When Neil Lennon became Celtic manager he stated his mission was to “bring the thunder back”. For Brendan Rodgers, the quest is to bring the numbers back. His week in post has been accompanied by close season ticket office queues at Parkhead not witnessed in more than a decade. That fact suggests the Irishman has made a thundering start in his desire to drive up attendances, an upswing achieved simply through Rodgers being Rodgers.
In the past two years, Celtic Park has been around a quarter empty for the league flag unfurling. Such modest crowds hadn’t been witnessed for such an occasion in practically three decades. When that day arrives in early August, the sell-out signs can be expected. Rodgers, the supporter, the high roller managerially – courtesy of three years at Liverpool and Swansea City success – will pay his way for his Scottish record £2m-plus salary, and pave the way for the crackling atmosphere he craves. At least initially.
“To inspire the supporters to come back and fill Celtic Park,” was how he explained his mission. “When you have 60,000 in the stadium it’s a special place. It’s not just for European nights, it’s week in, week out. It’s a challenge here, we need the supporters if we’re going to succeed and there’s not many better when that crowd’s behind you.”
Rodgers will certainly be helped by the presence of Rangers in the top flight for the first time in four years – especially when they have serious designs on restoring the old order. Ultimately, though, he really helps himself. He is a calibre of manager that a disaffected Celtic support had resigned themselves to their club hierarchy having neither the will nor the wherewithal to land.
His background, both professionally and personally, ensured a whole different feel from Ronny Deila’s parade two years ago was tangible at his meet and greet on Monday night... wherein he inspired 13,000 punters to come to Celtic Park. “That passion is one of the big draws,” he said.
The draw for Celtic supporters is how he differs from Deila, to be frank. There is plenty of common ground in the pair’s drive to develop players and pursue a football vision that involves pressurising high up the pitch without the ball, and dominating in possession. So too their ideal about small-ish squad size, Deila latterly lamenting he allowed it to bloat to over 30. Equally, with the need to bring a coaching confrere with you – which Deila regretted not doing and Rodgers immediately has in recruiting Chris Davies as first-team coach.
Yet, as he admitted himself, there was always something alien about Scottish football culture and the obsessive interest generated in his every word and deed for Deila. The contrast with Rodgers is acute. He may be in a new job, but the familiarity with all aspects allowed him to present himself as a man slipping into a pair of old comfortable, beloved shoes as he eased into his surroundings.
His clearly well-warranted reputation as a football anorak helps. Whatever we expected from Rodgers this week, it wasn’t wistful, respectful reminisces about Gary Bollan from the former Northern Ireland youth internationalist. This came at the end of a treatise on Scottish managers, whom he seems to have universal knowledge of, after he was asked about the warm words his appointment elicited from Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes.
“There’s a number of very good guys up here,” he said. “Derek was very unfortunate at Bristol City. He took over a squad with a load of players. I always found him, when we spoke on football, very good. We met and we would speak. I was delighted to see how well he’s done up here.
“Robbie Neilson came down to see me for a couple of days when I was Liverpool manager. I was really impressed with Robbie and I think he’s done an excellent job with Hearts. The other boys up here, Mark McGhee I know, big Tommy Wright. There’s good guys up here. I was looking through all the managers working in Scotland because I was interested to know.
“I saw Gary Bollan. He’s at Forfar. I played against Scotland for Northern Ireland at Under-16s and Gary was the captain of Scotland. Paul Dickov was in there as well. Big Jim [Will] was the goalkeeper. It was interesting going through the names.”
Rodgers relished reeling off other names the other night. Whether it was that of Paul McStay, his favourite Celtic player of his mid-1980s days of travelling over to games from County Antrim – “He was brilliant for me,” he said – or legends of an earlier vintage. These tripped off his tongue when he was asked about the similarities between the footballing, post-industrial heartlands of Glasgow and Liverpool.
“There are similarities, but this is different. This is family, this is blood, this is...Gallacher, Johnstone, McGrain. I loved Liverpool, I loved my time there. At 39 years of age as a manager to feel that there was brilliant for me. And it’s created a great platform for me coming to here. I might be young as a manager but I’ve had quite a bit of experience and hopefully Celtic can benefit from that.
“I think it was fate really that got me here. There are so many stars aligned for me to be here at this time. That time at Liverpool. When I went in [four years ago] they were eighth and we weren’t predicted to be in the top four within two years but nearly won the title [in 2014]. It just wasn’t to be.
“We had everything going into that game and unfortunately the slip [from Steven Gerrard, to lead to a 2-0 defeat by Chelsea] changes the landscape. But what I did there will be similar to what I can do here in terms of the expectation. Liverpool were never expected to be near the league within two years and with a bit of luck we could have won it.
“The idea is to do the very best that you possibly can.”
Rodgers has already watched every goal Celtic scored and conceded last season. He was pleased to see PFA Scotland and Scottish football writers’ young player and left-back Kieran Tierney, score off his right foot in the final game, because “attacking full-backs in the modern game have got to get goals”. He will spend the three weeks before the squad return to training in preparation for the mid-July Champions League qualifier “meeting agents”, and being “full on” in his work. “I’ve had a holiday, a great holiday,” he said of his “resting” period since his sacking by Liverpool in October.
Rodgers is a canny sort. The feeling persisted that the Deila-John Collins management team never entirely won over the Celtic dressing room. Collins’ unhappy history with Scott Brown from their time at Hibs probably didn’t help. Rodgers knows that Brown is the dressing room leader and intends to ensure the captain is firmly in his corner. It was, he said “one hundred and fifty per cent” the case that Brown will retain the armband as he eulogised the combative performer and predicted a mutually beneficial relationship such as that he previously enjoyed with Gerrard.
“I saw him at Hibs as a young player and I thought he was a great athlete, very mobile and competitive. Obviously he’s come here and is a real warrior,” Rodgers said of Brown. “He’s up for every single game. Last year towards the end of the season he was maybe hit a little bit by injury and what not, but he’s 30 years of age and I think he’s still got his best years ahead of him.
“When I went into Liverpool Steven Gerrard was 32 years of age. There was talk that his best days were maybe gone but Steven went on for the next two years and was brilliant for me – a great leader and nearly went on to pick up the title. His performance level went up again. So I’m really looking forward to working with Scott. I’d obviously come across him in some of the friendly games we had played and I’ve always been impressed with him as a player and I’m sure he can be a really big help for me.”
Rodgers was once derided for stating that he had been his own “biggest mentor”. At Celtic, though, he really is his own biggest asset.