Celtic will see action in no fewer than four competitions across the next 11 days. The league opener, which will take the five-in-a-row champions to Tynecastle this afternoon, always creeps up on the club by dint of this being Champions League qualifier time of year – a spell that will bring a play-off home first leg against Hapoel Be’er Sheva a week on Wednesday. A game that comes four days after Celtic forgo a league Saturday to complete their International Champions Cup commitments against Internazionale in Dundalk. The trip to Ireland preceded by a Wednesday League Cup tie at home to Motherwell.
The arrival without fanfare of the Premiership curtain raiser is about the only genteel aspect of a start to the season in which the obsession with reaching the group stages can, Brendan Rodgers seems of a mind to believe, blind to reason.
The Celtic manager didn’t take on the post at a club he followed in childhood to be made aware of the dizzying assault to mind and body this period places upon the person in his position. He was made eye-poppingly aware of that when his Liverpool side played Celtic in a friendly in Dublin three years ago this weekend – a matter of days after the Scottish champions had squeaked past Elfsborg to earn a place in the Champions League play-offs.
“In Scotland, the expectancy is huge for, not just Celtic, but also other teams. I witnessed that when I was sat in a press conference with Neil Lennon. I was manager of Liverpool and he was sat beside me as manager of Celtic. In that pre-season game in Dublin the level of intensity that was at him at that period of the season I found remarkable. I was taken aback. I couldn’t believe it. But I understand the rewards at the end of it are Champions League and all that, but there needs to be perspective as well.
“Is there too much expectancy on them? They go into European football and my experience of being up here is that the handle on what they are having to do in this period isn’t realistic. I have got to say that… in terms of being judged as if they were mid-way through a season. We played Astana who are 22 games into their season. They are a team that perhaps the punters might not have heard of, but it’s a team that has had millions and millions of pounds ploughed into them.
“It is one job but it [the European and domestic scene] is difficult to juggle. It’s unique, really, that in this period of the season you get asked questions about people scoring goals, when is he going to score his first goals, questions like that when it is a period of getting fit.
“The magnitude of the games obviously have a huge impact on your preparation. You are trying to gain fitness, to find a way of working that is never going to be anywhere near complete because you have to find way to win because the games are so important. I have enjoyed it. It has been totally different to what I’ve done before. The key over course of pre-season was to make sure our working mentality was at a level that we could affect the players in relation to mental fitness. I have seen big strides there in terms of calmness that they show in a game when they go behind, and their physical fitness has allowed them to keep going and ensure they are never beaten. There was no greater example that the other night [in the added-time win over Astana to progress to the play-offs].”
Rodgers, who is close to completing the signing of winger Scott Sinclair from Aston Villa, maintains he will field as strong a team as possible in the League Cup – “there certainly won’t be wholesale changes,” he said – with the November final providing a chance to lay down a “marker” when the desire on moving north was “to win everything, as much as we possibly can”.
Rodgers seems at ease with that pressure to win incessantly. “I could have sat and stayed out of work for another couple of years. With my pay-off, it was fine and life was good, and I travelled and golfed. When you come to Celtic, when you come to the big clubs, that pressure is there and some of us, we need it, in a funny way.”
Rodgers hasn’t encountered any off-field hassles, being met with only warmth and appreciation – regardless of the allegiances of those that he has encountered.
“I’ve settled in really well; my family’s up here with us,” said the Irishman. “My relations come up, back and forward. So far I’ve been able to hide out of the way. That changes I’m sure. And people have been brilliant. Everyone. I’ve had Rangers supporters come up to me thanking me for coming to Scotland. Guys showing me their tattoos: ‘I’m a Rangers supporter’. Which is fine, because I respect that, ‘but thank you for coming to here’. Everyone’s been brilliant and I don’t expect anything less because you are a good race of people.”