It is names more than games that Brendan Rodgers remembers from past jousts between Celtic and Rangers. In County Antrim of the 1980s, accomplished midfielders made an impression on a youngster who would leave his native land to pursue a football career at the decade’s end.
With the Troubles and associated parental concerns, it was listening to the radio, or catching TV highlights, that let Rodgers know who was making an impression on an occasion he will seek to make a mark on this lunchtime.
“It was the likes of Billy Stark and Tommy [Burns]” that caught the eye of a man who became a youth coach at Reading after injury-enforced retirement when the club was managed by Burns. “I loved Paul McStay and I admired Davie Cooper because I was a left-footer. I always watched the lefties and thought Davie Cooper, pictured right, was a brilliant player. Again, a class footballer who sadly passed away very young.”
Rodgers is canny in measuring message for audience. Today’s derby meant there were journalists at his pre-match press conference he knew from a three-year tenure at Liverpool that ended 11 months ago. In 2013, Rodgers came within a couple of games of delivering a title to a club now without one for 26 years, before completing three barren seasons in 2015.
The fluency and firepower he has fused in a previously flagging Celtic side could land him three trophies in a year. Yet, after he burnished his coaching credentials at Watford, Swansea and, early on, Liverpool – if not Reading – there is a perception Rodgers has swum downstream to a backwater.
“There’s not an industry like it,” he said. “I think it’s one of those where you’re up there, then down, then up again. As you go along you become a better manager. Liverpool was an incredible experience. I went in there at 39, into one of the great clubs in the world, and tried to lift it to a level and win the league. We nearly did it. Sometimes it doesn’t end how you’d want. When you come out of Liverpool, it’s not just about any club then, it’s about the right club. And so many times the staff I’ve brought here have said ‘What a great move, Brendan’.
“I could have stayed in the Premier League, and worked there with everything that goes with it. But I couldn’t be happier anywhere in the world at the minute. The city has been great – looked after us very well – and obviously the club.”
Celtic might be in a minor environment, but there is nothing minor about their reach, which Rodgers has restored to extending to Champions League group stage football that will pit them against Barcelona on Tuesday, before Manchester City and Borussia Moenchengladbach are faced.
“The English Premier League is the most competitive in the world,” he said. “If you look throughout Europe – maybe Italy, Spain – you’ve only got two or three teams that will win. If I worked at Barcelona I’d have won a trophy by now, no question. But in England, where the British managers are being judged and measured, it’s very, very tough. This year in the Premier League there are some really, really good managers, who have good CVs abroad, who won’t win a trophy. If that’s a British manager, they’d be deemed not so good. It’ll be interesting to see.
“I came to Scotland because of Celtic; it wouldn’t have mattered what anyone said. Whatever league you’re in, it’s competitive. Yes, the Scottish league isn’t the Premier League, but the Italian league isn’t the Premier League and the Spanish league is not the Premier League.
“I came here to Celtic, to one of the biggest clubs in the world. You’ll see that on Saturday, you see it in European games, we’ve seen it over history. I’m delighted to be here.”
The delight appears mutual with Rodgers treated like a prophet by the Celtic supporters from the evening that 13,000 turned up for his unveiling – “a beautiful day that will live with me for the rest of my life”.
That so many were willing to invest in him unconditionally did induce some jitters when it struck home how the club’s faithful expected of him.
“At Melwood with Liverpool you used to walk in every morning and the European Cup was sat there. You walked past it and thought, ‘s*** I’d better be good today.’ And there were another four of them in the museum,” he added.
“And then you come in here and walk around Celtic Park and see the European Cup in their trophy cabinet as well, and so you say, ‘right, I’d better be good here.’
“But, of course, they have invested so much into me here, the supporters. I think they probably see me as one of their own. And all I am here to do is serve them. This is a club for the people, for the supporters. People travel from all round the world. They go on mini-buses, fly on planes from all round the world.
“My job is to inspire them. And in my time I am hoping I can do that. My legacy here I hope will be the feeling I can give people.
“People talk about a legacy on the outside. The legacy I hope I can leave here is a feeling inside.”