Brendan Rodgers: Demands of playing for Celtic too high for many
It is indisputable that the Scottish champions have dropped off the level they were regularly hitting last season during their – admittedly – extraordinary run to a domestic treble which was clinched without loss. They have already dropped more points in this campaign than they did across that entire league term, and have found their unbeaten sequence under serious threat… which it almost never was in Rodgers’ first term.
And yet, the avoidance of defeat today at Tynecastle would mark a 70th consecutive unbeaten domestic game for the club. It would be the 57th league encounter in that sequence and leave them only six short of bettering the record set by Willie Maley’s Celtic side between 1915 and 1917. It was trumpeted as having been eclipsed last month, but in reality it was the fact that it was 62 straight league games that provided the Maley run with its real currency in British and European football.
More immediately, if Celtic avoid defeat at home to Partick Thistle on Wednesday they will pass the two-year mark since they last lost at home to Scottish opposition. A second season of domestic dominance might not seem as dazzling, but it can make for achievements that burn even brighter.
The ability to keep going, keep knocking off the games by his squad – even if, to outside eyes, the capacity for footballing growth within it appears to have plateaued – Rodgers insists can’t just be explained away by resources. Tommy Burns once said it was easier to play against Celtic than for them. That theme informs what the club’s current manager believes separates his team from the rest.
“In some ways, there’s not a big difference in terms of players [between Celtic and other Scottish teams],” Rodgers said. “I’ve seen a number of players up here who could probably play for Celtic. Then when you asked about them, the mentality’s not there. The big difference is mentality. Some players up here will be as quick as our boys, equally as skilful, but when it comes to it, how are they mentally?
“It’s a tough ask because they can’t cope with the demands every day, to lead the life — diet, nutrition, preparation, concentration, drive, resilience. This is what it takes when you want to play for the big club.
“Some very good players go to big clubs and people wonder why it doesn’t quite work out for them. It’s not that they’re bad players. It’s because every single day of your life at a big club is a challenge. It’s not just about playing for a big club, you have to be ready to train with a big club.
“It’s why so many players that come from very good teams, where they know they’re going to play every week and it doesn’t matter how they train [and then] they get a move to a big club and they struggle to train, never mind play. That’s the way it has to be. It’s the way it is at the biggest level. You have to have that level.”
Rodgers believes the level of Scottish football’s top flight has risen across his 18 months – in terms of what confronts his team. This is skewed by the target on their backs as a consequence of avoiding a domestic defeat in his tenure.
“I think the league is strong. I thought it was strong last year but it’s a wee combination of players with maybe an extra motivation to end the Celtic record. You have good coaches, good managers. So it’s a combination of everything. We played Motherwell one of the games and one of their young players talked about beating Celtic being like winning a trophy. So that tells you everything about what it means to the other teams.”
The flip side of this is that Celtic’s continued ability to break new ground for modern-day domestic sequences without defeat does more than allow them to create history that will stand for generations. “You want to beat whatever records you can,” he said. “And it can also build an aura around your squad.”