AS DEBUTS go, they don’t get any worse than Brendan Rodgers’ for Celtic.
The Antrim man is only one game in to his tenure as Hoops boss but has overseen the worst result in Celtic’s history.
At least Artmedia Bratislava were a professional outfit when they stunned Celtic in 2005, while then part-timers Inverness Caledonian Thistle toppled a club in turmoil to shock Celtic in 2000.
Fortunately, it’s early days. Rodgers need only look at what Gordon Strachan went on to achieve with Celtic following that bashing in Bratislava, while 15 months after the Caley nadir we were celebrating only our third ever treble.
So there’s no cause for panic, but the 1-0 defeat to Lincoln Red Imps should certainly act as a wake-up call for what Rodgers needs to do if Celtic want to progress in Europe and succeed in what will be a challenging domestic season.
NO MORE MR NICE GUYAhead of the first-leg Rodgers admitted he would afford Lincoln the same respect as Real or Barca, while claiming afterwards that the defeat was not an embarrassment.
Rodgers needs to understand that respect and embarrassment are not mutually exclusive. You can, and should, afford Lincoln the same respect you would show Barcelona, but at the same time you can admit that it’s embarrassing to lose to a team over 350 places below you in UEFA’s club rankings.
In fact, it’s arguably more insulting to Lincoln to say it’s not an embarrassment – by treating it as just another defeat you’re denying them the recognition that should be afforded the part-timers for a momentous result in claiming a scalp, the biggest in their history.
Rodgers is known as one of the nice guys of the game but niceness didn’t win Ronny Deila plaudits or European progression, while Tony Mowbray’s passivity became synonymous with his disastrous reign.
Strachan, Neil Lennon and Martin O’Neill all enjoyed a laugh and a joke but there was no doubting they also possessed a ruthless streak. Strachan was famed for his acerbity, friendships meant nothing when Lennon ditched Alan Thompson from his coaching staff while players, managers, referees and journalists have all felt the sharp end of O’Neill’s tongue.
As well as offering praise, Rodgers needs to dish out criticism where it’s due – hopefully behind closed doors he unleashed the hairdryer in Gibraltar. And come Wednesday, the second-leg, by all means afford Lincoln respect but have a little respect for the status of your own club.
DROP THE BOMB (SCARE)Is there something we’re not seeing? There’s certainly something Celtic managers aren’t seeing. Despite a decent start to his Celtic career, Efe Ambrose seems to have been gaffe-prone ever since his calamitous performance against Juventus in February 2013.
He may play with his heart on his sleeve but fans watch with hearts in mouths.
Celtic’s defence collapsed after his half-time introduction against Aberdeen in May, shipping two goals after being 3-0 up. Yet Lennon and Deila kept faith with Ambrose, while Rodgers started him against Lincoln only to see him outfoxed by a police officer for the winner.
Injuries may have forced Rodgers’ hand but surely Michael Lustig would have been a better bet to partner Erik Sviatchenko? We’ll give Rodgers the benefit of the doubt there, and injuries may see him retain Ambrose for Wednesday’s home leg, but shipping out the Nigerian should be a priority.
He’s not a terrible player, but the collective sighs of resignation when he plays and the somewhat unwarranted but unfortunate stigma he has been laden with could be negatively impacting his and his teammates’ mentality. It may be best for all concerned if he moves on.
With injury-plagued Jozo Simunovic yet to make an impression and Dedryk Boyata turning in some Ambrose-esque performances in the latter half of last season, defensive reinforcements are essential for Rodgers.
CUT OUT THE MIDDLEMENShort at the back but overloaded in the middle, Celtic have around 15 midfielders in the first team. Yet despite this surfeit, when Rodgers opted for one up front in Moussa Dembele against Lincoln, striker Leigh Griffiths was accommodated in a deeper, wider role than normal.
Griffiths is obviously capable of doing a job there if called upon, but why not deploy someone more suited to the role when you’re so well stocked in that department?
It also stopped Griffiths, arguably Celtic’s best player, playing to his strengths up top. Midfield starters Scott Brown, Nir Bitton, Ryan Christie and Tomas Rogic looked pedestrian yet when we were chasing the game, Rodgers opted against introducing Patrick Roberts, the player most likely to make a difference. Fan favourite Kris Commons, meanwhile, didn’t even make the bench.
Rodgers is only one game in and still trying to work out his best team but despite the numbers in midfield, it looks like a case of quantity over quality. The excess of midfielders Celtic have accumulated either look equal to what we already had, haven’t had a chance to impress, or have regressed.
Rodgers needs to settle on his system and the players best suited to it before ditching the surplus. This will surely help settle the team, create some harmony in the squad and lighten the wage bill.
PLAY BOARD GAMES
The defeat to Lincoln will be no bad thing if it wakes the board from their slumber. If they thought spending big to bring in a good manager would be the only major bit of business they’d have to do this summer, this result will make them think again.
It’s all well and good hiring a top-class driver but you don’t then put him in a Lada and expect him to win a grand prix.
The capture of midfield prospect Kristoffer Ajer is exciting and signing Dembele was a coup, but Rodgers has been charged with assembling a team capable of reaching the group stages of the Champions League after a three-year absence.
Despite the Lincoln result, Rodgers’ reputation, experience and genuine affinity for Celtic will buy him more time with fans than another manager could have expected. He needs to use that leverage to force transfer funds from the board because if the club make an embarrassing early exit from Europe, it won’t be Rodgers the fans will target.
FOCUS ON THE LONG-TERM GAINSWhile Champions League qualification is the goal, failure to achieve it won’t be a disaster. (Having said that, a play-off round defeat to big-spending Manchester City would be much more palatable than an ignominious exit to Lincoln.) Celtic have survived two seasons without Champions League group stage football and another won’t kill the club.
Strachan’s transformation of Celtic from European laughing stock to a side taking the eventual winners to extra-time in the Champions League last-16 a season later shows we shouldn’t read too much into early blips. It also shows what can be achieved if the right man is given time.
Domestically, Celtic have stumbled to two title wins under Deila, with the board assuming they could go into cruise control in the absence of Rangers. The Bhoys still won the league, but under Deila the stagnation told in Europe and embarrassing domestic cup defeats. Having coasted for four years Celtic are now ill-prepared for a strong domestic challenge, which Rangers will surely offer under the guidance of the impressive Mark Warburton.
If Rodgers’ Celtic make an early exit from Europe, I’ll be more than happy if they replicate Strachan and have the league sewn up by March before making an assault on Europe next term.
Rodgers and Celtic are an excellent fit and despite only being on a one-year rolling contract, here’s hoping for years of future success during his tenure.