As Brendan Rodgers returns to Windsor Park for the first time in almost 30 years, the occasion is coloured by happy memories, justifiable pride and more than just a little regret.
Those mixed emotions ahead of Celtic’s opening Champions League qualifier against Linfield this evening will be set firmly aside come kick-off when Rodgers focuses solely on the task in hand.
But as he allowed himself to reflect briefly upon the personal significance of this particular homecoming, the Celtic manager could not hide his disappointment that his club’s supporters will not be there to witness it.
The fixture was moved from its originally scheduled 12 July date to avoid clashing with the annual Orange Order parades but, in a move which has seen both the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Celtic appear to dispute who was the driving force behind it, no ticket allocation has been taken up by the Scottish champions.
For Rodgers, whose last visit to Windsor Park was as a member of the Northern Ireland under-15 side which drew 0-0 against Brazil there in 1988, it is a circumstance which could and should have been avoided.
“I’m disappointed for our supporters in Northern Ireland, who travel over religiously every week and travel all over the world watching Celtic,” he said. “There is now a game on their doorstep and they can’t make it.
“I’m also disappointed for us as a nation. This is a different Northern Ireland. I know it’s the marching season and all that sort of stuff, but this is a new Northern Ireland and should have been a place where the Celtic supporters could come in.
“It would be a passionate game but that’s what you want. Linfield supporters and Celtic supporters are both passionate. That creates a great game because football is about two sets of supporters. I’m saddened for Belfast, us and Northern Ireland that our supporters can’t be there. That obviously extends to my family, friends and whoever else.
“I grew up here over many years when there were issues but Northern Ireland, and Belfast especially, is a different place. There will always be tension around a game like this, but that’s the same in Germany, Italy or England.
“There will always be a heightened level of security around fixtures. That’s why they have category A and B games. Play Liverpool v Man United as often as you want. There will always be a risk around those games. But this is a game that we should have been able to cope with. It would have made it an even better spectacle.
“From what I hear, the tickets went on general sale. That’s an organisational issue. Is it a concern that Celtic fans will buy tickets? No, because they will behave themselves. That’s not a concern but of course we would all have liked to not have to think about it.
“Northern Ireland have hosted big games over here and there should be a safe environment for fans to go and support their team. But I’m sure everything will be fine, the game will go off okay and we will talk football. Then we can go back to Celtic Park next week and it will be a good game for everyone in front of 60,000.
“Of course, it will be a proud moment for me to go back to Windsor Park with Celtic. I have a watched a lot of the national team under Michael O’Neill [pictured] in the last few years and he’s made it a real fortress. It will be nice to go back and it will feel like I’ve never been away from it. I’m looking forward to taking Celtic there and for a competitive game to narrow our focus. It just so happens it’s in Belfast.
“I was very nervous that night back in ‘88, more nervous than I will be for this game. It was amazing to play for Northern Ireland against Brazil and having their shirt afterwards was amazing. My dad loved Brazil. That was his team, he loved the Brazilians. To be able to get the shirt and give it to him was great.”
One year and three days ago, Brendan Rodgers hit the ground stumbling as Celtic manager with the 1-0 defeat to Lincoln Red Imps in Gibraltar in their Champions League opener. It was as misleading as any result could possibly be as he went on to transform his squad, leading an imperious march to become treble-winning ‘Invincibles’.
Of the 14 players involved in what became an increasingly inconsequential result in the greater scheme of things for Rodgers, only Efe Ambrose and Saidy Janko have since been moved out of the club on a permanent basis. Ryan Christie is out on loan to Aberdeen, while Nadir Ciftci remains on the books but surplus to requirements.
The other 10 contributors to that embarrassment in Gibraltar, however, all played significant roles in guiding Celtic into the group stage of the Champions League and on to an unprecedented, undefeated domestic campaign.
“The game in Gibraltar was interesting for me,” he recalls. “It was my first chance to see the team in a competitive fixture. The conditions were tough and difficult – but there was also a vulnerability there in the team. You sensed that.
“It was my job as a coach to make sure that game was never going to be a symbol of our future failure. It was never going to be an opportunity for me to kill the players. It was an opportunity for me to look at it and go ‘OK – there’s an issue here’. The club hadn’t qualified for the Champions League for a couple of seasons. So it was a question of how I could help the players deal with this pressure, the mental side of the game.
“I knew that tactically and technically, we would get better as we went on. Now, 12 months on, I think we would all agree it is a different team with a different mentality in a different cycle of work.
“But still, things can happen in football that we always have to guard against. So that is something that the team has built up, you saw it in the big pressure games last season, in the Champions League we got better, domestic cups, the pressure games, we were able to find answers. It is still very early on in the season and we won’t be at the top of our game against Linfield but we always hope we have enough quality to get through.”