GLASGOW, April 5 (Reuters) - Celtic were crowned Scottish champions with six games to spare after Gordon Strachan's team ran out 1-0 winners over Hearts on Wednesday.
Celtic's victory meant they lead second-placed Hearts by 20 points and will add the club's 40th championship to a League Cup won last month in a superb first season under Strachan.
A goal by John Hartson in the fourth minute sealed Wednesday's victory at Parkhead against a Hearts side who could be pipped by Rangers (59pts) to a berth in the Champions League qualifiers.
The season has clearly finished with a real flourish for Strachan, who replaced Martin O'Neill after the Irishman stepped down in May last year to nurse his ill wife.
Yet the Scot's tenure had begun in humiliating fashion when Celtic failed to reach the group stage of the Champions League, going down 5-0 to Slovak champions Artmedia Bratislava in the qualifiers and ultimately losing 5-4 on aggregate.
A 3-1 league defeat at Old Firm rivals Rangers in August proved the catalyst to jump-start their season, with Celtic taking 31 points out of 33 to reel in early pacesetters Hearts.
Defeat by Dunfermline in late November halted the unbeaten run but that was the last time Strachan's side suffered a league reverse as they romped to the championship.
Afterwards, Hartson intimated this could be his final season.
'I will need to make a few decisions in the summer but it would be a massive wrench to leave this club,' said Hartson, who has had his problems with injury.
'Even at 31 I am still feeling good and I can have a few more years at the top if I keep my sharpness. Then I will be happy but I don't want to play for ever.
'I'll have another two or three years in the the game but then I will be hanging up the boots.'
Hearts coach John McGlynn said his players felt robbed not to have gatecrashed Celtic's championship party.
Despite being 20 points behind the champions in the SPL, they felt they should have at least extended the season by a further few days.
He said: 'It is fair to say the players felt they were robbed.'
Interim manager Valdas Ivanauskas was sent to the stand late on after reacting angrily to referee Dougie McDonald's decision not to award them a penalty and the chance to prolong the title race.
Roman Bednar got nothing having gone down in the box from Bobo Balde's tackle.
McGlynn added: 'I haven't seen it but I thought it was a penalty at the time.
'Those that saw it on screen thought it was a penalty and I don't see any reason why Roman would go down there.
'You have then got to ask the question if he went down why wasn't he booked? Valdas got caught up in the moment.'
McGlynn felt Celtic had the luck this season after Takis Fyssas was harshly dismissed in their 3-2 defeat to the Hoops in January.
He said: 'You could say things went Celtic's way. Takis Fyssas was sent off in that game at Tynecastle and then the red card was rescinded. That changed the game and the penalty calls sometimes go against you.'
Andy Webster also had a goal chalked off for offside but McGlynn said: 'I will need to see that on TV but he said himself he felt it was offside.'
But McGlynn did offer his congratulations to the worthy champions and is confident his side can hold off the challenge of third-placed Rangers to clinch a Champions League spot with the same qualities.
The men from Ibrox are three points behind with six games remaining.
McGlynn said: 'I would like to congratulate Gordon Strachan in his first season at Celtic Park.
'To bring the championship to Parkhead is great for Gordon Strachan and they deserved it. They were the better team over the season.
'But all credit to Hearts Football Club for the way they played the champions.
'It was a very good performance and if we do that in our next six games then we will finish second.'
Gordon Strachan celebrated winning the championship in his first season as Celtic manager - and revealed how he refused to take off the watch which stopped after the 5-0 thrashing to Artmedia Bratislava.
The Scot constantly reminds himself of the dreaded night that time stood still for him.
April 5, 2006 was a far cry from July 27, 2005 when his new side were humiliated by the Slovakian minnows in his first competitive game in charge which prompted him to perform a bizarre ritual.
Strachan said: 'It is 10 past 11 on my watch. It stopped at the end of the Artmedia game. It is funny when somebody asks me how long's to go on a Saturday.
'It has not changed because I want to be remembered of what happened that night. I can hopefully take it off now.
'I really don't know why I kept it on. I just wanted a reminder that when I get ideas above my stations, how football can kick you in the guts.'
Strachan planned to celebrate the title with coach Tommy Burns in the hospital where he is being treated for cancer.
But having tried to contact the former Hoops player and manager, he was told not to bother as he had discharged himself.
'The one thing missing was Tommy Burns,' said Strachan. 'He is some man. I was told he was staying in the hospital so I tried to get a police car but I called just now and they said he's not there.
'He just wanted to go home and watch it on television, so you can't tell whether Tommy loved that or not.'