If the Champions League group stages prove to be an insurmountable hurdle for Brendan Rodgers and Celtic, does this change the manager’s perception of his long-term future with the club? Craig Fowler ponders the question.
Brendan Rodgers is the perfect manager for Celtic in Scottish football. His brand of football, the way he organises his side and the confidence he instills in the players is what makes them unbeatable. They have the best squad, but talent doesn’t always guarantee victory. Having Rodgers does.
The easiest way to get points off a far superior side is to get everyone behind the ball, spoil the game, frustrate your opponent and see if you can bring them down to your level. At which point, win the battle and at least a point can be yours. It’s not what fans want to see when they take on Celtic, but it’s the best method of getting something from the match. Or, at least it was.
Playing a brand of football unmatched by anyone else, with a talent pool unmatched by anyone else, means it’s virtually impossible to bring this team down to your level. He accentuates their superiority. There are very few off-days.
Celtic went undefeated throughout the 2016/17 season. We’re only a month and a half into the current one and already they look capable of doing so again. Certainly this writer wouldn’t bet against it.
Unfortunately, it’s a different story on the continent. Celtic don’t have the best squad, so the gameplan isn’t as effective in getting results. Victories over Hapoel Beer-Sheva and Astana showed it’s perfectly fine when they are going against terms of equal or lesser standing. But in games against PSG, Barcelona and likely Bayern Munich, you have to fight, scrap and defend for your lives in the same way smaller clubs do on the domestic level.
Rodgers doesn’t subscribe to this theory, or at least he didn’t. He’s been consistent in his vision. He wants Celtic to impose their game on the opposition, especially at Celtic Park, regardless of who they might be. PSG might just have made him think again, if not about his philosophy, then at least where he can take Celtic while the financial imbalance in European football continues to exist to such a degree.
Celtic Park last Tuesday might just have been the moment Rodgers realised his end game with Celtic. The gap is increasing at the highest level and, unless they get a stroke of good fortune in next season’s competition, he could be looking at a scenario where he’s taken them as far as he can.
Admittedly, this would depend on Rodgers’ ambitions for his managerial career. When he first arrived at Celtic Park he signed a one-year rolling contract. Straight away this indicated here was a man who was happy to leave his options open. He came so close to becoming a Premier League champion, and he was looking to have another crack at it, once he’d rebuilt his reputation.
On that front it’s mission accomplished. He’s the only manager in the history of Scottish football to lead a team to an unbeaten domestic treble. Whatever you think of Scottish football, that’s pretty damn impressive. Furthermore, he’s led Celtic to consecutive seasons in the Champions League group stages. Sure, it’s been done before, but seeing as his predecessor failed to do so on two occasions, it looks that little bit better.
If it remains his ambition to return to England, we may see his eye starting to wander in the wake of the 5-0 defeat. His stock might not get any higher among EPL chairman. Winning another title or two with Celtic, even if they go undefeated, won’t impress the cream of the crop in England. Oddly, continuing to dominate to the extent that he has (i.e. no defeats) might even diminish what he’s achieved already. That does sound strange, and it’s not right, but we’ve all heard the English pundits deriding the unbeaten season already. The longer the unbeaten run goes on, the more they’ll disregard what he’s achieved because he’s doing so in a “pub league”. Smart chairman will see through such ignorance, but not all chairman are smart.
The big caveat to all this is so: what if Rodgers doesn’t want to go back to English football? In the time since his arrival, he’s signed a new contract, which runs until 2021, thereby making a commitment to the club. He didn’t have to do that. He could have kept the one-year rolling contract. It wasn’t like he lacked job security. The Celtic board were hardly going to sack him.
In the eyes of the Celtic fans, Rodgers can do no wrong. The man is a hero to hundreds of thousands of people from around the globe. This is one of the most famous clubs on the planet, and Rodgers is the biggest figurehead. More than Moussa Dembele, more than Kieran Tierney, more than Scott Brown, it is the Northern Irishman who is synonymous with the club at this moment in time.
Can you imagine what that feels like? We all want to be appreciated and loved, and right now he has that in spades. Also, who’s to say we’ve even reached peak adulation yet? Ten-in-a-row is within Celtic’s sights. If Rodgers gets them there, regardless of what else he does, he’ll be regarded as the third greatest manager in the club’s history. Kids will argue with their agitated grandfathers that he was better than Jock Stein. For the rest of time, his name will be irrevocably linked with success at Celtic. He’ll be godlike.
That would be extremely hard to walk away from, even if he still pines for the rampant excesses of the English Premier League.
There is another alternative, one which would erase PSG as a possible watershed moment: beat Anderlecht, finish third and go on a Europa League run.
Such an achievement would rekindle his confidence that this is a club he can have reaching, or at least competing for, the last 16 on a consistent basis. It would help not only his own reputation, it would improve the club’s as well. European football in the spring, along with the funds from the Champions League group stages from the past two seasons, would allow Celtic to continue to strengthen. They might even get a more fortunate draw next time. Looking around the other groups, it’s a 50-50 split of whether you get an impossible or manageable group, and Celtic have already seen the coin come up tails twice. And while he may have banged his head on the glass ceiling on Tuesday night. If they can continue to do so, they finally may find a way through.
If that happens, Rodgers can continue to improve his reputation and stay till the end of ten-in-a-row.