When Brendan Rodgers was unveiled that sunny Friday, it was a pivotal moment for the club. It was on par with when Martin O’Neill had addressed the crowds from the front step. The club had managed to employ a top-end manager, one that was on the top of many a fan’s list. The only reason that he was there was his Celtic background.
Scotland can’t attract £2 million-a-year managers and we can’t attract top-end players. A manager of that calibre gives you a massive advantage if it works, and it did work. An invincible season, a double treble, seven trophies in-a-row, an improved infrastructure and a modern coaching set-up designed to get the best out of players; is proof that you get what you pay for.
The comparison with Martin O’Neill stops with trophy count. Martin O’Neill came and left knowing that whatever he did at our football club is what he would be remembered for. It’s clear that Rodgers believes that his Celtic achievements will be a footnote in his career. He has gone from being spoken about in the same terms as Jock Stein and Martin O’Neill to a person who will never be welcome back at the club.
Martin O’Neill walked around Hampden after the 2005 Scottish Cup final looking like a broken man. He was received by the Celtic support with respectful praise and applause. He had ended the dominance of our rivals and made us respected on a European stage in his five years in charge.
Not even the disappointments of his final season, a season during which he could have left us at any point, could tarnish his legacy. The way you conduct yourself amounts to more than your achievements, but if you get both right statues can be built in tribute.
The teams of Tommy Burns are spoke about in revered tones even though they only brought one trophy. The wet night at Ibrox when we were defeated by Falkirk, in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup, still sends a shiver down my spine. From the Govan Stand, the sight of a proud but broken man, who had given his all, standing in the unforgiving rain was more heartbreaking than what was happening on the pitch.
When the axe happened, he walked out the front door to applause from a crowd who were just as upset as him. There were plenty of failings during his time but these are not picked over, they are looked back at with nostalgic ‘what ifs’. What if a great man had become greater?
Burns returned to play a part in future successes, his dream was Lennoxtown and it came true. He understood what we craved, how we worked, and what it meant to us.
Neil Lennon arrived as a 29-year-old with all the excitement of a teenager signing for his bhoyhood club. He was the general of Martin’s revolution, winning honours and driving home that things were changing in Scotland. He stepped into the breach after Tony Mowbray was found wanting as manager. When he stood on the Celtic Park pitch after losing the league and said “this is not the end, it’s the beginning,” we believed him and were behind him. The day turned into an iconic moment rather than a disappointment.
He won trophies in the face of the worst abuse ever seen in the Scottish game. Beatings, bullets and bomb threats wouldn’t stop this force of nature serving the club he loved. He can be held up as an example that sectarianism only exists in Scotland as Celtic exist. A successful Celtic lead by Neil Lennon makes the bigotry pot boil over and scold the cooker.
His record as manager could have been better. The club were sent into a state of confusion as our rivals were liquidated and had to reform. It was an adjustment the club and Neil struggled to make. Neil loved the intensity and the pressure and, when that was gone, he was gone. He gave us Barcelona and the first of the current run of league titles.
The way that he left irked many. The way that he has returned has galvanised us all in a way that only a true Celtic man could. It’s a decisive decision and a message that touches on all those characteristics of Martin and Tommy.
Brendan gave up his chance to be spoken about in the same reverential tones as Martin and Tommy. Both are pillars of Celtic. Neil Lennon is not for giving up that opportunity.
Kevin GrahamListen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast