When Brendan Rodgers jumped ship there was an absolute outpouring of emotion from the Celtic support, all negative.
This was the guy we all believed was taking us to the ten.
There was outrage, calls of betrayal and accusations of him being a mercenary who had abused the support by pretending to be one of us only to up sticks and leave as soon as he got a better offer. I felt a lot of that myself although I’m cynical enough to understand that, in football, money talks and frothy emotional appeals tend to evaporate when the cold cash and status of the EPL, La Liga and Serie A are involved, so after the initial shock of Rodgers leaving, I didn’t experience the bitter resentment towards him that many of us had.
The reason i was so surprised that he left was based on the ego of the man himself.
I felt the chance of being immortalised in Celtic folklore as the man who led us to the holy grail would be too much for him to resist. Then he could sail off into the EPL sunset with his legacy in place and his stock sky high.
I found out he had left on Twitter while i was out walking the dog.
Here was the guy who had claimed to be one of us, who had taken the acclaim of the support as a messiah, who had given us an unbeaten season, two trebles and the aura of invincibility.
For me personally he had exercised all the ghosts of living through the Rangers domination of the 90’s. When Tom Rogic scored ‘that’ goal against Aberdeen I was an emotional wreck. I had recently lost my lifelong best friend, the guy who I’d sat next to at Celtic Park through the late 90’s and the Martin O’Neil years and shared so much heartbreak and joy with in relation to Celtic.
The last time we had together was the 5-1 ‘Dembele’ derby earlier in the season so the emotion and drama of that treble winning goal was overwhelming.
So when Brendan left so abruptly it initially felt like being dumped by a childhood sweetheart or losing a much loved pet. The rhetoric was intense, he was ‘the rat’ or ‘the snake’, he was a liar and a mercenary and worst of all he was an imposter, who had abused the loyalty and love of the support and would never be welcomed back to Paradise.
Often time is the great healer but the emotion attached to this was such that if anything, the animosity towards him has grown.
Which brings me, now, to the controversial bit. I’m aware that many fans would get to this part and refuse to even consider a mitigation of Brendan leaving, but hopefully some people will read on.
I want to take you back to an interview which Rodgers gave just a short time before his departure, in the January window of that year.
News had come through that we had signed Marion Shved, a handy looking winger who was playing out his skin in the Ukrainian league. On the surface this looked like a good signing but when asked, Brendan appeared agitated and claimed that he had no idea who he was and made a comment about having hundreds of wingers.
At the time it seemed a bit strange and a quick YouTube search showed Shved to be a talented player so I didn’t think too much about it. In hindsight, what must his relationship with the board have been like for him to disavow this kid live on TV?
If not Brendan, then who signed him? I always got the sense that Peter Lawwell’s nose had been put out of joint by 1) Rodgers presence at the club and 2) Rodgers success and relationship with the support. I’ll explain why.
Ronny Deila was a Lawwell appointment and part of the ‘project’. When we lost that cup semi against the Ibrox club, Dermot stepped in, bypassed all Lawwell’s processes and appointed his man, Rodgers. Two ego’s the size of Lawwell’s and Rodgers can’t exist in the same space.
Lawwell obviously fancies himself as a football mind and had appointed managers he could dominate and who would be clear who had the final say. All that finished with Rodgers sweeping in. He had the experience and clout to demand his own backroom staff and sports science systems and wouldn’t have signed had he not been given assurances around budgets and sales.
Lawwell thought he was the ‘Billy Big Baws’ around the place so I imagine him smiling through gritted teeth as Celtic fans filled a stand to welcome Rodgers.
As that pre-season got underway we all expected that team to be gutted and some money to be spent. The team looked dead on its feet and our leader, Scott Brown seemed finished. We brought in Moussa Dembele on a cut price deal from Fulham, Kolo Toure and after much haggling and delay signed Scott Sinclair but the real magic was in the transformation of the players already there.
Kieran Tierney, Stuart Armstrong, Callum McGregor and Scott Brown were all improved beyond measure and the players who had thrown Ronny under the bus were cut out like a cancer, no matter their reputation. I don’t need to go through the season blow by blow.
We all remember, but going into the second season we had hopes of making some progress in Europe. We had a team bursting with confidence and with the addition of two or three top players there was a real feeling we could go and compete but as the transfer window wound down there was that sinking feeling that the board had decided to gamble. Again.
We negotiated the qualifiers and made the Champions League for the second year running but the only significant signing we made was to bring in Odsonne Edouard from PSG, a player with huge potential but not the experienced campaigner we craved and with the caveat that rather than being brought in to partner Dembele he was being brought in to replace him.
We had also lost Paddy Roberts, with the board seemingly unwilling to match Man City’s fairly modest (given what they paid for him) demands.
No ‘blue chip’ (Peter Lawwell’s term) player was signed this season, and everyone could see we needed a couple of defenders. Kolo Toure’s experience had been invaluable the previous year but his playing days were over. Boyata played the game the way Brendan wanted but other than Tierney we had no other defenders good enough and received some pretty sore and humiliating lessons from PSG. Still, we managed third place and fell into the Europa League and Europe after Christmas.
The following summer saw the crisis break. It started with the saga of John McGinn, and here’s where I believe we find Brendan Rodgers tipping point. McGinn was a no brainer. The top player in Scotland out-with our own squad, a readymade replacement for Scott Brown and a guy steeped in our own traditions. It should have been easy.
But oh no, in typical Lawwell fashion it became a battle of egos between him and Rod Petrie of Hibs. I’ve heard a lot of negative nonsense from Celtic fans about McGinn since. How he chose the EPL gold over Celtic and how any Celtic fan would crawl over glass to play for Celtic.
This is a professional football player first and a Celtic fan second.
As we’ve seen with KT, these guys want to see how high a level their talent can get them to and secure themselves financially into the bargain. McGinn had every right to keep his options open and every right to tell Lawwell where to stick it as he haggled and dragged his feet over the few hundred thousand more Hibs wanted than we were willing to pay.
That said, by all accounts he did want to play for us and with all the success Brendan had brought to the club, Lawwell should have gone and got him the player he had specifically asked for to enhance the first team, but no, in true Celtic PLC fashion we refused to pay the asking price and McGinn was made an offer from Aston Villa and off he went.
And so another transfer window that started with so much expectation ending underwhelming and as fans we had to once again endure the disappointment of those closing hours in the window running down with no sky sports announcement of a signing other than Lewis Morgan who we loaned back to St Mirren till the end of the season.
And just to add insult to injury we sold arguably our best player to Lyon for 20m, making the club a tidy profit but leaving us threadbare in terms of strikers and on top of that had to watch McGinn take the Premier League by storm with a string of brilliant performances.
We were then put out of Europe by an average AEK Athens side and the deficiencies in our squad were now becoming plain to see.
Then in January we had the interview that I started this article with.
Brendan chose to publicly deny having any knowledge of Marion Shved, going as far as to say he had never heard of him. I believe by this point the writing was on the wall and Brendan could see that Lawwell and the board would never allow him to build the team that could take us onto the next level.
Do we really think that Brendan Rodgers sanctioned the signings of Kouassi and Bayo?
How many times in the last 15 years have we seen those types of signings?
Balde, Bangura, Ciftci, Blackett etc.
They have Lawwell’s fingerprints all over them.
Don’t get me wrong, not all Brendan’s signings were successful. Compper became a figure of fun, Musonda never cut it, but you could at least see what they were supposed to be. An experienced centre half and a playmaker.
Given the poor quality of player we were bringing in and having lost Armstrong, Roberts, Dembele and with the vultures starting to circle around Tierney, Rodgers must have looked around and realised that he had taken us as far as he was going to be allowed to.
Given the ego and ambition of the man there was no way he was going to allow Lawwell to ruin his brand and with that his chance of landing a plum job down south when the time was right.
From that point on I imagine he had the feelers out and I think Lawwell knew that.
Even after achieving back to back trebles for the first time ever, the next season saw us patch the team up with loan players. Timo Weah, Oli Burke and Jeremy Toljan came in, all decent enough but this team bore no comparison to our Invincibles of two years previous.
The pace, movement and incisiveness was gone and instead the football was often turgid and one dimensional. The Ibrox club were slowly improving under Gerard and importantly, he was being backed by a board willing to risk everything to stop Celtic, while our board in their complacency and arrogance weren’t even prepared to gamble on the Champions League prelims and obviously thought that the Ibrox club’s troubles off the field would dictate their success on it.
And then all of a sudden Brendan Rodgers was gone, and the howls of betrayal followed him all the way down to his new club Leicester city, the plum EPL job he’d been waiting for.
He left us six points clear in the title race, having already secured the League Cup and in the latter stages of the Scottish Cup.
His legacy was an incredible double treble but the manner of his leaving was so shocking to some that it tainted all his achievements at the club.
We’re now 18 months on from that day and where do we find ourselves?
Lennon was announced as the man to steady the ship and get the 8th title in the bag. Being a Celtic icon his presence was able to lift the support after the shock of Rodgers leaving and despite some ropey displays and games in which we left it to the last second, he was able to get us over the line and secure the treble treble.
A fantastic achievement and the point at which he should have been moved to another role at the club or used the capital he had built to secure himself another job.
In the six months from Rodgers leaving to Lennon securing the treble, Lawwell should have been scouring the globe for someone to come in for the final push and beyond. But my guess is that Lawwell disliked the experience of having a personality in charge that could dominate his own so much, that he put his own sense of importance before what was best for the club.
Let’s be clear, it’s not every day a Scottish club can attract an A-list manager to sign up. Rodgers was that. He could have gone to any league and had his pick of a host of top clubs but he chose to come to Celtic. It’s well known that we’re a kind of gateway club and success here can open doors but Rodgers didn’t need us for that.
He had great success at Swansea and but for a Gerrard slip would have led Liverpool to their first championship in a generation. He is the real deal, as we’re seeing again this season. The fans understood that we couldn’t replace him like for like but there were a lot of exciting names mentioned and much debate about who the new boss should be.
Of course there was a section of the support who wanted Lennon to stay on.
We had been stung by Rodgers departure and having a Celtic man in there was like having an emotional Elastoplast over that wound, but having learned nothing from the past I was hopeful and excited that we’d appoint a modern type coach with a system that could be utilised at every level, and who could take us beyond ten in a row and into the next chapter.
Lawwell wasn’t having that.
He wasn’t going to have someone take the limelight from him and dictate the direction of the club so he took advantage of the emotion and tribalism around Lennon and appointed him straight after he had won the Scottish Cup and sealed the treble, admitting afterwards that they hadn’t even interviewed another candidate.
To say i was gutted at Lennon’s appointment was an understatement.
We had gone from an A-list manager to a guy who’s only qualification was that he had won the league with us before and “knew the club”.
He took the fans for sentimental, gullible fools who would welcome home one of our own.
I don’t mean to be disrespectful to Lennon here, or anyone who supported his appointment, but he had failed in every position he had since leaving us before and shouldn’t have been anywhere near the job. That is on Lawwell.
Where we are now is on Lawwell.
He basically made himself director of football and his power around the club is such that he actually thought he should be the arbiter of what players we signed using the bottom line rather than the evolution of the first team as his measure for success.
In the cold light of day, setting all emotion aside, would we really expect someone of Rodgers calibre to put up with having Lawwell’s huge ego and sense of importance as an obstacle to his own career? Would any other top manager have stayed as long as Brendan did? I think Rodgers knew he was finished at Celtic before the end of his second season. I think it was his intention to write himself into Celtic folklore then go back down south and I think Peter Lawwell resented the way he was appointed and the adoration he was given by the fans and I think he obstructed whatever assurances had been made to Rodgers to the point that he saw what was coming and jumped ship before it affected his own stock.
Should Rodgers have done the honourable thing and seen out the season?
Yes, he probably should, but knowing what we know now, and knowing that for all Rodgers is a bit of a self-preening and egotistical man, he’s also a clever man.
He saw the cliff edge on the horizon and chose to get the hell out of dodge before it impacted his own career. I’m not sure I blame him for that to be honest.
Look at the absolute mess we’re in now?
Lennon has been outsmarted and out-manoeuvred by an ever improving Steven Gerard at almost every turn. That’s not on Lennon, his limitations are clear, that’s on the man who appointed him. The man who thinks his own legacy is more important than the legacy of a club legend who’s now going to be remembered for grimly hanging on to a sinking ship when he should have stepped off and handed the reins to someone else.
All of this is just my opinion of course and it might be miles off the mark but I remember Rodgers saying that one day we’d understand why he left the way he did. For me that realisation is now when I look at the wreckage of a season that should have been the pinnacle of an incredible decade of success for Celtic, in spite of our self-appointed director of football.
Chris Cominato is a Celtic fan and blogger, and one of the admins of the CelticBlog Facebook group.