Thursday 15 November 2018

James Lawton: Latest king of Scotland remains forgotten elsewhere

Brendan Rodgers will be aiming to guide Celtic to another ‘Old Firm’ victory over Rangers Photo: Getty
Brendan Rodgers will be aiming to guide Celtic to another ‘Old Firm’ victory over Rangers Photo: Getty

James Lawton

They once made a film entitled 'The Last King of Scotland' around the central character Idi Amin, former dictator of Uganda. The way things are going in Scottish football they may well make another one, this time starring Brendan Rodgers, the all-conquering boss of Celtic.

Both plot lines contain, we have to be honest, a degree of fantasy but then there is no doubt Rodgers carries an astonishing record into tomorrow's collision with Rangers.

The trouble is there always comes a point when a man of achievement has to ask himself a leading question.

In the case of 44-year-old Ulsterman Rodgers, so wounded when he was cut down after some years of ultimately frustrated promise at Liverpool, it is basic enough.

It asks simply: "Am I really still heading for the stars - or am I just spinning my wheels?"

The question is inevitable given the gap that has opened up between the Scottish game and the one he once inhabited at Anfield.

In the Premier League the value of a special coach, a man plainly able to shape the psychology of a winning team, has never been so exhaustively sought.

Yet the name of Brendan Rodgers seems to have slipped off the radar of the English game.

Not surprisingly, so far he has gloried in his record-breaking, lonely eminence in Scotland.

The league title, the Scottish Cup and two League Cup successes at first attempts, the smashing of an unbeaten mark which had stood a 100 years, and the record 5-1 crushing of Rangers at Ibrox, add up to a body of work of remarkable consistency.

But the question is still haunting. Is Rodgers conquering a new empire or retreating from one where competitive standards are so much higher? There are certainly some harsh contrasts.

While Rodgers fends off a reported offer of £18m (€20m) from Brighton for French striker Moussa Dembele, his Liverpool successor Jurgen Klopp splashes out four times as much on the defence-stiffening quality of Southampton's Virgil van Dijk.

Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino was still making his first unheralded, albeit impressive, steps into the English game when Rodgers approached his decisive moments at Anfield.

Impressive work buoyed by the brilliance of Luis Suarez dissolved a season later into the squandering of a five-point Premier League lead going into the last three games.

Now Pochettino, rather than Rodgers, is seen as a potential giant of the touchline.

DISGUISE

When Rodgers was fired at Liverpool following a draw with Everton, and a mere sixth place early in the season, he could scarcely disguise his pain.

The suspicion was strong that he would fight hard to regain his place at the top of the English game in which many, including Steven Gerrard, believed he had outstanding gifts for making a team.

Certainly his statement in Scotland has been dramatic, even allowing for the discrepancy in competitive levels.

But as the Guardiolas, the Contes, Mourinhos and the Klopps occupy the commanding heights of the most powerful English clubs, there is no whisper of that old ambition of Rodgers to be in such company.

Some wondered if he might be on the point of offering some first doubts after the shocking 4-0 defeat by Hearts but three straight victories over Partick Thistle, Aberdeen and Dundee seem to have restored a sense of personal destiny not always supported by the quality of Scottish football.

Rodgers continues to insist: "Our motivation is Celtic. We set our own standards - no-one else."

Nor did you have to delve too deeply between the lines in his immediate reaction to the defeat by Hearts to see that, at least in public, he was in no mood to re-evaluate his place and his challenge in Scottish football.

He declared: "We have faced up to everything. When he lost to Hearts it was because Hearts deserved to win the game.

"The pitch was awful but the thing was that the problem was us. We weren't very good on the day, either collectively or individually.

"But the fact is that over 71 games we have faced everything, every attempt to develop a way to beat us. Against Hearts it was just one day we couldn't find a solution."

It would probably have been callous to point out that when Celtic have moved beyond the mostly safe harbour of the Scottish game the mysteries of problem-solving have too often been residing on another planet.

Disemboweled by Barcelona, massacred by Bayern Munich, pulverised by PSG, Celtic are the giants who shrivel in transit, who are scaled down the moment they cross their own border.

Yet Rodgers remains defiant in his pride, insisting: "It's a tribute to our players how they got over the defeat by Hearts.

"It's also the job of the manager and the training staff. We have to tell them, 'it's time to go again'.

"We score most of our goals from 60 to 90 minutes because physically and technically the team is in good condition.

"We always have the confidence that the team will do it in the second half of the season."

This week, Rodgers was uplifted by the 2-0 victory over Dundee, a third step away from the convulsion of defeat by Hearts.

"We had to be patient - and we did it in the end," he said. "I was very pleased with the hunger we showed.

WANTED

"It's not enough just to want to win a game - Dundee wanted to win it too."

Rodgers's own deepest hunger is evident enough. It is to assuage an appetite for success - and recognition - that he has never been at pains to disguise - and not least with a portrait of himself of a prominence which apparently surprised some visitors to his apartment back in his first Liverpool glory days.

His time in Scotland has plainly done little to diminish his sense of himself.

Not to be removed from the record any time soon, certainly, is his declaration: "My biggest mentor is myself. I've had to study the game and that has been my biggest influence."

Maybe it is one he will one day re-submit to sterner examination.

Meanwhile, another reel will unfold tomorrow. It is a film still utterly dominated by the man who might indeed turn out to be the last king of Scottish football.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport