For the first time in 18 seasons, Scottish football’s first piece of major silverware will be claimed before Christmas. For whoever gets their hands on the famous three-handled trophy at Hampden tomorrow, the outcome of a highly-anticipated League Cup final will carry considerable resonance throughout the rest of the campaign and beyond.
Brendan Rodgers may seek to play down the personal significance of victory on a day when Celtic are bidding to win the 100th major honour of their storied existence, but there can be no doubt this is a telling moment in his own managerial career.
His Aberdeen counterpart Derek McInnes has made no secret of his ambition to oversee what he describes as the creation of an era of success at the Pittodrie club in which their first trophy during his tenure, the League Cup win of three seasons ago, is added to on a consistent basis.
Having established Aberdeen as Celtic’s closest challengers during Rangers’ troubles of the past few years, it feels appropriate that it is McInnes who stands between Rodgers and what the bookmakers firmly expect will be the first major honour to be appended to the Northern Irishman’s CV.
It is the first time in six seasons that the leading two sides from the top flight of Scottish football have gone head-to-head in the League Cup final, since the last time the Old Firm contested it back in 2010-11, and there is a sense there is a greater prize at stake for both managers than just the trophy itself.
Rodgers could scarcely have enjoyed a more impressive start to life at Celtic this season, completing his primary objective of taking the club back into the group stage of the Champions League while at the same time exerting an early domestic dominance which sees them ten points clear of the Dons at the top of the Premiership after just 12 games.
A 2-2 draw at Inverness in September is the only slight blemish on an unbeaten record against Scottish opponents so far for Rodgers, including two league victories already over Aberdeen. He believes another win tomorrow would be fitting recognition of Celtic’s form so far but is also wary of the inevitability their run must come to an end one day.
“It would be nice for the players to get that trophy and it would be a good reward to the start they have had this season,” said Rodgers. “They’ve been the best team so far. But you have to earn it.
“We’ve had to earn every victory we’ve had along the way. Everything points to a good, tough game. The two games we’ve had against Aberdeen have been tough but if we play the way we have been since the start of the season, then we will have a good chance.
“We will lose games, there is no question about it. It will happen at some point. But it’s not in our thinking. We worry about playing good football, attacking football, being really aggressive in our defending.
“What has been nice in this early part of the season is that we have seen improvement in the structure and thinking of the team. They are not just running, or having to run. They are thinking about the things they are doing. They are playing the game to a really good level.
“But it’s still very early, so there is still a whole load of progress to be made with them. Hopefully we can make that. But, of course, whenever you go on a run like we’ve been on, it is natural people want to see you beaten. That’s the nature of the country, Britain and the world, isn’t it?
“But you fight for your life. If you are going to lose a game, which we will do at some point, there is a way to lose. Like we showed against Barcelona on Wednesday night. As long as you stick to your beliefs and your identity, do the very best you can, then you can’t have any argument.”
It is the first major cup final of Rodgers’ career, although he did lead Swansea City to the lucrative prize of Premier League football when they won the 2011 Play-Off final at Wembley. He came agonisingly close to winning the title itself as Liverpool manager in 2014, but is adamant the absence of silverware has not left him feeling unfulfilled.
“It really isn’t about me winning my first trophy,” he added. “When I first set out in coaching it was about improving teams individually and collectively. When I look beyond my career, what will define me as a coach, personally, will be improving players.
“When I’m hobbling about with a walking stick, I’d hope to look back and players will know I’ve done my best for them.
“My ambition is always for the club to win trophies as a result of me being here. I’m not taking anything away from it, but what it means to me personally is zero. Managers get judged on what they have won, but it’s no drama to me. People can write and speak about it, but for me it means nothing.
“If I was to get the job at Barcelona and stay there for three years, we’d win things but does that make me a good or bad coach? It says I’ve got great players. There are loads of coaches that never get the opportunity.
“For me, it is about making players better, then as a consequence the team gets better and the supporters enjoy success.
“But I know there’s a responsibility to win trophies at this club, where there has been that history of winning them. The club is very well run off the field and we are progressing at a nice pace on the field. We want to keep pushing and in order to do that, we need to make our supporters happy by winning trophies.
“Can we win them in the best possible way, with a way of playing that makes the supporters happy and gives them joy? That’s why I am here.”