Every flower in Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic garden seems to have been in full bloom for months. There is no escaping the fact, though, that this afternoon’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Rangers has the capacity to dump a barrowload of manure on his horticultural paradise.
Since Celtic were left as Scotland’s one mighty oak of a football club in the wake of Rangers going into liquidation five years ago, the club’s managers appear to have become judged not by what they have won, but what they have not. First Neil Lennon, then Ronny Deila were expected to claim trebles, as if being clearly the best team in the country had ever previously guaranteed any club all domestic honours.
In neither of them being able to join Jock Stein and Martin O’Neill as the men to have presided over Celtic clean sweeps, their cup failures have threatened to leave a greater imprint than their inevitable title successes. Lennon was the man who couldn’t lift the League Cup in four years; Deila done for – in part – by his failure to snaffle the Scottish Cup after two stinging semi-finals.
The trophy haul of the Norwegian in his first season was a Championship and a League Cup. It might seem preposterous to suggest as much but for all that Rodgers has revitalised Celtic, in bald terms of silverware, he needs to seal the deal in the Scottish Cup for his first season to be any more productive in domestic honour-gathering than Deila. The Irishman, naturally enough, refuses to see the Hampden hoopla this afternoon as pivotal as to how his first year in Scotland is perceived.
“The perception for me is pretty clear, whatever the result is. We have had a brilliant season, that’s my feeling on it,” he said. “Lots of room for improvement but if I look at the landmarks over the course of the season in terms of coming into the club, achieving a Champions League qualification Kenny [Dalglish] said was like a trophy in itself, which isn’t too far off the mark. To qualify, especially coming in at that time, was an incredible achievement.
“To go on and beat a very good Aberdeen team in the League Cup [final] convincingly, to go and win the league and have the distance and the points margin we have, to be unbeaten and break a Lisbon Lions record [with a 40-game unbeaten domestic season so far] is phenomenal.
“Sometimes things might go against you that you can’t control, but what I can control is my thoughts and ideas of the season so far.
“We have a chance to make it an absolutely historic one but before a ball is kicked at the weekend, the players have been brilliant and it has been a nice step forward for us in our first season together.”
Yet, the fact the treble is expected shows precisely the standards that are set for Rodgers and his team. “Absolutely and that’s the measure, and then when you do win the Scottish Cup and the league, if you haven’t qualified for the Champions League you are not very good either,” the Celtic manager said. “There’s always something. For me, we have made, I believe, since I came in on the first day, the 19th of June, tangible progress in terms of the profile of the club, the level of our game, trophies and, importantly for me, performance.
“For the supporters, I came in on the first day and said about filling the stadium and for the last home game we had 60,000 against Kilmarnock, so it’s a decent measure that it has been okay up until now. But, like I say, we can never settle for it, we have to keep pushing. There will always be the next landmark for a club like Celtic. Can we win the European Cup? But that’s good because you should always look forward and not behind.”
It is impossible not to look back and think about Celtic pre-Rodgers in the scenario that faces the club today. In last year’s semi-final, they were utterly ragged, and given the runaround at times by a Rangers side that looked fitter and demonstrated greater finesse. It was the catalyst for Rodgers’ arrival, and he remembers precisely where he was during the penalty shoot-out defeat that led to Celtic making him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I was in Belfast at the christening of my young nephew Malachy. I was surrounded by lots of players in the chapel on their phones. If my mum had still been with us and known about that she’d have killed them. So that’s where I was. I was always up to speed with what the score was. Then I watched the game at a later time. I don’t think there was an argument about who the best team was but Celtic could still have won it despite not playing so well. But Rangers were the best team and deserved to go through.”
Rodgers had been out of the game for six months following his sacking by Liverpool when the vacancy at Celtic came up. Even if it was his boyhood club, he is honest enough to admit It didn’t immediately prick his interest.
“I never thought at all. I was enjoying a break, a rest, trying to map out what the next move might be,” he said.
The thought of a fifth game against Rangers this season, with the sixth to follow next weekend, has Rodgers joking about “how many more we can fit in”. However, there is “no bigger derby in the world”, he maintains, and after four wins, he can afford to sound bullish about what lies ahead at a Hampden that has been where, at the semi-final stage, Celtic’s Scottish Cup hopes have ended in four of the previous six seasons.
“When I came in there was a feeling that Hampden wasn’t a good place for Celtic. I said ‘OK, you better make it a good place because we want to win trophies in finals and this is where it’s going to be’. Twice we’ve been there and been outstanding in performance and result. We played very well in both the semi-final and the final of the League Cup. We don’t need to worry about that. It’s not like it’s the first time back after a year and all the memories are provoked again.
“It’s gone. A different manager, a different team, a different mentality going into the game. Scottish players have been there, even just a few weeks back playing very well and having a victory. We go into it ready, like we have been from very first game of the season.
“This will be another fantastic occasion. Sunday, 12 o’clock, both supporters passionate, fighting, wanting the result. We want to win the Scottish Cup – a target right from pre-season. So, we’ve got to win.”