Rodgers' top-dog rank under threat from Gerrard
Uncertain dynamic between ex-Liverpool duo adds spice to Celtic-Rangers derby
There's a story in Invincible, the book written about Brendan Rodgers' historic first season as manager at Celtic, which shines a light on the star quality that the new boss brought to Scottish football in the summer of 2016.
He traded off it. The author, David Friel, tells the story of how Rodgers convinced promising young striker Moussa Dembelé to spurn bigger contract offers from around Europe and pick Celtic as the next step of his evolution.
"We can call Luis Suarez and he'll tell you what I can do for you," said the former Liverpool manager, offering his mobile phone in the 19-year-old's direction. The impression is left that Dembele never actually dialled through to Barcelona, but the Antrim man had made his point. As a top-end Premier League manager, he had worked with the best of the best.
Dembele signed for the Hoops and played a major part in the treble-winning season that followed. From the outset, it was clear that Rodgers knew his appointment was bringing a buzz to Scottish football: 13,000 fans turned up to his unveiling at Celtic Park. Season ticket sales soared to over 50,000 and a waiting list was eventually introduced before the 2017/18 campaign, another season that ended with a Celtic treble.
Friel's tome details how Rodgers embraced his position as the biggest name in the Scottish business. He is only 45, yet he has assumed a statesman-like presence. Without any shadow of a doubt, he was the biggest fish in a relatively small pond.
That was true until May when the news broke that Steven Gerrard had accepted the post as manager of Rangers. It was a story that made headlines around the world and the angle of the Liverpool legend coming up against his old boss has restored global interest in the outcome of tomorrow's league meeting between the sides at Celtic Park.
In truth, Gerrard's exploits will turn heads regardless of who is in the other dug-out. He is a bigger name than Rodgers. We already know that Rodgers is conscious of that. Again, he traded on it. Gerrard's most recent autobiography detailed a curious aspect of their working relationship at Liverpool, with club officials - including the manager - asking the skipper to text potential transfer targets from around Europe to sound them out.
The tone of Gerrard's book makes it clear that he was very much aware of his own standing. And, while he spoke warmly about Rodgers' strengths, their last campaign together was difficult as Rodgers tried to phase the icon out of his side.
The takeaway memory was Gerrard finding himself on the bench for a game with Manchester United and then getting himself sent off for a stamp within 38 seconds of his half-time introduction in a vain attempt to prove a point. Gerrard reckoned that Rodgers was trying to stamp his authority by making the call in the first place. "I wondered if this was his way of showing the press that he was strong enough," he said.
In saying that, there is no reason to truly doubt the sincerity of their relationship. Or perhaps their former relationship. In his first months at Celtic, Rodgers detailed how Gerrard texted him after every good result, and there was even speculation they could work together. Instead, the rookie boss has pitched up in the opposing corner.
On budgets and resources, he is very much the underdog, although Rangers gave him money to spend over the summer.
It means that the derby matches are where he will really have to showcase his tactical nous. And great players do not always transition to the dugout. That's a point that Rodgers was quick to point out in the aftermath of Gerrard's arrival. He had climbed his way up the coaching ladder conscious that he was often a few yards down the touchline from individuals who had been far superior players.
"It's obviously a job he thinks he can do," said Rodgers, "But he'll never know until he's in there. Stevie hasn't been a manager yet. But, of course, as a player he was world class. There is no doubt about that."
This makes for a fascinating dynamic. Gerrard arrived with a good reputation following his work with the Liverpool U-19 side, although it would take a brave young Reds player to come out and say otherwise; 46,000 fans turned out for his Rangers bow, a friendly with Bury.
The good vibes have spilled into the serious business, where he bucked the recent trend of Scottish performances in Europe - Celtic aside - by steering the Gers through to the group stages of the Europa League after negotiating four qualifying rounds.
Rangers sealed the deal on Thursday by surviving a second-half onslaught to squeeze out Russian side FC Ufa despite playing the majority of the game with ten men and the final 25 minutes with nine. The Gers were unseeded from the second qualifying round onwards and had to manage the schedule through their pre-season, so their achievement is a substantial feather in the cap of the new manager.
It has also complicated their early season fixture schedule, and the late slip in last weekend's 3-3 draw with Motherwell could be excused in that context. The revenue generated from group stage football will seriously strengthen Gerrard's position going forward.
This has coincided with the first signs of Rodgers' relationship with the Celtic hierarchy souring. After back-to-back qualification for the group stages of the Champions League, he wanted investment to strengthen his squad to go again.
His employers failed to offer it and Rodgers publicly voiced his frustration ahead of an exit to AEK Athens in the penultimate qualifying round. They did swat aside Lithuanian side Suduva on Thursday to take a spot in the Europa League group stage but that is a consolation prize by their standards.
The attempt to make the Champions League was hindered by tensions involving defender Dedryck Boyata, who was frustrated by Celtic's decision to refuse an offer from Fulham and stayed at home while they lost in Greece.
Meanwhile, the major talking point this week revolved around Dembelé's decision to seek a £25m switch to Lyon, with the Hoops battling to keep the player.
Dembelé missed the Suduva game, has been making comments on social media and was yesterday sent away from training. Celtic and Rodgers have been good to him but the French attacker has evidently concluded that he must move on if he wants to get closer to the level of the world's elite. The power of a manager's personality can only keep a player in Scotland for so long. Gerrard will learn that too.
Despite the protests of fans, Rodgers has decided to take Boyata back into the fold rather than let the saga drag on.
There's a certain pragmatism in that, and it might also point to the growing threat from across the city. Celtic still have a superior squad to Rangers and should prevail across the course of the campaign; the gap last year was 12 points and the champions retained their crown with gas left in the tank.
The fact that Rangers have travelled back from Russia in the three-day turnaround since the European action also tilts the balance towards the home side tomorrow.
Still, Gerrard will have a fair idea of what to expect from a Rodgers side that plays an attractive brand of football and this date will have been circled in his diary.
It might be hard to stop Celtic from taking an eighth successive title, but Rangers fans will want encouragement that their bitter enemies will not make it all the way to the magic number of ten.
Rangers were out of the equation for a portion of that run, sinking to the bottom and resetting the trading company in a manner that would be familiar to the League of Ireland fraternity. They have a spring in their step again, and an A-list presence on the sideline.
As a player, Gerrard probably knew he had power to make Rodgers feel insecure. Now he must find out if he can wield the same influence as a manager.
7 of the best old firm derbies
MAY 1968: CELTIC 4 RANGERS 0
The incredible aspect of this Scottish Cup final meeting was not really the result but the attendance with 132,870 punters cramming into Hampden Park to watch the one-sided affair. Interestingly, the Rangers side included a striker by the name of Alex Ferguson.
MAY 1973: RANGERS 3 CELTIC 2
Jock Stein's Celtic side were hot favourites going into the Scottish Cup final and Kenny Dalglish put them ahead. But the Celtic side that had just clinched an eighth title on the trot was pegged back in a five-goal thriller. It kept Rangers boss Jock Wallace in the job and that was significant as he would eventually halt Celtic's march towards the coveted 10 in a row and steered the blue half of the city to a pair of trebles in a trophy-laden reign.
AUGUST 1988: RANGERS 5 CELTIC 1
This was a changing-of-the-guard game as the Celtic team that had won the double three months earlier was picked apart by a Rangers side managed by Graeme Souness. Ally McCoist scored twice, with Ray Wilkins also on target, as Rangers sent out a message and built the momentum towards winning nine league titles in a row.
JANUARY 1995: RANGERS 1 CELTIC 1
This game wouldn't make the top 100 of a Scottish-based list - and that's being generous - but it delivered a career highlight for Dubliner Paul Byrne, who scored his final goal for Celtic with a stunning volley in front of the away end at Ibrox. It was a rare moment of joy for the Hoops during a Rangers-dominated era. They finished fourth in the league.
AUGUST 2000: CELTIC 6 RANGERS 2
This was the start of the Martin O'Neill era, with the first Old Firm game of the season marking a turning point in the dynamic between the clubs. Celtic went 3-0 up inside 11 minutes, with Chris Sutton putting them ahead after just 51 seconds. The previous decade had belonged to Rangers. Since the turn of the century, Celtic have been the dominant force.
FEBRUARY 2006: RANGERS 0 CELTIC 1
Roy Keane played just 13 matches for Celtic during his brief stay in Scotland and the high point was going to the home of their arch-rivals and playing a big part in a 1-0 success - the midfield axis of Keane and Neil Lennon dominated as Gordon Strachan's side took another step towards a comfortable league success.
MARCH 2011: CELTIC 1 RANGERS 0
A game that was remembered for the furious sideline confrontations between Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon that overshadowed affairs on the pitch, with Celtic winning out in this Scottish Cup replay. Three Rangers players were sent off, with the firebrand El-Hadji Diouf receiving his second yellow after the final whistle.