Brendan Rodgers has sounded a note of caution in the wake of Celtic’s historic undefeated domestic campaign, insisting it remains “a huge, huge ask” for the Scottish champions to make a bigger impact on the European stage.
Amid the club’s 50th anniversary celebrations of the Lisbon Lions’ European Cup triumph last week, chairman Ian Bankier declared they retain ambitions to reach the latter stages of European tournaments.
Dermot Desmond, the club’s major shareholder, also stated that Rodgers’ next target was to lead Celtic into the last 16 of the Champions League.
But as he reflected on his remarkable first campaign in charge of the club, which ended with Saturday’s dramatic treble-clinching Scottish Cup victory over Aberdeen at Hampden, Celtic manager Rodgers sought to temper expectations surrounding his squad in the Champions League next season.
They will discover their first opponents in the qualifiers when the draw is made on 19 June and Rodgers’ primary focus is on simply negotiating the three rounds which stand between them and the lucrative group stage.
“You have to be careful and recognise where we are,” said Rodgers. “We’re 10 times behind others budget-wise. You have to be realistic. We want to qualify first and foremost. That will always be a challenge. Then we have to try and see what we can do.
“The gauge for us is to measure calmly once we’ve qualified. We would like to be in Europe for the second part of the season, whatever competition that’s in, and that’s a huge, huge ask for a club like ourselves.”
As Rodgers assesses any summer changes to his squad, he is confident a new contract will be agreed soon for influential midfielder Stuart Armstrong, whose current deal has just one season to run.
“I’m sure it will get tied up,” he said. “We put it off about ten days ago because I didn’t want it to effect the preparation for the cup final. But hopefully that can be done afterwards.”
That said, Rodgers is relaxed about the prospect of any of his players being tempted by offers from the English Premier League or elsewhere after a season in which so many of them have enhanced their reputations.
“Listen, I’m realistic,” he added. “Football is about two things for players – game time and money. It’s amazing. So I’m not going to give all the fruity answers or nice answers and say ‘oh, it’s great, it’s fantastic, brilliant, you’ll love it’.
“No, what we can do is create an environment that is fantastic for them to be in. If they decide to move, it’s okay. We’ll fight to keep them but if they don’t want to stay, we’ll find someone else. No problem. Someone else will come in and play and hopefully do well for us.”
By leading Celtic to the unprecedented feat of remaining unbeaten in multiple major Scottish domestic competitions in a single season, Rodgers has more than justified the faith and investment placed by both Desmond and chief executive Peter Lawwell in recruiting him as Ronny Deila’s successor 12 months ago.
“A big thank you to them,” said Rodgers. “Because without them giving me the opportunity to manage, I wouldn’t be here. But they are clever guys – they knew what they were getting!”
The former Liverpool manager was visibly drained and, at times, understandably emotional as he began to take stock of a season which saw him join Jock Stein and Martin O’Neill as Celtic’s only treble-winning bosses. It is a campaign which has also restored his wider reputation which suffered a blow when he was sacked by Liverpool in October 2015.
“Throughout my career, because of my journey, there have always been critics,” he added. “I’ve always had that, every job I’ve been in. There will be critics for this one as well. But that’s the nature of it. We just have to work well and in victory always have humility. Always keep the players’ feet on the ground.
“We will have a rest now. I’m tired. It’s been a long season, lots of mental and physical effort put in by everyone. We need to rest now and come back refreshed.
“That’s what it’s like as a manager, at clubs like Liverpool and Celtic, where the expectations are huge and you have to win.”