Brendan Rodgers’ first season in Scottish football was always going to consist of a series of new experiences.
A trip to Inverness’ Caledonian Stadium was one, sampling Dundee’s Dens Park another. But it’s a surprise to hear tomorrow’s Betfred League Cup semi-final against Rangers will mark his first visit to Hampden Park.
The stadium has a special place in Celtic’s history. Their 7-1 win there over Rangers in the 1957 Scottish League Cup final was where the phrase Hampden in the sun originated. They even called the ground “home” for an entire season in the mid 1990s when Celtic Park was being renovated.
If Rodgers’ side can get past Rangers tomorrow, then beat either Aberdeen or Greenock Morton in the final, the famous old ground will be the scene of Celtic’s 100th major honour.
Rodgers has been in football a long time and grew up a Celtic supporter. So someone so steeped in the game is pleased to amend a glaring gap on his CV. But, he cautioned yesterday, being Celtic manager is about more than personal satisfaction.
“I am not up here to tick boxes,” he said. “I am not up to tick a box and then go again. I am just looking forward to an arena that I grew up listening and hearing about.”
When someone says “Hampden” to him, he immediately thinks of one game in particular – 1985’s Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Dundee United. Rodgers was a young boy in Northern Ireland, where he and his family lived in the village of Carnlough. The game was supplied with a special significance since it was the 100th Scottish Cup final and Celtic flirted with defeat after Stuart Beedie’s opener for United.
“Celtic 1-0 down and thinking it was all over and then Davie Provan equalising, Frank McGarvey scoring the winner and then going berserk afterwards,” said Rodgers of what he could remember more than 30 years later.
Rodgers watched the game in a bar. A bar? “I was allowed in!” he confirmed. “I was 12 – running in and out to watch.
“Those days, the memories now are of the sun, great games, all those finals. But if someone mentions Hampden, that’s my (main) memory.
“And no, I’m not telling you the name of the pub.”
Whichever bar it was, Rodgers watched as Celtic staged a late comeback to win a memorable cup final. There were more than 60,000 there that day on the Hampden slopes. The stadium is a lot different now. But it can still produce a roar to make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.
Rodgers hopes the Celtic fans will be the ones cheering at the final whistle tomorrow, or, as might be the case, when the last penalty kick has been taken. One of the benefits of never having been to the stadium is that he is unmoved by the assertion from some that Celtic are now spooked by the ground.
While Hampden features so prominently in the club’s history, there has been little to celebrate there in recent times. Over the last six seasons, Celtic have lost five semi-finals and one League Cup final – against Kilmarnock – at the national stadium. They have lost three consecutive semi-finals there against Rangers, Ross County and Inverness.
So Hampden has lost some of its appeal to Celtic fans, who once associated the stadium with winning cups in the sunshine. Not so much now, particularly after last season’s chastening defeat on penalties by a then lower-tier Rangers.
“I’ve heard that (about the hoodoo) but it was OK for a number of years,” reasoned Rodgers.
“When I was at Liverpool they said the same thing about White Hart Lane, that we had never done really well there. The first game we went there we lost 2-0 but played really well and the next year we went and won 5-0. The year after we won 3-0.
“So it is what it is. Of course, it’s not home, it’s a neutral ground but when I’ve seen it on the TV the pitch always looks really good. It’s a good size, which suits us really well in terms of the speed in the team and how we want to play.”
Celtic are naturally keener to focus on what happened the last time they played Rangers. The 5-1 victory at Celtic Park last month means they are overwhelming favourites tomorrow.
But, as Rodgers says, he is simply happy “if we win 1-0”. Despite imminent Champions League appointments, with three more games against Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach to come, there’s no question of him taking the competition lightly, as some managers are accused of doing with its equivalent in England.
“You are obviously juggling between competitions and looking to prioritise but I think when you are a big club you are looking to prioritise every competition and for us this is the first chance to get a trophy,” he said.
“You have an obligation as a big club and supporters will certainly expect you to do well. That is what we aim to do.”