It is always Brendan Rodgers’ way to find what unites him with other football people. There wouldn’t appear much common ground for the Celtic manager to identify with when he considers the set-up at third-tier part-timers Albion Rovers when his treble-chasers begin their bid for the Scottish Cup this afternoon.
Yet despite the apparent mismatch at the Excelsior Stadium, the match-up of Albion manager Darren Young and his assistant Billy Stark brings to mind for Rodgers an early coaching experience – and one that’s poignant right now.
Stark would always be a man viewed warmly by boyhood Celtic supporter Rodgers. It could be no other way, with the 60-year-old having given commendable service to the club as player and then coaching consort of Tommy Burns – who made a lasting impression on the Irishman while at the helm of Reading, as this coincided with the Berkshire club being where he started his coaching career.
Yet, Rodgers has surely provided a first for Stark in drawing parallels between him and former England and Watford manager Graham Taylor, who died last week.
“It must be brilliant for Darren to have someone of the ilk of Billy,” said Rodgers of the former Aberdeen man, in charge at Cliftonhill since the summer of 2014. “He was a great ally of Tommy Burns, he played here and knows what it’s like to be a Celtic player, and he worked with the Scotland Under-21s. You get a lot of young managers getting a chance to work up here so for someone like Darren to have that great experience beside him will be invaluable.
“I remember when I first started at Watford [in 2009] I had Frank Lampard Snr with me and he was brilliant. Just that bit of experience and it can be invaluable. I have a story of the late Graham Taylor, who I took into Watford [again] when I went there. Early on we had lost a game and I got a phone call as I drove away in my car.
“Graham said: ‘Listen son, don’t worry, this is what happens. My only advice to you is, and have this for the rest of your career, don’t pick your next team while driving in the car’. What was I doing? I was picking my next team. And I’ve never done it since. Having that experience beside you, especially early on in your career, is invaluable. Billy has been a fantastic player and a great assistant manager for people and I’m sure he is doing a great job with Darren.”
Management is a vocation that Rodgers will enthusiastically discuss with Young and Stark when they repair for a post-match drink after hostilities today. “I love talking football, especially with managers who are beginning, because it’s a different sport,” he said. “It’s welcome to the land of no sleep when you become a manager. It all changes, the spotlight is on you. The curtains go back and it’s all on you.”
Rodgers’ team are only two games short of the Lisbon Lions’ 50-year Scottish record of 26 domestic games unbeaten from the start of the season. Albion become, then, the latest Scottish team to attempt to inflict defeat on a Rodgers side that has lost only to Barcelona, Borussia Monchengladbach, Hapoel Beer-sheva and, er, Gibraltar part-timers Lincoln Red Imps.
That reverse on the Imps’ synthetic surface came in Rodgers’ first game in charge, a Champions League qualifier back in July. Then, Celtic were considered to be in for a cakewalk following an off-period. If that might suggest similarities with their first post-winter shutdown encounter that will come on a plastic pitch in Airdrie against monumental underdogs, it shouldn’t, maintained Rodgers.
“It is completely different,” he said. “The plastic pitch thing, it’s the same for both teams – they’re used to playing on grass and so are we. There’s always the unpredictability of it, though. You saw in our game against Hamilton [on Christmas Eve], the referees have to be aware of that – we lost a man in that game when we shouldn’t have, and obviously that presents a challenge.
“But we respect every team we play, we do all the work, all the preparation, there’ll be no let-up from us. This is our next competition and we want to win it. In order to do that you have to win the games.
“They’re in the same league as Alloa [who ran Celtic close before a 2-0 League Cup defeat in Glasgow in September]. I know they sit seventh, but they’ll see this as a chance for an upset. Our focus is very much on ourselves and respecting them as an opponent.”