A Harsh Reality
Celtic’s stroll to victory over Rangers in the Scottish Cup Semi-Final at Hampden Park on Sunday was just about the most one sided and stress free derby I’ve ever watched. Rangers arrived at Hampden making noises which betrayed either an ill-conceived over confidence or perhaps it was some sort of cock-eyed attempt to push Celtic into a state of nervousness about the fixture. Tales of cheering in the dressing room at Ibrox when the draw paired them with Celtic seemed a lifetime ago as the blue half of Hampden melted away in the face of a Celtic onslaught which simply blew their side away. In those closing 15 minutes, a demoralised side was chasing shadows, as a dejected support was already on its way home. Sports Journalist, Graham Spiers, summed it up when he wrote…. ‘Utter humiliation for Rangers at Hampden. They were treated with contempt by Celtic.’
This, the latest in a series of defeats against Brendan Rodgers Celtic, was in some ways the most damaging. Hope, it is said, is the thing which kills. Many Rangers supporters approached the match at Hampden with a degree of unrealistic optimism based on their narrow 3-2 defeat to Celtic at Ibrox a month before. They did play reasonably well in that game but faced a Celtic side which gifted them the opening goal, played the last 30 minutes with ten men and still came from behind twice to beat them. Celtic did what they needed to do to win the match and Rodgers sorted out the defensive errors which made the Ibrox game tighter than it needed to be.
Celtic started the game at Hampden well and demonstrated a degree of footballing mastery over their opponents which had their fans confident that the real Celtic was yet again turning up when it mattered most. Brown was imperious, McGregor full of running and guile and Dembele demonstrating that when he is in the mood no defence in Scotland can contain him. The whole team played with conviction and a confidence which is born of belief in themselves, the team and the manager. Contrast a Rangers side, seemingly confused about the shape they were meant to be adopting, to a Celtic side moving the ball with ease around the pitch and simply playing around the congested midfield. Tactically and technically, Celtic was streets ahead.
Rodgers, who has 7 Hampden appearances under his belt and has recorded 7 wins there, had said in the run up to the game that Rangers should be, ‘careful what they wish for.’ He knows well that good teams should do their talking on the field and save the cheering until victory is certain. He also respects all opposition sides and prepares his team in a professional and thorough manner. His ten games without defeat against Rangers eclipses Walter Smith’s nine games undefeated in the period between 1995-97. One English based newspaper said of Rodgers’ hold over Rangers….
‘He is no longer a monkey on Rangers’ back; he is a two hundred pound boulder.’
I’m sure Brendan Rodgers felt a little sympathy for Graham Murty, an honest and seemingly decent man, who stood looking very alone amid a crowd, watching his team being dismantled by clearly superior opposition. Striker Leigh Griffiths though was less charitable and echoed the thoughts of many fans when he said…
“That was a game that they cheered for. Their manager said that, but you should be careful what you wish for in case it comes back to bite you on the arse. You always want to beat your rivals and, from start to finish, we dominated the game in every aspect.”
Murty may have deserved better than the squabbling and insubordinate reaction of his players in the wake of the defeat but it is hard to feel any sympathy for supporters who fix banners reading; ‘We Deserve Better’ to the training ground gates. Such an attitude of entitlement betrays a mind-set which has still to come to terms fully with the implications of the implosion at Ibrox in 2012 which saw the old club liquidated. There is a new reality in Scottish football which many of their followers have yet to grasp. Not only are Rangers now forced to operate within the same financial rules as the rest of the clubs in the league, they also face a Celtic streets ahead in both footballing terms and in business acumen which helps to sustain footballing success. There can be no big name stars brought in to Ibrox these days using dodgy tax avoidance schemes. There is no David Murray figure with access to pots of borrowed capital to boast; ‘if they put down a fiver we’ll put down a tenner.’ Nor is there a compliant and fawning media to uncritically peddle the puffed up pro-Rangers narrative we were fed in the bygone days of yore. Rangers are now learning the harsh realities of living within your means. Something Fergus McCann taught Celtic over 20 years ago.
Celtic now move forward confident that they will soon clinch their seventh successive title and with a realistic opportunity to complete a historic second successive Treble. Nothing can be taken for granted as Motherwell will line up at Hampden in May with their usual determined and direct approach to the game. It will be far from easy but Celtic have the winning mentality Rodgers often speaks of.
He is rebuilding his reputation at Celtic and has been linked already with the upcoming job at Arsenal when Arsene Wenger leaves his post at the end of the season. When asked if Celtic would allow Arsenal to approach Rodgers, Desmond replied:
"Absolutely. I don't think you can put handcuffs on anybody if they want to go to a club as good as Arsenal. It will be Brendan's decision and his decision only. I'm glad he's the favourite. He's an outstanding person. We wouldn't want him to leave but we won't force him to stay. Hopefully his love for the club and the setup here will induce him to stay at the club."
On the surface that statement by Desmond sounds ominous for Celtic fans but it contains two huge questions. Would Arsenal be interested in Rodgers and would Rodgers be interested in Arsenal? He is a young coach at 45 with plenty of time to move on to pastures new when he has completed his project at Celtic. I believe he is happy and committed to Celtic for a while yet. He has manifestly conquered Scotland but sees his real challenge in smashing through the glass ceiling Celtic currently encounter in Europe. He was asked recently about his future at Celtic and smiled as he replied…
‘There is still a lot of work for me to do, to achieve on the pitch and off the pitch. But you can only do that if you’re happy and as for me, I couldn’t be happier at this club. The support I get from the board is all very aligned, very clear and that allows me to work in confidence. It gives stability to the team and to the staff and everyone. I am looking for the next steps to take and we are already thinking of how we can improve next year. How we can be better in our form and game, in all aspects. I might get more money elsewhere but what I’ve learnt is that happiness is the most important thing. As long as I feel that way, then I’m really happy to be here. My ambition is for Celtic. I’m not worried about myself and my own ambition. I want to sustain this level of success for as long as I can.’
It may be somewhat ominous for the other sides in Scottish football to hear, but Rodgers sounds like a man likely to stick around at Celtic Park for a good while yet. He is a top manager and brings all the skills and contacts which come with that but more than that, he is a Celtic supporter thoroughly enjoying his time at the club he has such affection for. He also knows that it is within his grasp to write new chapters in Celtic’s history and take his place among the greats who have served the club over the last 130 years.
As most of you reading these words will know, once Celtic is in your heart it is hard to walk away. I hope Brendan Rodgers stays around for a few years yet and joins the legends adorning the stadium walls.