Celtic play Rangers on Sunday in a title-deciding match at Parkhead. Perhaps we’ve all been…
As Ögedei Khan, the third son of Genghis, surveyed the map of the Mongol empire upon his ascension in 1229, the question was, presumably, what next? The empire built by his father ranged from the Sea of Japan to the Caspian but by the time of his heir’s death it had stretched all the way to Poland. The answer to Ögedei’s question, was Europe.
Brendan Rodgers has established his own empire of sorts in Scotland. They swept aside Motherwell on Sunday with unflinching ease, securing an unprecedented consecutive treble. The question for Rodgers, surely, is what next?
Personally, the Northern Irishman would be forgiven for harbouring a sense of unfulfillment down south. His frenzied Liverpool side of 2013-14 were the protagonists in one of the most memorable English Premier League run-ins of all time. Rodgers was awarded the LMA Manager of the Year Award and handed a four-year contract extension.
Soon, however, the eulogies that had accompanied his mention became rarer. 15 months later, he was sacked. He is an admittedly ambitious man and the prospect of an English redemption will doubtless consume his daydreams. But Rodgers has recently spoken enthusiastically about his future at Celtic and the English Premier League’s top-6 have shown no signs of reviving the cult of Brendan south of the border.
Instead, as Arsenal have shown with their last-minute ditching of Mikel Arteta in favour of Unai Emery, they tend to opt for managers who have known success in European competition.
Whether he is interested in attracting the attentions of the super-rich or not, Rodgers, in charge of the same team for the third consecutive season for only the second time, must crave European success for his all-conquering Celtic side. Their unprecedented domestic success, though impressive, has come in an era of unprecedented financial disparity. The average wage of Celtic, according to the Sporting Intelligence sport salaries survey, was £735,000 – a figure more than double that of the Rangers equivalent.
Their Scottish hegemony is in rude health. And aside from an obvious weakness at right-back and room for improvement in the goalkeeping position, Rodgers’ squad requires little surgery.
The club’s success will, therefore, depend on the manager’s to maintain his extraordinary standards of man management since his arrival to the Scottish Premiership in 2016.
His renowned – or perhaps infamous – self-confidence is crucial to his approach. How else would you convince Craig Gordon to start threading delicate passes from his own box?
Nevertheless, self-confidence has also been the stick with which Rodgers’ reputation has taken the most severe beatings. An ill-advised 2012 fly on the wall documentary gave the impression that the then Liverpool manager was a man who shared a sense of modesty with Theodore Roosevelt – of whom his daughter Alice once said, “always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening”.
It all depends on how his teams perform, of course. Celtic’s fanbase are imbued with a deep sense of schadenfreude – and a bitter rival wholeheartedly committed to calamity. They will not tire of domestic domination any time soon.
Yet, there was a distinct sense of unfulfillment after a European campaign which ended with only two wins after the qualification phase. Outside of Scotland, Celtic have run into an even more powerful hegemony than their own. Expecting anything other than defeats against European super-weights is of course ill-advised.
Performances against Anderlecht, a team whose revenue is not astronomical in comparison with their own, was a better gauge of Celtic’s progress. The Hoops took advantage of a club in disarray in Belgium, winning comfortably but not entirely convincingly. A re-grouped, re-energised Anderlecht arrived for the return fixture at Celtic Park, and strolled to a 1-0 win.
Coupled with disastrous defensive displays against the elite and a meek showing against an under-performing Zenit St Petersburg side away from home, Celtic’s campaign, though perhaps true to form on the balance sheets, felt like an underperformance on the pitch.
What Rodgers must do is what good managers do. He must get the very best from the resources he has. If he does, Celtic’s form on the biggest stage will surely improve.
It seems the answer for the club and the manager is the same as it was for Khan eight centuries ago: Europe.