Brendan Rodgers expressed “immense pride” at leading Celtic back into the group stage of the Champions League but admitted the manner of their progress was as draining an experience as any in his coaching career.
The Scottish champions came perilously close to seeing their 5-2 first-leg lead in the play-off round tie against Hapoel Beer-Sheva wiped out on a dramatically tense evening in southern Israel.
The home side stormed into a 2-0 lead inside the opening 48 minutes which also saw them have a penalty saved by Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon.
But Rodgers’ players held their nerve to take Celtic into the Champions League proper for the first time in three years and justify the significant summer outlay major shareholder Dermot Desmond and chief executive Peter Lawwell made to recruit the former Liverpool manager.
“I feel brilliant,” said Rodgers. “It was probably the longest 90 minutes I’ve faced as a coach. With the past experience the players have had, you sometimes never know how it can map out in the game.
“I thought Beer-Sheva were outstanding. They had to force the game, of course, they had nothing to lose. They played really well.
“But I have to congratulate my players because all the work we have done in pre season has been based around that mentality and the quality of our game.
“We know we can’t always play well. A lot of the games, we have played well. But tonight was always going to be about resilience and persistence.
“It was an amazing effort from the players on the back of everything they have been through before. So huge applause to them and I’m delighted they got their reward.
“I’m immensely proud. So proud for the football club, initially for Dermot, Peter and the board. They stuck their neck out in the summer and the club has a really positive feel to it.
“This is a huge step forward for us. I’m absolutely delighted for the players, the mentality and honesty they showed got its rewards.
“I’m delighted for my coaching staff who had to work really hard, with not too many days off, to improve the team in a short space of time.
“It’s an incredible moment for supporters, being back among Europe’s elite where this club belongs.”
Rodgers was forced into a series of tactical changes throughout the match to try to subdue a Hapoel side who scored through Ben Sahar and Ovidiu Hoban.
“It was very difficult for us,” he added. “We had to work very hard to shift momentum and block spaces. We started with a 4-4-3 but didn’t get hold of ball. We went to a diamond in midfield, but they could still exploit the sides because we couldn’t keep the ball.
“Then eventually we went to a back five. We brought Moussa Dembele on with his presence up front, that seemed to settle us and we got a little control then.
“Tonight the players just added an extra per cent to their mentality. Maybe it was something they didn’t feel they could achieve, because of the short period of time they have been working with us.
“We have built into them a belief that if you work hard with intensity, you give yourselves a better chance of winning.
“When you are stuck, you can dig it out. The criticism of Celtic when I came in was that they couldn’t tough it out but we showed over two games and under huge pressure that this team could tough it out.”