While the rest of Scottish football might regard a varied diet of trophy winners as evidence of healthy competition, Brendan Rodgers’ hunger for an unchanged menu shows no sign of abating.
The Celtic manager’s astonishing record in domestic competition now includes 22 consecutive cup tie victories within the sequence of seven successive trophy triumphs which continued with Sunday’s 1-0 win over Aberdeen in the Betfred Cup final.
It’s also the first time in 30 years that a club have lifted the League Cup three seasons in a row (Rangers under Graeme Souness were the last to do so) as Celtic savour the most sustained bout of silverware collection in their history.
“Somebody said to me the other day that before we came to Celtic, six different teams had won the League Cup in the previous six seasons up here,” said Rodgers as he reflected on his latest success. It was an observation delivered in an almost disapproving tone, as if the 45-year-old Northern Irishman simply cannot comprehend the concept of resting on laurels.
Rodgers has always viewed complacency as big a threat to Celtic’s dominance as any of the rivals they face on the pitch. It’s why he believes his motivational skills are as important as any coaching ability and tactical nous in ensuring the Celtic players never slip from the high standards set since the summer of 2016.
“You have to think of that emotional hook for players all the time,” added Rodgers. “It’s about trying to find what drives each individual on. You have to set a standard in training first of all, that is important.
“From the first day I came in, the environment there dictates what you bring onto the field. You can’t get lazy. It is about the mentality. It is about creating an environment where they know they can’t have a lazy day. We will shape them, try to make them better, but they need to be ready to win.
“They are in a great moment now. It is not easy, you have to work at it. But we are in an exciting period at the club and however long we are all here, we want to look back on it and say it is a really successful time.
“So we don’t stop. To do that, we have to work. Thankfully, our focus every day, the work we put into preparing the team, helps the players see we are not having a lazy day as staff. That allows them to focus on performing well. They accept that. Now they have rhythm with winning and know what it takes to win. They went to Hampden on Sunday with a good feeling. They have the heart for it, but they also have the talent for it.”
While the core of Celtic’s side has remained fairly constant throughout the current run of trophy triumphs, the steady introduction of fresher faces helps stave of any threat of stagnation at the Scottish champions. Four players – Scott Bain, Filip Benkovic, Odsonne Edouard and goalscorer Ryan Christie – all experienced their first cup final win with Celtic on Sunday.
“I think having youth helps us,” added Rodgers. “I think we are one of the three youngest teams in the Premiership. So, when you have that hunger and will and desire in there and you can shape that, it is exciting. You mix some experienced ones around about it and they are revitalised. They all want to win. But, of course, we want to win in the best way that we can. It is great to see the likes of Ryan developing, while Benkovic is just 21 and he has a great feeling as well about his time with Celtic.”
On-loan Leicester City player Benkovic has formed a solid central defensive partnership with Dedryck Boyata who bravely played on at Hampden on Sunday after being cut and bloodied in the sickening head clash which saw Aberdeen winger Gary Mackay-Steven taken to hospital.
Boyata set up the winning goal for Christie before eventually being forced off by a hamstring injury. Rodgers is full of praise for the Belgian international who sat out several games earlier in the season after a proposed move to Fulham was blocked by Celtic. “I was very proud of Dedryck on Sunday,” said Rodgers. “It was a tough summer for him in every way. But it is really satisfying to see how he has got over that and how he has performed. Since he had that little episode, he has been absolutely brilliant for us.
“That partnership with Benkovic has been very good. He gives everything to the cause. He is super professional. He has played a lot of games now for the No 1-ranked team in world football, Belgium. That really shows where has come from to where he is at. It is a big credit to him.
“He is in the last year of his contract with us but I am quite relaxed on it. He probably has to look at every option possible. He has created a market for himself now because of how he has performed which is great for him. Careers are short.
“There has been no lack of commitment from him since the summer as you have seen. But as a professional player he has every right to wait and see what happens. I can assure everyone that doesn’t take away his commitment to what we’re doing. The next contract will probably be the last big one of his career and he just has to make sure it’s the right one.”