BRENDAN RODGERS admits it is “great for Ange” that Celtic are not involved in the banana skin of Champions League qualifiers and will go straight into the draw for the group stage a week on Thursday.
The former Hoops boss recalled his first competitive game in charge of the Hoops after arriving as Ronny Deila’s successor in May 2016 – an “eye opener” in Gibraltar.
Rodgers watched in horror when some slapstick defending allowed the part-timers of Lincoln Red Imps to win 1-0 in a second round qualifying first leg.
HOOPY DAYS…Brendan Rodgers celebrates with the Scottish Cup after the dramatic 2-1 win over Aberdeen at Hampden to seal his first treble as Celtic boss.
Players such as Saidy Janko, Efe Ambrose and Nadir Ciftci all figured that miserable evening, but they were already running out of time at Parkhead under the new manager.
The team got the job done in Glasgow with a 3-0 win – all the goals coming in the first-half courtesy of Mikael Lustig, Leigh Griffiths and Patrick Roberts – but the earlier loss highlighted the expectation levels for a boss of the Hoops.
Rodgers, who won seven successive trophies before his abrupt departure for Leicester City in February 2019, is delighted Ange Postecoglou’s side do not have to step onto soccer’s tightrope as they take their place in the lucrative top flight following last season’s remarkable Premiership triumph.
The Leicester City gaffer said: “I remember playing in Gibraltar; we had a really good pre-season. And this is the tough thing, it’s great for Ange now because they’ve got no qualifiers and go straight into the group stage.
A BIG ROUND OF APPLAUSE…Ange Postecoglou celebrates with the Celtic fans after the 5-0 success over Kilmarnock at Rugby Park.
“Back then, you got four qualifying rounds. So, you’re having to play eight games just to try and get to the Champions League. I had gone in that summer, the guys were fantastic in pre-season, but even in that first game, you could see the vulnerabilities of the team in Europe.
“So, we lost 1-0 out there. It was a game over two legs you were going to win because you went back to Glasgow. But, it was an eye-opener at that point to lose that opening game against, with all due respect, guys who were part-time.
“And, it was a real eye-opener in terms of you could see the supporters weren’t happy even though they probably knew we would get through.”
Rodgers admitted it was difficult to leave his boyhood favourites, a rapid exit that left vast numbers of supporters in shock.
Explaining his quickfire switch to the Midlands, the 49-year-old Premier League gaffer, speaking to Kammy and Ben’s Proper Football Podcast, continued: “I think we had qualified for the Champions League two seasons running.
“We’d won the double treble, we’d brought great investment into the club.
MANY HAPPY RETURNS…Neil Lennon celebrates his Celtic managerial comeback on February 27 2019 with a 2-1 victory over Hearts at Tynecastle.
“But I felt to make the next steps in Europe, we needed investment. I don’t think the club had that investment to put in, to compete at that level.
“It was also the challenge. It was such a difficult thing to leave because of the friends, the club and everything.
“But the number one thing for me in my life is to take on a challenge. And I felt that it wasn’t the ideal time to leave, but where I’d left the club from when I came in, the club had won seven trophies on the spin with the records and everything that we’d done.
“We filled the stadium again. We gave the team back hope because when we first came in we’d just lost to Rangers and Rangers were coming into the league. I felt we’d built up a great togetherness there.
“When I left, we were eight points clear and in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup. We’d already won the League Cup and we were in a really good position in the league.
“Neil Lennon came in, he did really well and won the league and Scottish Cup. The team finishes nine points clear and has a good foundation for the following season.”
Rodgers added: “That was the reason I left. It was such a hard one, such a difficult one.
“But I only look at the great memories, the great people, the great friends I’ve made there, the happy moments that I had.
“And then it was the next step in the journey.”