Brendan Rodgers: Elsewhere For Ten In A Row
So, was Brendan Rodgers a fine Celtic manager, on-and-off the pitch? Was Brendan Rodgers undermined by others within Celtic whose Celtic priorities differed considerably? Will the shameful manner of his departure deservedly besmirch his reputation within football? (And will the Inspiral Carpets miss Celtic fans singing their “This is how it feels…” song at every game?)
Well…yes…times at least three (unsure about the Inspiral Carpets). Rodgers’ Celtic won seven trophies out of seven, taking full sporting advantage of considerable financial advantages but in some style. He often showed class in press conferences and interviews. And, whatever his ultimate priorities, he paid more than lip service to its history and traditions and was a fine representative at supporters’ and other functions (google ‘Rodgers Danny McGrain story’ for a prime example), although most supporters naturally disbelieve this after this week.
The full story of Rodgers’ departure can’t be told without full knowledge of the tensions between he and Celtic’s long-serving, at least as self-serving, chief executive Peter Lawwell. But enough of them were public enough to be front-and-centre of Rodgers’ disaffection. And while he had less influence (you’d hope) over the timing of ex-Leicester boss Claude Puel’s departure than Wilfred Saha, Rodgers had full control over his own arrival. And, short of resigning before the next Glasgow derby, he could not have chosen a worse time to dump Celtic.
Rodgers was an instant hit at Celtic Park, turning predecessor manager Ronny Deila’s only intermittently-inspiring side into energetic, expansive domestic “invincibles” with minimal squad adjustments. This part of his legacy has the best chance of lasting. Players such as James Forrest, Tom Rogic and even, ahem, combative captain Scott Brown looked varying degrees of busted flushes at the fag-end of Deila’s tenure.
There was improvement in Europe too. Deila’s charges twice lost Champions League play-offs against beatable teams, in 2014 failing despite reinstatement in the tournament after an aggregate gubbing by Legia Warsaw. And they huffed-and-puffed through Europa League campaigns which redefined mediocrity.
Rodgers’ Celtic had the falsest starts to their Champions League qualification and groups stage campaigns; first leg defeat at Gibraltar’s Lincoln Red Imps and a 7-0 evisceration in Barcelona. But Celtic made it through the qualifiers, albeit needing a last-minute penalty at home to Kazakhstan’s Astana before nearly blowing a 5-2 home first leg lead against Israel’s Hapoel Beer Sheva in the play-offs. And they followed their Camp Nou catastrophe with a gods-stirring 3-3 home draw with Pep Guardiola’s new Manchester City, the first competitive game City failed to win that season.
Rodgers’ second season started similarly. Better in some respects, as Astana were thumped 5-0 at Celtic Park in that year’s Champions League play-off first leg. However, Celtic’s defensive weaknesses, previously over-shadowed by attacking prowess, were exposed in the return, when Astana led 4-1 with ages left to shred Celtic nerves before that attacking prowess made the result 4-3.
Domestically, too, defensive collywobbles were increasingly exposed, as teams realised they could force untold errors by pressing Celtic’s defence as they rigidly obeyed orders to play out from the back. But Rodgers’ Celtic defences were not natural ballplayers. Belgian international Dedryck Boyata caused shuddering flashbacks in fans who tastefully nicknamed ex-defender Olivier Tebily ‘bomb scare” in his turn-of-the-century spell at Celtic. And Boyata’s team-mates, bar mercurial young left-back Kieran Tierney, had what polite pundits would call “an error in them.”
Rodgers’ early Liverpool days were similarly pock-marked. But players there adapted and improved. Celtic gave the ball away in their own third of the pitch 11 times in the last 15 minutes in losing a two-nil lead and nearly the match at Hibernian in December 2017. A week later, Hearts pressed Celtic’s defence and a 69-match unbeaten league run crashed to a halt. FOUR-NIL. This frailty undermined Celtic in Europe after their encouraging 2016, as Rodgers’ sides all-too-frequently proved the punditry cliché “big teams will punish you for that.”
Rodgers and his coaches had no visible counter-proposal. A 30-point title-winning margin in 2017 was reduced to nine in 2018. And, this season, there’s been an intermittent sense that Celtic are back where Deila left them, which BBC Scotland’s increasingly Celtic-antagonistic Tom English somehow missed when writing of “Celtic’s domestic aura exiting with Rodgers.” Despite Celtic’s all-conquering domestic form in 2019, Rodgers maybe sensed that too. That, though, did not excuse the manner of his departure.
Rodgers was clearly hampered by Lawwell’s vision of Celtic’s present and future, which few fans shared. “10 in-a-row is not a project. Back Rodgers or lose him,” read the two-part banner at Celtic Park way back (26th January) when Rodgers was the good guy battling the highly-paid enigmatic executive. And though not the full or exact story of Rodgers’ departure, the banner was certainly prophetic.
Rodgers’ Celtic’s transfer dealings were largely poor. Again, only when/if full stories emerge can blame for this be appropriately-awarded. The ‘project’ involved signing talented youngsters for future first-teams. And with 10-in-a-row less certain than ever, this project was inadvisably-timed at best.
Rodgers’ ‘project’ disaffection went viral when he was asked about January’s signing of 21-year-old Ukrainoan winger Maryan Shved on a four-and-a-half-year deal. Rodgers hadn’t “seen a great deal of him” (trans: ‘never heard of him’). He was so vague on the deal (which “came to the club through circumstance”) that he almost disappeared. But he then mumbled: “We’ve got a million wingers, we don’t need another one,” and admitted Shved would “not probably help us now.”
This confirmed that the project was Lawwell’s, designed at least as much for players’ sell-on value as their future development, with more of an eye on the £7m Celtic received after Virgil Van Dijk moved from Southampton to Liverpool, or the £19m profit made on disaffected (see below) French striker Moussa Dembele. But the ‘project’ was not responsible for Celtic’s dismal January 2018 transfer window, which will go down in the anals of history (not a misprint), after Rodgers’ transfer targets flopped.
Wideman Charly Musonda had broken into Chelsea’s first team…and not the FA Cup ‘Chelsea XI’ either. But, bar a fine cameo 30 yards from my seat at Celtic’s Europa League home win over Zenit St Petersburg last February, he was a hooped-shirt full of FA. Centre-half Marvin Compper was a semi-regular at Bundesliga high-ish-flying RB Leipzig. He hobbled through a March Scottish Cup-tie, and now languishes in Celtic’s reserves (although admittedly everyone ‘languishes’ in reserves, regardless of form). AND I had to check I’d spelt his name right. I hadn’t.
Nonetheless, Lawwell was widely blamed for last summer’s very dismal dealings, especially for not augmenting the squad before Celtic’s Champions League qualifying campaign, which was thus ended by a beatable AEK Athens. Worse, key striker Moussa Dembele escaped to France, muttering darkly about Rodgers as he went, tweeting “A man without his word is nothing. A real man keeps his word.” Wooh. Meanwhile, Rodgers transfer target “Fabian Schaar, a £3m snip from Deportivo La Coruna” pinged in a 30-yarder for Newcastle as I started researching this bit. Aaaagh.
January’s window was better. But Rodgers’ call for a right-back was only answered by the deadline-day loan signing of Borussia Dortmund’s Jeremy Toijan. This transfer policy strait-jacket combined with the money to make the EPL’s mid-table so enticing (indeed, Rodgers admitted last September that Chinese Super League money had tempted him too). That, though, did not excuse the manner of his departure.
The idea that he had “taken the club at Celtic maybe as far as I could at this moment” is preposterous (grammatically and intellectually). Perhaps this season’s travails made him fearful of losing the adulation for clinching Celtic’s tenth consecutive Scottish title, the “ten-in-a-row” Celtic fans sang that he’d be “here for” (see ‘Inspiral Carpets’ above) since he extended his Celtic contract to that tenth season. Because if he FULLY ‘got’ Celtic, he’d know how far that title would ‘take’ Celtic.
Now, though, Celtic fans may realise that Rodgers has only won two of any putative ten-in-a-row, equalling Ronny Deila, whose ability as Celtic boss, compared to Rodgers, was inversely proportional to the dignity with which he left the club, compared to Rodgers. Because Rodgers won’t get credit for the eighth, after leaving like this.
As for the future, Celtic might view Lennon as Rodgers’ permanent successor. His first spell as Celtic boss began as a temporary successor to the sacked Tony Mowbray in 2010. And he still got the permanent gig despite that part-season including dismal Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Ross County.
I had long-hoped Kilmarnock boss Steve Clarke would succeed Rodgers. But it is unfair to wish that on him just now, given his comments last week on the toxicity of West of Scotland football life. After Killie were beaten out the gate in a Scottish Cup replay at Ibrox, Clarke was more upset at Rangers fans’ abuse (“fenian bastard” and other love songs) than the (naturally) terrible refereeing decisions which fatally undermined Killie’s efforts.
Rangers fans’ response was characteristically appalling, a banner at their next game saying “Get well soon Steve Clarke.” Clarke brilliantly replied: “I appreciate their concern. But it’s not me that’s sick.” Imagine their “concern” if Clarke was Celtic boss. And while Lennon would likely relish the chance to shove that abuse by completing “the ten,” no-one could blame Clarke if he wouldn’t. The permanent Celtic job could more likely be Lennon’s than many fans want to admit.
Celtic managers are expected to ‘get’ Celtic. Rodgers was believed to have ‘got’ Celtic. Which is why it was that bit more difficult to accept him departing so readily for the EPL’s mid-table, albeit to the 2016 champions. The lure of being “here for ten-in-a-row” and regular Champions League entry was thought enough to stave off interest from all but the top EPL clubs. By me AND well-informed observers.
Football isn’t like that, as we should all know by now. Managers and players are rarely true fans. Hence the ease with which childhood Evertonian Jamie Carragher can say “we” about Liverpool. Tommy Burns (RIP) was probably the truest Celtic-fan-as-manager, which arguably over-stocked his mid-1990s managerial tenure with over-emotion-based tactical and other errors.
“You traded immortality for mediocrity. Never a Celt, always a fraud,” read the two-part banner at Tynecastle, where Celtic played Hearts on Wednesday. And Dembele tweeted enigmatically “#AndIfYouDontKnowNowYouKnow #IToldYou.” Rodgers was a fine Celtic manager, undermined to an important, if currently uncertain, degree. He could succeed at Leicester and wherever comes next (he’s an ambitious 46-year-old, there’ll be nexts). But the banner was partly fair. Because nothing excused the manner of Rodgers’ departure.
Celtic struggled at Hearts, while nearest challengers Rangers were netting frequently against Dundee, threatening to eradicate Celtic’s nine-goal goal-difference advantage, And that was simply Rodgers’ doing. There was no footballing reason for him to leave right before two games fundamental to Celtic’s season (as demonstrated by the celebrations following Celtic’s 92nd-minute winner); Hearts and Saturday’s Scottish Cup quarter-final at Hibernian. He would still have had time to bed in as boss in time for 2019/20, a logical reason for Leicester’s actions. Rodgers’ logic seemed wilfully damaging.
‘They’ say Rodgers was ‘destined’ for Leicester since before Puel’s dismissal. Meanwhile, media reports on Leicester’s approach, Celtic’s “very reluctance” to let him reply, the actual talks and his first sighting at Leicester’s ground spanned 10pm Monday to 5pm Tuesday. I don’t know how long it takes to approach managers, negotiate three-year deals and timetable media presentations from scratch…on a matchday. But I can’t imagine ‘should be done by teatime’ tickets winning any authentic sweepstake.
Rodgers’ Celtic footballing legacy will not be what it should be. And his personal legacy will be irrevocably-damaged. ALWAYS a fraud? No. But while he can blame Lawwell for some circumstances, only he chose to leave with spitefully bad timing and thus be so pilloried by fans who chorused about him being “here for 10-in-a-row” for so long.
“Celtic will always be my club,” he gushed in the club’s announcement of his departure. That would respectfully appear to be bolox.