days when Celtic are flat. But supporters have expected doubles, even trebles, while Rangers are so weak.
Neither Lennon nor the players have been able to get their heads around this. "We've done well in the league but cup games have been different," said Anthony Stokes. "We certainly don't treat them any different. We prepare for them exactly the same as we do for the league. But if I could put my finger on what is going wrong for us in the cups I would tell you . . . and then I would let the gaffer know too.
"Against Aberdeen we just didn't play the sort of football we've been playing all season. We were also a little shaky at the back. It just wasn't like us. Every competition we are involved in we set out to try and win. It's as simple as that. Those are the expectations that are there at a club like Celtic. So we are all bitterly disappointed. If we put in too many performances like that the unbeaten league run won't last much longer."
Celtic can still go the whole league season without defeat. The closer they get, the more the club's marketing department will go into overdrive to exploit it and drum up interest and crowds. But even that is going to be a hard sell. They've lost only two domestic games and their finances are bountiful, but early exits in both cups and a dismal Champions League campaign point to Celtic taking a step backwards where it matters most.