Tom Rogic’s Perfect Goodbye?

Written by Scott Fleming.

Whether or not Celtic and Tom Rogic parted ways at the right time remains to be seen, but the Wizard of Oz certainly nailed something few of the club’s other greats have: a picture-perfect farewell 

Just under two years ago I set up a Medium account. I’d never had one before, and I’ve never used it since, and when, earlier this week, I dug out the one article I wrote on there, it was with the overwhelming pre-emptive cringe of someone firing up an old Myspace account they haven’t looked at since they were 18. 

Sometimes I write for fun, sometimes for money, but it’s very rare that I write because I feel compelled to; because something is welling up inside me and for the good of my mental health it simply has to be busted open and let out like a New York fire hydrant on a boiling summer day. 

What I wanted to say to the World/the tiny proportion of my Twitter followers who gave me a pity click that day, was this: Tomas Petar Rogic could not, under any circumstances, be allowed to leave Celtic Football Club. This was August 2020, a couple of days before the Ferencvaros defeat that landed the first significant blow in the massive self-harm exercise that was Celtic season 2020-21.

A bleak time in general, then, but the growing rumours that Tam was about to pack his bags for Qatar were still alarming. He might have been mostly playing second fiddle to Ryan Christie at that point, and still the butt of the occasional ‘he back fae World Cup yet?’ zinger, but he was still oor Tam: not yet 28, the spiritual successor to Naka and Lubo, the guy who’d put his own unique stamp on so many of the iconic moments from nine-in-a-row and the treble-treble. Surely he couldn’t be allowed to just sidle off into the sunset when most people were too distracted by Neil Lennon’s ramblings and Boli’s Spanish holiday to even notice? 

Well, here we are approximately 21 months later, and it’s finally came to pass. For the first time since 2013, when Breaking Bad hadn’t finished yet and Rangers were on their way to Third Division title glory, Tom Rogic is not an employee of Celtic FC. And…we’re coping. We’re getting by. OK, so everyone on Sellik Twitter is losing it to tribute videos soundtracked by Coldplay and James Blunt’s ‘Goodbye My Lover’, and Tam’s final appearance at Celtic Park versus Motherwell reduced pretty much everyone to tears, including the great man himself (subtle, elegant tears, sliding down his face like one of his perfectly weighted passes sliding in behind a defence…), but there seems to be a growing consensus that A) the timing may well have been right for both parties and B) the farewell itself was fitting, touching and perfectly stage-managed. 

Part A of this supposition is open for debate. Whether we’re talking creative influence, raw goal and creation statistics or even just the amount of times the Australian international played – shock horror – a full 90 minutes, the season just finished was one of Rogic’s best in a Celtic jersey. Belying his reputation as a luxury player, he put his shoulder to the wheel and did as much as anyone to drag the club out of the deep, dark hole they were in last summer. At 29 he is hardly a geezer, he and Ange Postecoglou had a perfect working relationship underpinned by a huge amount of mutual respect, and there’s also an argument that, while the likes of Matt O’Riley are certainly on the right track, no other attacking midfielder in the Celtic squad currently possesses the unique mixture of poise, guile and temperament needed to take charge of a big game in a hostile atmosphere and absolutely run the show the way that Tam did at Ibrox back in April. He might have had plenty more to give. 

Part B surely isn’t up for debate, though. Leaving at exactly the right time in exactly the right way is one of the hardest things to do at a club as big as Celtic. Sometimes it’s the club’s fault, sometimes it’s the player’s fault, sometimes it’s just circumstances and bad luck, but not many great Celts have ticked off the ‘blazing sunshine/trophy day/packed out Paradise/applauded off/grown men greeting’ full house that Tam did against Motherwell. Think of Scott Brown making his final home appearance at an empty Celtic Park in a meaningless win over St Johnstone. Of the cream of the O’Neill generation leaving in the wake of Helicopter Sunday. Of Charlie Tully going home to his family and weeping when the board slyly exploited a clause in his contract to force him out the door in 1959. 

Some people might bristle at Rogic being mentioned in the same breath as Tully, but legends come in all different shapes and sizes, and who’s to say that years from now our generation won’t be boring the arse off everyone in the Tolbooth or the Sarry Heid with tales of Tam’s feats, with the same reverence that old boys nowadays talk about Tully scoring from a corner against Falkirk? Part of the fun of Rogic’s Parkhead career was that his greatness was never unanimously agreed upon. It was like a Magic Eye picture: some people just didn’t see it. The harsh truth is that, if he’d played to the full extent of his ability a little more often, and produced the same sparkling displays in Europe as he did domestically, he probably wouldn’t have lasted the full nine years, and would have been lured away to England like so many of his nine-in-a-row contemporaries.

Why did we love him so much, then? There are obvious answers. That goal against Aberdeen. That goal against Killie. Those umpteen goals against Rangers. But it always seemed less about what he did, and more about how he did it. We knew that there were better attacking midfielders out there, but none of them did it quite as stylishly or idiosyncratically as Celtic’s no. 18. They won’t last as long in the collective consciousness as the goals I mentioned a minute ago, but his more unusual goals – like the one he stunned into the net at Pittodrie as if using a cattle prod, or the one he somehow hooked in with his ankle when the ball landed just a little behind him at Firhill – are just as rewatchable, if only for you to sit there trying to figure out: ‘how did he do that?’ 

The languid stride, the short-sleeved tops over long-sleeved tops, the immaculately cropped Action Man hair – quite simply, he was cool as fuck. But another part of the appeal lay in his mystique. Star players for the biggest club in one of the world’s football most-obsessed cities shouldn’t be able to float around it like a ghost, but Rogic did. Unless, like Stuart Dougan of the Cynic parish, you were lucky enough for the bold Tam to randomly bounce into your work one day, you didn’t see him anywhere other than the Celtic Park pitch, and you didn’t tend to hear from him either. Whole seasons went by without hearing his voice. Stick ‘Tom Rogic interview’ into YouTube and you’ll find a small smattering of clips, mostly from contract renewals, cup finals, award dos – occasions, basically, where he was forced to speak and couldn’t get out of it. Perhaps that’s why it was strangely satisfying to see him shed those tears when taking his long final walk towards the touchline in the Motherwell game. Here, finally, was the cracking of that impassive Clint Eastwood façade, the evidence that all the screamers, skill moves and ‘limbs’ moments at Parkhead, Hampden and Ibrox that make up the tapestry he’s been carefully stitching together over the past nine years mean every bit as much to him as they do to all of us. 

Precisely how much he is missed will depend on Celtic’s summer transfer business and the extent to which the likes of O’Riley, Reo Hatate and David Turnbull develop. It’ll certainly be a sore yin if the team is missing a creative spark early next season and meanwhile Tam is off in semi-retirement somewhere in the Middle East. But even then, would we want to go back and scrub out the perfectness of that farewell? Like all the best sitcoms and dramas, Rogic has gone while there was still juice in the tank and left the fans wanting more. Effectively, he has been subbed off in the 70th minute of his Celtic career. And could there be any more apt tribute to the man than that?

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