Michael Walker: Old Firm, new era – just the job for the Brendan Rodgers revival
Confidence is high ahead of the Celtic manager’s first match against Rangers
Celtic fans unveil a large picture of manager Brendan Rodgers during the Uefa Champions League qualifying play-off first leg against Hapoel Be’er Sheva at Celtic Park in August. Photograph: Steve Welsh/Getty Images
Half an hour north of Glasgow the long slope of the Campsie Fells provides a spectacular backdrop to Celtic’s Lennoxtown training base. On Thursday afternoon a soft grey mist cloaked the hills surrounding this lush green expanse. It was rural, peaceful; you could hear yourself think.
This was the calm before the maelstrom.
Tomorrow the Old Firm returns. At noon, for the first time in four and a half years, Celtic host Rangers in a league game at Parkhead. Glasgow’s doors will be booted open, flags will fly, sirens will wail, tills will ring.
Rodgers has not been away from the limelight as long as Rangers have been away from the top flight, but the man from Carnlough – about as close to Scotland as you can get in Ireland – knows football’s soap opera operates on a frenetic spin cycle. All too quickly a manager can be deemed washed up or washed out. And forgotten.
Not many today will recall that this weekend last year Rodgers was preparing Liverpool for a trip to Old Trafford with a team including Joe Gomez and Christian Benteke. Three weeks after that game at Manchester United – a 3-1 defeat – Rodgers was removed from Anfield. From Chelsea’s academy, through Watford and Reading to marvellous times at Swansea City, then almost winning the Premier League with Liverpool, Rodgers was mainly on the rise. Then dismissal, a fall, an absence. He was 42.
“It’s football, isn’t it?” he said. “There’s not an industry like it.”
True – and at Rodgers’ strata there is financial compensation far beyond the scope of the average Parkhead punter. But still, in career terms, Rodgers had gone from potential history-maker with Liverpool and talked-up England candidate to unemployed. In certain quarters he was mocked as “Brentan”, football management’s David Brent.
By the end at Anfield, Rodgers was not quite walking alone, but he seemed isolated, sometimes forlorn, occasionally tetchy. There was none of that on Thursday.
Semicircled by a jury of reporters in a Lennoxtown changing room, Rodgers was happily engaged, his confidence measured. He was made to feel at home the day of his Celtic unveiling in May, when 13,000 fans turned up and the stadium had to be opened.
“I think they probably see me as one of their own,” he said of Celtic’s support.
Years at Anfield
Rodgers also addressed those three and a half years at Anfield, or just under, and in a manner not done previously.
“Liverpool was an incredible experience for me,” he began. “To go in there at 39, into one of the great clubs in the world and to try to lift the club to a level, to try and win the league. We finished runners-up, nearly did it. And, of course, sometimes it doesn’t end how you’d want.
“But certainly my memory will always be that I made the people happy there, for a period of time. Lots of Liverpool supporters I meet thank me for that time. Then you move on, and that’s how life works.
“I was really disappointed to have left Liverpool, of course. You can’t say otherwise if you’ve got any pride at all. I came away, had a great break, seven months, just reflected: ‘How can I be better? What do I need to improve on?’
“And, important for me, I need to feel that the energy . . . at Liverpool, it maybe just . . . not so much the energy probably . . . but if you don’t feel the confidence of the people around you, then of course it can be tough. The players were brilliant, great; the supporters, understandably, it was a difficult period after us nearly winning the league. But nothing but brilliant memories and great experiences.”
The last act at Liverpool came after a derby, a 1-1 draw at Everton last October. It was hardly the worst result, but within hours Rodgers was an ex-Liverpool manager.
“It happened. I didn’t see it coming at the time because we were on the back of a good result, but of course, listen, the owners, I respected their decision. You know, they wanted to go in a different direction. I did my best.”
It was a telling phrase – “if you don’t feel the confidence of the people around you”.
Liverpool’s owners, Fenway Sports Group (FSG), had thought enough of Rodgers’s work at Swansea to ask him to replace a living legend, Kenny Dalglish. FSG rode the ride all the way to Steven Gerrard’s slip-up against Chelsea and “Crystanbul”, the night in May two years ago when Liverpool held a 3-0 lead at Crystal Palace with 11 minutes to go, and drew 3-3. Eight weeks later, Suárez joined Barcelona.
Rodgers thought Liverpool had Alexis Sanchez lined up, but it fell through. He had Dele Alli waiting in a London hotel room, but it fell through. In those moments, Rodgers must have realised he was not the club’s architect, rather its site manager. Which is instructive, because architect is a word Rodgers used on Thursday. He said it was what Dermot Desmond, Celtic’s dominant shareholder, asked him to be when they met to discuss the job at Parkhead. It was their first-ever meeting.
Losing 1-0 at Lincoln Red Imps in Gibraltar in Rodgers’s first match cannot have been in either man’s plans. But Celtic recovered to do under Rodgers what they had failed to do for the previous two seasons under Ronny Deila: reach the Champions League group stage, and the cash and status that comes with it.
After the relief and jubilation came confidence. Rodgers has recruited five players from England, most notably spending £3.5 million on Scott Sinclair from Aston Villa. Kolo Touré has rejoined Rodgers from Liverpool.
It won’t be enough to cuff Barcelona in the Nou Camp, or Manchester City when they go to Parkhead at the end of the month, but there is plenty of Glaswegian belief that Celtic have enough to comfortably hold the returning Rangers.
Remarkably, given his background and age, this will be Rodgers’s first Old Firm experience. He understands what the clubs mean in Co Antrim, and Police Scotland have visited Lennoxtown and Rangers’s Murray Park this week to remind everyone of their responsibilities to Scottish society.
Out of bounds
Growing up in Carnlough and going to school in Ballymena in the 1980s, Rodgers was allowed to go to places such as Old Trafford for trials, but Glasgow was out of bounds. He has used the phrase “the Troubles” to explain this, and on Thursday there was no pretence that he had been a Celtic fanatic as a boy. A Celtic enthusiast maybe.
“Not really,” he replied to early Old Firm recollections. “I remember watching, going back, the likes of Billy Stark and Tommy [Burns] in midfield. I loved Paul McStay.”
There were mentions for Roy Aitken, Peter Grant and Mark McGhee, though it was a Rangers player, mercurial Davie Cooper, who clearly impressed young Rodgers as much as anyone.
“I admired Davie Cooper because I was a left-footer,” Rodgers said. “I always watched the lefties and thought Davie Cooper was a brilliant player.”
That’s unlikely to be the only left-footer reference today.
Rodgers knows that, in part because – as his cousin Nigel Worthington has pointed out – his parents were, in Northern Ireland parlance, “mixed”. Rodgers’s mother, Christina, was Worthington’s Protestant mother’s sister. Rodgers’s father, Malachy, was Catholic, and Rodgers attended a school in Ballymena where “soccer” was frowned upon.
What is more pertinent for Rodgers is that his parents are no longer here. Christina died suddenly, aged 53, in February 2010. Malachy died 18 months later, aged 59, from cancer.
Christina’s death came two months after Rodgers was sacked by Reading. “Two voids in my life” is how he has described that phase.
But he persevered, with help from former Rangers manager Alex McLeish along the way, while Suárez has revealed that during the euphoric passage in Liverpool’s 2013-14 season Rodgers would climax “very special team talks” by reading a letter from one of the players’ mothers.
“He had contacted our mothers, one by one,” Suárez said. “The final word came not from the manager but a player’s mum.”
Liverpool thrived on that emotion, though today Rodgers’s team talk may be aimed at erasing such swells.
“Trying to just ensure that they retain their focus – I think that is the key message,” he said.
It will not be easy. While many in Scotland will be perturbed by the Old Firm’s league renewal – there were two cup ties in the past two seasons, Deila departing after the second in April – there is also excitement.
Thursday’s Daily Record contained no less than 13 pages of football, plus an eight-page pullout on Rodgers, “Ballymena to Paradise”.
It is a reminder of what the sport means to Scotland, even if Rodgers’s opposite number at Rangers, Mark Warburton, said: “If you pick the papers up, you’d think we were playing the World Cup final.”
That Warburton and Rodgers worked together briefly at Watford eight years ago is all part of it, as is Joey Barton’s tongue.
“The tan, the teeth and all that,” Barton said of Rodgers. “I’m not having a midlife crisis.”
After the subdued ending at Liverpool, at Celtic Rodgers is mid-career. His view is that managers peak at “60-65”, so there’s “a long way to go, a lot to learn”, and an indication of his fresh bounce is that there is already legacy talk.
“My legacy here, hopefully, will be the feeling I can give people,” Rodgers said. “For now, life’s great, started well. I’m enjoying every single day. I’ve players that are hungry to learn. We nearly have full stadiums every time we play, the passion, the noise . . . It’s, yeah, I can’t complain.”