Brendan Rodgers is back and Celtic are headed for the Champions League group stage. So why doesn’t anyone seem particularly excited about it?
Late July and early August is usually a time of big, turbulent emotions for Celtic fans.
We rage about failure in the Champions League qualifiers, or obsess over the quantity and quality of signings made, or pick sides in a fierce debate about whether or not the new manager is up to it. Sometimes all three.
If there is one thing you absolutely do not expect to be feeling at this time of year, it’s boredom. And yet, with the two-month anniversary of possibly the most dramatic, surprising and opinion-splitting managerial appointment in Celtic’s history coming up this Saturday, the overriding emotion in some quarters is…a vague sense of emptiness. Whisper it quietly, but the first eight weeks of Brendan Rodgers’ second spin in the Parkhead hotseat have been a bit humdrum so far. A bit – dare I say it – meh. The signings, the performances, even the new strips: one big bag of meh.
I’m aware even as I type this how irrational these feelings are. Because what danger and excitement is it I’m pining for, exactly? The psychological torture of the Champions League qualifiers? The white-knuckle ride of still needing to fill about nine positions with new signings even after the campaign has kicked off, like in those hectic early days of Ange Postecoglou’s reign two years ago? That Celtic’s summer has been a largely soporific affair so far is largely a byproduct of the club’s overwhelming success on the pitch and transfer market in recent times, removing any need for nerve-strewn trips to outposts like Astana and Be’er Shava or a total overhaul of the squad.
In Rodgers’ first season seven years ago Celtic had already played seven competitive fixtures by mid-August. From the beamer of Lincoln Red Imps to the buzz of Scott Sinclair’s breakaway winner at Tynecastle, none of it could have been described as dull. Likewise, by this stage of Postecoglou’s debut season there had already been a bewildering mishmash of superb attacking, suicidal defending and electrifying cameos from new buys like Kyogo spread across eight competitive outings.
It’s only fair to the current side to acknowledge that they’ve played just two games by mid-August (and looked slightly underwhelming in both, by the high standards of this group of players), but that isn’t the only thing making the #Brenaissance feel somewhat lacklustre – so far – compared to those other two high watermarks of success during the last decade. Both Rodgers era mark I and the Ange era had clear and compelling narratives at their core. The silver-tongued celebrity tactician determined to make Celtic relevant on a UK and Europe-wide scale again after years of decline had threatened to make the club a forgotten giant living in a land of pygmies. The uncompromising idealist tasked with winning and entertaining, all while cleaning up the mess from one of the biggest clusterfucks in the institution’s history, and doing so against a media climate of snobbery/vague xenophobia surrounding his nationality and CV.
Both men had an affinity with the fans, distinct philosophies, charisma, conviction and an ability to spawn new catchphrases almost every time they opened their mouths. Every press conference and post-match interview suddenly felt like an unmissable event, and the difference between what they brought to the table as figureheads and what their immediate predecessors had offered could not have been starker. Hindsight certainly tells us they overdid it at times with their proclamations of love and devotion, but that didn’t stop it giving you a wee warm glow at the time.
By contrast, any scriptwriter charged with fleshing out the themes of season 2023-24 would have a rather trickier task on their hands. Is it about making progress in Europe, breaking the glass ceiling of the Champions League groups? Perhaps not, judging by the amount of money spent on transfers and the emphasis on ‘project players’ so far. Is it about redemption for Rodgers? Probably not, given his insistence that he doesn’t actually regret the nature of his departure last time. Or is it simply about the short-term giggles of slapping Rangers doon again, before accepting the inevitable and cashing in on all the most saleable assets next summer?
Of course it doesn’t help that our most exciting attacker and most underrated/handsome defender have scarpered, or that we’re watching from a distance like spurned lovers as Tottenham fans make the exact same cooing noises we were making two years ago over their team’s pretty passing out from the back and their new manager shooting from the hip in press conferences. Meanwhile up here, inverted full-backs and all the other things that made Postecoglou’s style so fascinatingly unique are being subtly stripped back.
There could be more complex psychological factors at work, too. It’s one thing talking yourself round to a place where you accept Rodgers is the right man and tentatively embrace his reappointment, but quite another to be hanging off his every word and relishing his every appearance on the touchline the way The Old You did in 2016. Few fans seem to have made that mental leap thus far. As for the man himself, maybe he’s simply mellowed with age, or is still chastened by his sacking at Leicester, but the wise cracks, smug grin and glint in his eye that we remember appear to have been swapped for the deadly serious and slightly awkward demeanour of a dad suddenly reappearing at his wife’s side at family functions not long after a scandalous affair. And the club’s strange Rangers-esque decision to ban the BBC only adds to those faint suspicions that Celtic Park isn’t awash with good vibes right now.
(Pop quiz: does anyone even remember the slogan Rodgers signed off with in the web story announcing he’d took the job? It was, ‘Let’s get to work!’ Yeah, I had to look it up too.)
Do any of these issues constitute anything close to a crisis? No. Have I simply outed myself as an ‘Entitled Celtic Fan’ by airing all these gripes? Probably, yes. But still… Whether it comes in the form of the expensive marquee signings we’ve all been keenly anticipating ever since June 19th, or a convincing win at Ibrox on September 3rd, or a Champions League draw that hits the sweet spot between glamour and a genuine chance of progression, the fact remains that some form of spark is needed for Rodgers’ second coming to begin to feel as big a deal in reality as it was on paper.
The experiences of Neil Lennon and Ronny Deila told us that just winning trophies isn’t enough to give you any form of meaningful legacy as a Celtic manager. And for all their grandstanding and ambition, neither Postecoglou nor the first incarnation of Rodgers were able to carry the club as high and as far as their early achievements suggested they might. But the atmosphere and sense of swashbuckling adventure they created nonetheless captured the imagination more than anything else since the Martin O’Neill days.
It’s perhaps that lack of a clear vision, rather than any of the psychological baggage he brought back north of the border with him, that’s stopping Rodgers’ second stint from achieving liftoff just yet.