With Celtic currently enjoying the kind of dominant start to a season not witnessed since Martin O’Neill’s dramatically successful first season in charge of the club 16 years ago, comparisons between the Northern Irishman and his compatriot, Brendan Rodgers, are as inevitable as they are intriguing.
Perhaps no-one is in a better position to assess their relative merits than John Kennedy. He was a playing member of O’Neill’s squad which was undefeated in the first 20 domestic games of that 2000-01 campaign and went on to win the treble of league title, Scottish Cup and League Cup.
Kennedy is now first-team coach under Rodgers who tonight seeks to extend his unbeaten domestic run as Celtic manager to 19 games when Hamilton Accies are the visitors to Parkhead on Premiership business.
While Kennedy points out that there are sharp contrasts in the way O’Neill, pictured right, and Rodgers conduct their business, there is one hugely significant characteristic they share.
“Where they are similar is that they both have an aura, a presence,” said the former Scotland defender.
“There is a massive respect there from everyone towards them. Brendan has a great manner around the club and Martin was the same.
“They both have a great way of speaking to people, with respect for everyone they come across. They get that respect back because they’re humble even though they’re the best at their game.
“They still have real humility to recognise everyone is a living being. The manager now is like that. No matter who you are, he’ll give you respect and the time of day to speak to you. He certainly wouldn’t pass you by and Martin is the same.
“They’re different in a lot of other ways. Brendan is much more of a hands-on coach. He likes to be out there on the pitch. He gives the other coaches their place but he likes to be involved. He takes sessions and is very, very thorough on the tactical side of the game.
“Martin knew his team – he had some very good players at the time – but man-management was his biggest strength. He got a lot out of big players. Brendan has that as well, he’s a very good man-manager, but the way he coaches is second to none.”
Kennedy’s future at Celtic was uncertain last summer, following the departure of Ronny Deila as manager, but the 33-year-old was immediately retained by Rodgers as a key part of his backroom staff and is relishing the experience.
“It’s hard not to improve as a coach when you’re working with a manager of his calibre,” added Kennedy. “Brendan has brought a lot of different ideas to the club but the way he implements them, and the clarity he provides for players, is vital.
“That’s something we’ve always believed in – it’s fine having your ideas as a coach or manager but the most important thing is that the players understand it. If they don’t, then there will be issues along the way. Brendan has a very clear idea of how he works and everyone has bought into that. The players have been sitting with open ears on the training pitch and have put 100 per cent into everything we’ve tried to do. But, for me, it’s a great opportunity to learn from a top manager. My title hasn’t changed and it’s been great working with the players. Going into the Champions League this season has also been great from my perspective because I didn’t have that opportunity before. It’s been good dealing with that added pressure.”
One of Kennedy’s primary functions remains specialist work with the defenders and to that end he is gratified by the burgeoning central defensive partnership of Erik Sviatchenko and Jozo Simunovic at the heart of a back four which has impressed in recent weeks.
“Erik and Jozo have different attributes but those two, alongside Mikel Lustig, Kieran Tierney or Emilio Izaguirre in the full-back positions, have been great,” said Kennedy. “It’s a really solid shape we have now and Scott Brown has also been a massive part of that, giving extra protection in front of the back four.
“We’ve had a number of clean sheets but the manager stresses all the time that everything is done as a team. The way we defend is from the front. The distances between our striker and defence doesn’t change. The minute it opens up, we’re going to have problems. That’s why the team is compact, together all the time, whether that’s at the top end of the field or when we’re defending deeper. Everybody has to be be part of the game. The defenders get a lot of the credit but the workrate from everyone else makes it a collective.”