The hand of history doesn’t seem to have rested on Brendan Rodgers’ shoulder at Celtic so much as have him in its permanent grip. As the landmarks have cascaded down during his two years in charge – the invincible treble-winning first season, the record 69-game domestic unbeaten run, the club record unbeaten sequence against Rangers – the Irishman has expressed relish and regard, but always laced this with a certain sober rationale. Dewy-eyed sentiment has been eschewed as a potential distraction. The prospect of a double-treble seems to stir something different within him, though.
A Scottish Cup final win over Motherwell on Saturday would stand him on the shoulders of Celtic’s managerial titans Jock Stein and Martin O’Neill. Outstanding as they were, neither could deliver consecutive trebles, a feat that has eluded every manager in this country, including Rangers’ Jock Wallace who –like Stein – won two trebles but with a year’s gap in between. The prospect of Rodgers delivering such a monumental milestone might not have his heart dictating to his head, but it certainly allows for his mind to turn over the potential wonder of what could be waiting for him at Hampden.
“It would certainly be historic,” he said. “The achievement would take some time to sink in. Last year, there was all the euphoria around our invincible season and winning the treble the first time [under Rodgers] – you saw what it means to the club and the supporters. This year, the challenge, the expectation, the scrutiny, everything has been greater and that’s why it’s never been done before. It’s never been done by all the great players, managers, across the great history of Scottish football because it’s so difficult to do and we’re one game away from doing it, so it’s incredible.
“When you think only two other [Celtic] managers have won the treble in Jock Stein and Martin O’Neill and I was lucky enough to join that group last year… then to have a chance go beyond that is frightening, in a way, to think about it, but we’ll see.”
Rodgers has often spoken of leaving a legacy at the club. In this week he is willing to look beyond the silverware, the teams built and players developed and the plethora of records and consider it in terms of the human experience.
“Legacy is what you leave behind, but as much in feeling,” he said. “If we do it next weekend and achieve that, the feeling would be incredible and something that the players would go away and take so much pride in, and the club itself would take another step forward. I try not to think of it too much or you become emotionally hooked with it but normally when we go there we perform well and if we can do that, then we’ve got a great chance.”
Alan Stubbs said this week that Rodgers has the chance to claim an achievement that would demand he is held in the same regard as Stein and O’Neill – two figures, it must be said, who, unlike Rodgers, turned Celtic from league also-rans to title winners. However, the Irishman’s effect has been transformative, no doubt, and even to be talked about in such terms he calls “very humbling”.
“I always think you’re judged when you leave,” he said. “There’s still a lot for us to do here. All you can do as a manager and as a team is win. Normally, the achievements will be looked at when you’re gone. There will always be criticisms and something pointed at you whilst you are here – you should win it or it’s too easy or blah, blah, blah. But once you’re gone and people reflect on it, probably only then the true achievement would be focused on, but, for me, to do it here would be spectacular really.
“Stein was the pioneer for a lot of British coaches. You think of Fergie, Sir Alex, and the esteem that he is held in. [Bob] Shankly, I was obviously aware of from my Liverpool days and the esteem that he held Jock in, the relationship they had. Being the first British side to break that cycle by winning the European Cup. That puts him way out there, that is for sure. The game has changed of course but then to sustain that for a number of years… He was the ultimate manager for here in everything that he did. Like I say, there have been lots of great managers after him. I am just happy to be in this job that I love, that I am in no hurry to leave. I will get booted out at some time, I am sure. I will hopefully leave a feeling behind, that people have enjoyed the time I have been here. But, no, the likes of Jock Stein, it is why all of us boys supported Celtic and why it was the great Glasgow Celtic because of guys like him.”
The greatness of Rodgers’ Celtic has been the ability to deliver every single time the domestic occasion has demanded it. He praises the “absolutely brilliant” efforts of fellow Irishman Stephen Robinson in leading Motherwell to both domestic finals and how his players “fight, work, run and give him everything”. The “fight” part of the Fir Park side’s rumbustious style presents Celtic with a challenge different from any other possible opponent. But one of the most remarkable, and overlooked, aspects of Celtic’s domestic dominance these past two seasons has been their ability to cope in any domestic cup ties. Incredibly, there has never been a point across the 17 of these they have played under him that they have genuinely looked like they would lose – with clean sheets recorded in no fewer than 13. Rodgers talks of how he changed the “mindset” over playing at Hampden – the club lost six of their 11 visits there prior to his arrival, but are now on a five-game winning streak at the stadium. Only in last year’s Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen, which they won with a last-minute goal from Tom Rogic, have they truly been pushed.
“Sometime you can get too comfortable, which I don’t like,” he said. “Sometime you need the edge, the pressure. Of course the game last year was special. It was only when we got the goal… People ask what will it feel like and there is a moment when it hits you. I put my hands in my face and it is the realisation probably of all the questions that have come to me and the feeling is ‘Wow, you are nearly there!’”
Rodgers is nearly there all over again.