“Back your players, back our process, back yourself, stay calm,” Brendan Rodgers

Everything that was said as Brendan Rodgers spoke to the media this afternoon at Lennoxtown ahead of tomorrow’s Scottish Premiership match against theRangers at Celtic Park. A victory for Celtic will all but secure the title, which could be won next Wednesday night at Rugby Park with just a point against Derek McInnes’ side.

But that can wait because it’s almost time to “bring on theRangers“…

Q: What is it about this fixture that makes it so special?

Brendan Rodgers: “The whole occasion, the build-up, the intensity in the stadium of course, and just the overall emotion around them, are absolutely fantastic. It is something I have always enjoyed, no matter what stadium it is, Celtic Park, Ibrox, Hampden, they are great games to be involved in.”

Q: What is the key to having a good record in it?

Brendan Rodgers: “I’ve got to be honest, I go into every game, and people will reference the record, but the mindset really is to go in and forget about what has happened before. You can’t rely on that It’s the preparation, the calmness of the team, the build-up to the games that are relaxed but focused. And then of course you have to perform. And the players over both of my periods here have performed so, so well in these games. I am really looking forward to this game. With 60,000 supporters, the pitch will be magnificent, and it’s a chance for us to perform.”

Q: Are you surprised (the)Rangers have pushed you so far?

Brendan Rodgers: “I have not really thought about it. Going into every season and every competition, you always expect to have competitors and of course, (the)Rangers normally being the closest ones. But the focus primarily has been ourselves.

“However which way we started the season, however, we were in the middle, the focus has been on ourselves and getting to a level that I would expect us to be at. And arriving into the game we have had seven out of eight wins and the draw was still a very good performance, at Ibrox. So we arrive into the game in a good feeling and theRangers have been close a lot of the way through the season. But that’s what you want, you want competition, and that hopefully brings the best out of you.”

Q: Are you surprised how your ‘have fun’ comments have caught the attention across the city?

Brendan Rodgers: “Yeah. I think anyone who was at my press conference would have sensed the way in which it was said. The reaction to that is totally without merit. It has no context whatsoever. You mention my past record in these games, I have never referred to these other than being intense and being competitive.

“We never talk about the game as that but we talk about the whole occasion. The occasion is one of the most iconic games in world football. And I love it. It’s one of the reasons I am here, the great pride and privilege I have in managing Celtic in a (the)Rangers game.

“So the whole emotion, the entire feeling around this game is absolutely amazing. I have seen some of the headlines around the disrespect and whatever else but it is totally without merit. It was never in that context being said, and I never would be that person to disrespect another manager or another team. But I suppose it’s part of the build-up for you guys.”

Q: Does that situation show you what pressure can do and how people cope with it?

Brendan Rodgers: “I don’t know, I can only talk for myself. I have loved these fixtures, it was the ones I was really looking forward to since being up here the first time. The record is great but it’s always about building – building more memories and great occasions in this game. But everyone responds and reacts in different ways. I understand the feeling and tension that can be around this game but that’s not me. My job is to find the calmness for the team and the players have been very, very relaxed but focused this week. The preparation has been first class, and that allows us to go into the game ready.”

Q: How big an opportunity is it to place one hand on the trophy with a win?

Brendan Rodgers: “It’s a great opportunity. That’s what stands in front of us. Nothing will be won, we need to go and perform well, we need to work hard, we need to be intense, and we need to ensure that our game is at a good level. We’ll have an amazing support which will just take us through the game, that wave of emotion, and hopefully, we can entertain the supporters as well on the field.

“Primarily, the job is to get the three points and if we can do that it puts us in a brilliant position with two games to go. Every game, you’re always looking at the dynamics and anticipate what the opposition might play, and the players you can play against that. Whatever team we play to start the game I’ll be comfortable with, but knowing the impact of the substitutes will be very important.”

Daizen Maeda scores in the first minute of a Scottish Premiership football match against theRangers on April 7, 2024 at Ibrox. Photo Imago

Q: What are your thoughts on the narrative that Daizen Maeda has lots of success against James Tavernier?

Brendan Rodgers:  “James is a really good player, he’s been a really good captain for Rangers. Daizen is an amazing athlete, he’s physical, he scores goals, he’s a threat, he’s intense, which is obviously difficult to match. He’s a real specimen physically, how he presses, how he runs, and of course in a pressing team like ours that’s absolutely vital.”

Q: You have mentioned being relaxed and focused. How do you ensure that the players stay calm and relaxed and that pressure doesn’t seep into the training ground?

Brendan Rodgers: “We’re very focused on ourselves and being in here and doing their work. I think the players know by the time they arrive at the game tomorrow that they’ve had a really good week of preparation. We’ve looked at various scenarios that may happen, that can happen in the game, and when you go into the game with that clarity and that sole focus on performance then you have to take that into the game and ignore everything else that’s going around.

“I say ignore it, but it is a massive part of this game – and that’s for the supporters and that’s for everyone else to be excited about and to look at. That’s what makes this fixture unique in many, many ways, the passion, the tension, the build-up, and, of course, where we are at this point in the season and being so close, that adds a bit more spice to it as well. For us, it’s just about our football and staying focused on that.”

Q: A draw suits Celtic but Rangers need to win the match. Do you expect that to impact the game at all? If it is late in the game and the result is going a certain way that could change the dynamic of the game?

Brendan Rodgers: “For us, our intention is to win the game, so we don’t prepare for anything else. We look to attack the game, and that’s our only focus and we’ll see where that brings us.”

Q: How big a part does trust play in the game? The players see a manager that they trust and you trust the players. How important is that dynamic?

Brendan Rodgers: “It can help. That consistency and knowing what you’re going to get from people in a high-stakes game, in a game of tension and a game of pressure. Whether that’s the manager or a player, it’s great to look at that. It is important.”

Q: This team has won things and been successful routinely over the last 12 years. Does that play a part in the confidence levels?

Brendan Rodgers: “I think it is. It’s a culture and an environment that’s created here also. There’s winning, but the build-up to how you win is important and that obviously breeds confidence. I think what really helps is the fact that when I’m here, along with myself, I look around the team and I look at the staff and there’s players here and people here that have done it. They understand what it takes. Callum McGregor. James Forrest. Some of the other guys who’ve been here for a few years and have done it. John Kennedy on the staff. Stevie Woods is on the staff.

“That gives you that confidence and understanding of what it takes. When you have that, you can approach this with a calmness that allows you to focus on the performance and not get too carried away with all the noise.”

Q: Did you fall back on your experience when you were dropping points earlier in the season?

Brendan Rodgers: “I think it’s one that you have to back yourself in that moment. You know that performance-wise and at times results-wise, it wasn’t what we would have liked or wanted but you have to stay focussed, stay calm.

“I think the whole underlying thing that I was fully aware of, that lots of people maybe were but didn’t want to say, the principle difference was personnel. We had really important players missing. When you have players of that ilk who can really affect the performance of the team and they are not there… the football looks different.

“Whether people didn’t want to admit that or didn’t see it… whatever it was, we certainly were not at the level we are at now. But importantly it was a case of staying with it, the players were brilliant in the whole process. They had belief in what they were doing.

“They are such a humble and honest group. It was a case of chipping away then when we get to a stage where those players are back, the football then starts to shine. In the last performance against Hearts, that’s more like I would have expected if the team was fit and available for most of the season. The consistency, the directness, speed, the tempo, the quality.. all those aspects were there in the game. Let’s hope we can finish that way with those players fit and the football can smile for us then.”

Q: Can you still enjoy it when the points differential is so small?

Brendan Rodgers: “I have to say from a personal perspective it doesn’t feel any different. Other times where we have had leads or not, or this one where it is tight, the focus is really on the next game and performing to the very highest level we possibly can. In my first season here, we had an invincible season and could have easily checked out of that long before we did.

“But the mentality is to win and win in the best way we very possibly can. That took us to the end of that season unbeaten and achieving a great season. So for me it never changes, whether you are three points clear or 30 points clear. Our measure is us, being the best we can possibly be, and finishing the season as strongly as we can so that we can take a really strong positive start into next season. So it doesn’t feel any difference because the focus is always on ourselves.”

Q: James Forrest has come back into the team and is playing on the left and Daizen Maeda also favours the left-hand side. Is it a choice to play one or the other or can James be just as effective on the right-hand side?

Brendan Rodgers: “It is a great question. What is important is having the flexibility. Daizen can play on both sides, and James can play on both sides. Depending on the opponent or the game, it’s whether we want inverted wingers or wingers on the outside. It just depends on the game. But the point you make is absolutely right, it is great for me from a managerial and coaching perspective to have that flexibility. Daizen we have seen play on the right this season, James on the left or the right, the other guys also. The key is flexibility and having players who are adaptable.”

Q: Do you think of the history of this game which you have described as one of the most iconic in the world?

Brendan Rodgers: “Definitely. As a boy growing up and seeing these games, watching them and feeling the emotion. I remember my very first game when we won 5-1 at home in September 2016 and there’s definitely a sense of that.  You take yourself back because you are a supporter really on the side of the pitch when you get the chance to manage the team. That’s where the privilege comes from and the honour.

“They are the games I’ve watched all my life. Now I’ve been involved in quite a few of them, certainly, nothing gets mundane. I think by the end of the season we’ll have played five times. For me, it’s only excitement and sheer passion. I’ve been involved in Liverpool v Manchester United, and Liverpool v Everton, great games, Swansea v Cardiff was a great derby game as well. But this is different. This is different. The feeling, the tension, it really is an iconic fixture. I’m very privileged to manage Celtic in it.”

Q: Is there more tension these days?

Brendan Rodgers: “Yes, for sure.”

Q: Kyogo has 7 goals in the fixture have you seen him come alive in recent weeks? 

Brendan Rodgers: “He looks bright and he’s sharper in his movement. It goes back to players being able to find him with his movement and his runs. ‘He’s always been really good in these games. I think you could see his confidence at the weekend. You know with him he’s the type of striker that when his overeat is bright and dynamic, if you can find him early, he’s a real threat. I can see the difference with him and that probably aligns with some of the players coming back who are able to find him and play with him.”

Q: What is it like to see Callum McGregor mature as a captain and a person over the years?

Brendan Rodgers: “It’s been amazing to see. He was a talented young player. What Callum did was he was very patient in his development. I see lots of young players here and now across other clubs, they want to be in first teams at 17 and 18. That’s now always the case. You look at Callum coming through and getting a great education from the coaches here. He then goes out on loan to Notts County, comes back and by the time he’s 21 he’s starting to get the feel for the first team.

“It was one of the big factors for me coming back. I’ve got to be honest – knowing that he was here. because he was absolutely phenomenal for me in that first season. The number of positions he played for. His view of the game is that the very highest ever. I’ve been lucky to have worked with some great captains, some brilliant captains. He’s right up there with them.

“All captains do it in different ways. For me, just to see his growth as a player and as a personality on the field …to captain a club like Celtic you need to have a big personality on and off the pitch but you also need to have humility and that’s what always strikes me with Callum. He’s an absolutely brilliant player. He was majorly influential in my coming back here.

“To work with someone like that, knowing what he would bring, knowing his professionalism is at the very highest level of all the players I’ve ever worked with, and then his performance level. It’s great to see. He’s developed into an incredible player and a great man also.”

Q: Did you always have complete confidence that you would find rhythm or were there some managerial doubts at various stages this season?

Brendan Rodgers: “I think you hope. You go back to what you hoped and why I was coming in. I wouldn’t necessarily say I took over a squad of Treble winners. It was a team of Treble winners. But that team then had major gaps. So when they leave and then the players that are in are then out, then it was a real challenge. And it has been. There’s no denying that. But you always have to back your players, back our process, back yourself, stay calm and know that if you can keep working and keep chipping away, you can get to a level at the most important part of the season.

“That’s eventually what’s happened. Sometimes it hasn’t been perfect. The reality is that it doesn’t have to be perfect in football. You just have to try to get better every single day, in every single game, and that can take you to where you want I get to. That’s how it’s worked out for us. We still have a massive job to do starting tomorrow.

“But if we can get a good performance and a good result, then we are neatly there. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do. The players deserve a huge amount of credit. Because when the flak has been flying, and it has been for a lot of this season, they’ve stayed strong and believed and stayed with the process.”

About Author

The Celtic Star founder and editor David Faulds has edited numerous Celtic books over the past decade or so including several from Lisbon Lions, Willie Wallace, Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig. Earliest Celtic memories include a win over East Fife at Celtic Park and the 4-1 League Cup loss to Partick Thistle as a 6 year old. Best game? Easy 4-2, 1979 when Ten Men Won the League. Email editor@thecelticstar.co.uk

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