It’s not been how his teams have started, but how they’ve finished that has allowed Brendan Rodgers to appear so compelling and convincing a coach in his early tests as Celtic manager. He has the club’s faithful, and his squad, under his spell specifically because he is showing himself to be such an alchemist in awkward moments.
The Scottish champions have certainly demonstrated tenacity to tug their way out of tight spots in their Champions League qualifying adventure – but that has always been underpinned by tactical change. It was true in both legs against Astana, and profoundly so on Wednesday as Rodgers rejigged his team with three substitutes to turn an unpromising 3-2 first leg play-off outcome into a 5-2 victory. A result that, surely, will pave the way for group-stage representation to be secured when facing Hapoel Beer-Sheva in Tuesday’s Israeli return.
It was put to Rodgers the other day that the consistently progressive nature of his personnel switches could be likened to a cricketer forever willing to play his shots with his team in a pickle. It is said of these sorts that they ‘don’t die wondering’. “Always” that will be the sort of coach he will be, the 43-year-old maintained. It was a theme the former Liverpool manager warmed to as he set out, through his earliest days of a coaching career that began more than two decades ago, he was always going to be a self-made manager.
“You are either a coach that waits, or creates,” Rodgers said. “And I come from the creative side. So I’ll never die wondering, or waiting. I always think, whether it is in life or whether it is in football, if you rely on yourself, then you can be happy. Because at least if you fail, you fail on your terms. So that’s by creating, right. If I wait, I’m reliant on someone else. In life, you only rely on yourself, and the team and the people around you.
“If I wanted to become a manager, I was never going to cry in a pub when I was 60, 65, ‘well [Jose] Mourinho never gave me a chance, or Luiz Felipe Scolari never gave me a chance, or Steve Coppell, or Alan Pardew, or Tommy Burns, or whoever’, the responsibility is with me – I have to create it. It’s like in a game, if you are wanting something, or feel it needs something, don’t wait for it, create it. Sometimes it won’t need touched, sometimes you just wait for the momentum to change, to swing back again. But at 3-2 the other night I’m thinking, ‘we are really dominant in the game here, our little inexperience has cost us at the back here, has cost us the first goal’ but that has given them a bit of life, a bit of oxygen. But we’ve enough quality on the pitch to hurt, so we then go a little more offensive.
“With the momentum swinging [after Hapoel’s two goals in three minutes], as a coach you’re thinking what the other coach might be thinking, ‘well, at 3-2 we can maybe get something from the game’. So you can go two ways: you can stick on a defender and consolidate what you have or you think, actually the space is going to open up even more, because they feel they’ve got something. So how can you swing the momentum back again, and sometimes in the game [if] you make offensive substitutions it can set the team on the front foot again.”
Rodgers is striding forward with a team that had endured a year of regression under Ronny Deila. Aside from his flexibility and command of his domain, the Northern Irishman can be set aside from his predecessor in how he reflects on the “most difficult pre-season of my life so far”. Such a statement might suggest that juggling the demands of pre-season with ending Scottish football’s longest ever exile from the Champions League group stages has left him in a daze.
“It’s not left me in a daze,” countered Rodgers. “I have loved it. It’s been brilliant. My life is 24 hours a day football. I ask the players to embrace that lifestyle too. There’s no doubt it has been a whirlwind with game after game and all the travelling. We have been all over the world and I look forward to after the international break when it will settle down and you know what games are coming up.
“It’s been intense, but I have absolutely loved it.
“Down south there is a cycle. This is the preparation phase. Then you go into the competition phase and then it’s about physical maintenance with loading. Here, it’s a preparation phase with the competition phase chucked in. It’s absolutely incredible but thankfully the players and the club have been brilliant. They have embraced what we are trying to do and we have made a decent start.
“I’m a better coach for the experiences. That’s what you do. It’s why I wanted to move. Working in the Premier League for the next 20 years doesn’t really broaden my horizons. Coming to work here gives me a wonderful experience of life and football. A lot of coaches may never experience this level of intensity at this stage of a season. I take my hat off to the guys before me who have had the experiences – Ronny [Deila], Neil [Lennon], Gordon [Strachan] and Martin [O’Neill].”
The reality is that, should Celtic progress on Tuesday, Rodgers will have immediately made the desired impact in European competition. The Irishman has seemed unburdened by the weight to create instantly on the continent.