Leigh Griffiths goes back to school before Celtic qualifier
In failing at the play-off round stage of the Champions League twice under Ronny Deila, Celtic were often accused of schoolboy defending.
If Brendan Rodgers can buck that trend and guide the Scottish champions back into the group stage at his first attempt, it will come from an unusual management strategy centred on the school gates.
Leigh Griffiths, who will lead the line for Rodgers’ men in the first leg of the play-off against Israeli champions Hapoel Beer-Sheva at Celtic Park tonight, raised a few eyebrows yesterday when he revealed training schedules have been altered this week to accommodate players who have young children starting school.
Rodgers also dispensed with the standard practice of the squad staying together in a hotel the night before a match, instead allowing them to return home last night ahead of the first day back at some schools today.
Griffiths, who walked his son Rhys to class on Monday and will do the same for daughter Kacie today, expressed his gratitude for the kind of leeway not many managers would consider granting.
“It means a lot to me,” said Celtic’s leading scorer. “I missed the birth of the kids due to football commitments, so I was praying we got the home leg first in this tie.
“I spoke to the gaffer straight away and he said if any of the lads had kids, we could start training later this week. Not staying at a hotel also means I can take my little girl to her first day at school and then meet up with the team at lunchtime. The gaffer’s man-management skills are great. If you have any problem, you can go and see him.”
Rodgers insists he had no hesitation in altering his usual preparations for a big midweek fixture and is confident Celtic will reap the benefit of his players being able to play a full part in a significant moment in their personal lives.
“Your kid going to school for the very first day, you never get it back,” said Rodgers. “So I always make the point of finding out which players are new fathers and who has kids going to school on the first day.
“I find out the dates and then I just put training back a wee bit. It gives the players the chance to see their kids on a special day. They are fathers, not just footballers. No matter what the number is on their back they are human beings.
“I’m giving them the chance to go and walk their son or daughter into school. That’s a special moment for a father.
“That’s why we rejig the preparation, but it doesn’t affect us. It’s just about planning forward, really.
“You’re right, maybe [a lot of managers] wouldn’t do it. But family is so important. Psychologically, it can be a massive lift for a player. I always try and put myself in their shoes. Ultimately it’s about getting them on the field in the best possible condition as I can, and that’s in every way – technically, tactically and mentally.
“Mental fitness is important. So if you have got that release, then great. Someone like Leigh Griffiths – a young father – will never, ever get the chance to see his children’s first day at school again. That’s important. Okay, we have a big game but we have lots of time to prepare. I don’t tend to cocoon the players, I treat them like adults.
“I trust them, and work the trust. Hopefully they take that responsibility as being a mature human being, and they’ll be prepared mentally.”
Whatever it takes to land Celtic a £20million Champions League group stage bonanza for the first time in three years, Rodgers is clearly a man who will not founder on a lack of attention to detail.
Hapoel Beer-Sheva, who won the Israeli title for the first time in 40 years last season, are currently ranked 284th by Uefa – all of 238 places lower than Celtic. Rodgers’ analysis of opponents who earned a shock 1-0 aggregate win over Greek champions Olympiacos in the previous qualifying round has persuaded him they will prove every bit as obdurate as the Kazakh side Astana, whom Celtic edged past 3-2 on aggregate.
“It’s a similar game in terms of toughness but with a different shape,” said Rodgers. “Hapoel played Olympiacos with a back five. I would say there is less individual talent within this team when compared to Astana.
“But they are very much a team. They have come through and are the champions of Israel. They are very, very workmanlike, they really make it difficult for you to score goals, they play five along the back and the goalkeeper is six.
“The two defensive midfield players are eight and the two guys on the sides filter back to make it ten or sometimes even 11 behind the ball.
“Astana were not like that, but we still had moments in that tie where they were sat in. It provides us with a different challenge.
“Hapoel are very much a team that are dogged, very robust and happy to defend without the ball. We have to be patient, we want to be aggressive and counter pressing will be important. And, obviously, when you have chances at this level you have to take them.”
Danish defender Erik Sviatchenko and Israeli midfielder Nir Bitton have both returned to first-team training with Celtic after injuries but Rodgers may largely keep faith with the side which overcame Astana. Scott Sinclair, however, is expected to make his European debut for the club.
“Everyone knows the importance of the tie,” added Rodgers. “The players who have been here over the past couple of seasons have felt the pain within that. The message I’ve looked to send to the players is that we don’t really want to go back into that. They will have learned lessons from it, but this is a new team with a new idea and one which is progressing very well.
“Whatever has happened in the past is irrelevant, really. This is a different team with a different mentality and a different manager. That’s how we have been approaching it.
“If we can keep a clean sheet and get a win, then it gives us a great stepping stone going into the second leg.”