More than 110,000 spectators will watch Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic in the next five days. Between tonight’s Champions League encounter at home to Borussia Monchengladbach and Sunday’s Betfred League Cup semi-final against Rangers at Hampden his players will experience atmospheres unrivalled in British football.
The sense of history that envelopes Celtic, and the rapt nationwide audience the club can command at peak time, leaves John Hartson dismissive of those who would dare say Rodgers has elected to slum it by turning his back on the English Premier League for the backwater of Scotland.
Hartson, pictured right, recalls how, from his early weeks, he caught the Celtic bug; his determination to be recalled in the club’s annals served when in 2005 he became the 20th, and most recent, player to reach the 100-goal threshold. The Welshman believes that former Liverpool boss Rodgers, steeped in Celtic’s lore from an early age, will have arrived in Glasgow as driven to leave an imprint as he quickly became.
The chance to add Gladbach to those scalped at Celtic Park – “Man United, Barcelona twice, AC Milan, Juventus… the list is never ending,” says the media pundit – and build on the epic 3-3 draw against Manchester City last month will be Rodgers’ immediate concern. But Hartson believes the Irishman’s sights stretch beyond earning third place from Group C, a section many considered a modestly-assembled Rodgers’ side would not be able to compete in – and didn’t in the 7-0 defeat at the Nou Camp in game one.
There may be shades of the Martin O’Neill era in which Hartson played, as Rodgers has “brought the fire back to Celtic”, but he judges him on his own merits.
“I’m not surprised Brendan chose Celtic,” Hartson said. “It’s a boyhood dream. The lure of Celtic is hard to resist. I do a lot of media work in Dublin and, when you talk to former Republic of Ireland players –the likes of Matt Holland, Robbie Keane, Roy Keane, Gary Breen and Kevin Kilbane – they are Celtic daft.
“It is their dream to play for Celtic. Not Liverpool or Manchester United. Roy Keane showed that. He lived out a dream just to pull that Celtic shirt on and he’d had 10 years at Old Trafford. It’s the same for Brendan Rodgers. He told me he’d stood in the Jungle with his brothers. He knows all the songs. He’s a Celtic man, so he had an affinity with the club like Martin O’Neill and Neil Lennon.
“Not many managers win the treble, and Brendan will be thinking that, if he can do that, it creates that little bit of history. Brendan thinks about things like that. It’s incredible to think that over the years [since the League Cup started in 1947] it’s only been done three times. Brendan will want to stamp his name in the record books.
“It’s very similar to myself. I didn’t know much about Celtic before I arrived. I’d played here once in a pre-season friendly with Arsenal. After my first goal, though, I wanted 100, because I wanted my name in that group and to create my own bit of history. I’m sure Brendan is the same, so he can look back in four or five years and say that he achieved things.”
Hartson thinks Rodgers “has done a fabulous job” because he has transformed Celtic as a footballing force despite a mere £3m net outlay in the summer. “The last two of three seasons the club have failed to get into the Champions League group stages from good positions, but Brendan has done it. He hasn’t spent an awful lot of money. Scott Sinclair hadn’t kicked a ball for four years but he’s a revelation at the minute and is playing like a player on the top of his game.
“Scott Sinclair scored 27 goals in the season Swansea won promotion [under Rodgers], with a hat-trick in the play-off final.
“He knew Sinclair from his days working with the Chelsea youth academy. Moussa Dembele was only £500,000. Brendan brought him in to learn because he had Leigh Griffiths, who scored 40 goals last season, but it’s impossible to leave Dembele out with the impact he’s made.
“Dembele has scored all sorts of goals – what a signing. Look at the money being spent around the world. Chelsea paid £32 million for Michy Batshuayi but is he any better than Dembele?
“I know Moussa is young and has a lot to learn and you might say it’s the Scottish league, but he’s scored in the Champions League against Manchester City.”
l John Hartson was speaking at the launch of the Hartson Foundation’s Sportsman’s Dinner at the Glasgow Crowne Plaza Hotel. Special guest is Neil Lennon. For more info go to www.johnhartsonfoundation.co.uk