Celtic boss rel­ishes com­pet­i­tive na­ture of cur­rent cam­paign He says Rugby Park man­ager’s feat has come as no sur­prise

The Scotsman - - Weekend Sport - By EWING GRA­HAME

As his ta­ble-top­pers travel to cham­pi­ons Celtic, Ayr­shire boss says his side can be lo­cal he­roes even if ti­tle is out of reach

Celtic man­ager Bren­dan Rodgers ad­mits his team’s dom­i­na­tion of the do­mes­tic game is fac­ing a greater chal­lenge than in his two pre­vi­ous tre­ble-win­ning cam­paigns but claims that he rel­ishes the search­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of their cre­den­tials ahead of to­day’s visit from Pre­mier­ship lead­ers Kil­marnock.

The Ayr­shire club are the fourth dif­fer­ent side to top the elite di­vi­sion this sea­son and with Rangers and Hearts still in the mix and Aberdeen show­ing signs of re­cov­er­ing their form, any neu­trals yearn­ing for the sport to be less pre­dictable ap­pear to have had their wish granted.

The cham­pi­ons re­main favourites to claim an eighth suc­ces­sive ti­tle in 2018/19 but Rodgers ac­cepts that they will have their work cut out to do so and he wel­comes the chase.

“I’ve re­ally en­joyed it in a dif­fer­ent way to other sea­sons,” he said. “You want it to be com­pet­i­tive but you can only ever con­trol your­selves.

“That’s what we try to do but it’s great when there’s com­pe­ti­tion be­cause that al­lows you to im­prove. If you look across the league, Kil­marnock are up there on merit, Rangers have im­proved, Aberdeen will al­ways be strong and they have a cou­ple of games in hand.

“Hearts and Hibs are two big clubs and maybe re­sults have fallen away a bit re­cently but they’ve still got good squads with good man­agers. It’s a good league and a great one to be in­volved in.”

Book­mak­ers of­fered odds of 5,000-1 on Kil­marnock end­ing 54 years of hurt by be­com­ing cham­pi­ons of Scot­land but Rodgers re­fuses to rule them out and agreed with Rugby Park chair­man Billy Bowie that they have earned the right to be­lieve they can em­u­late un­fan­cied Le­ices­ter City, who won the English Premier League in 2016, by fin­ish­ing on top of the pile.

“Le­ices­ter, who were also 5,000-1, showed it can be done,” he said. “What Le­ices­ter did was make the im­pos­si­ble pos­si­ble if you have good play­ers.

“What they have at Kil­marnock is ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers and a mix of young­sters in there as well. Some of the boys have good ex­pe­ri­ence and they have worked very well to­gether.”

When Steve Clarke re­placed Lee Mccul­loch as man­ager of Kil­marnock 14 months ago, they were at the bot­tom of the ta­ble, hav­ing har­vested only three points from eight fix­tures, con­ced­ing goals in each of them.

Now only Celtic have a bet­ter de­fen­sive record in the top tier and Rodgers cred­its Clarke for the way he has worked rig­or­ously to en­sue that the whole of his team is greater than the sum of its parts.

“Steve and I are both what you would call coach­ing man­agers,” he said. “We like to be on the grass – or the Astroturf – with the play­ers and feel them close and help them de­velop. That’s our nat­u­ral habi­tat.

“He’s done a great job and re­ally gal­vanised the club and the team. The big­gest credit you can give Steve and his play­ers is that it’s not a sur­prise how well they’ve done.

“If you’ve watched them over the last year they’ve been con­sis­tently re­ally, re­ally good at get­ting re­sults. Where they are now, okay they’ve played a cou­ple more games than other teams but they’ve got the re­sults and the points.

“They are a very dif­fi­cult team to play against. They de­fend very deep, they’re tight and well or­gan­ised and com­pact. You need to be very pa­tient when play­ing against them and you need to be able to move the ball quickly.”

Kil­marnock have won more Pre­mier­ship points than any other club in 2018 and Rodgers ac­knowl­edges that achieve­ment.

“I think it says ev­ery­thing about [Clarke’s] abil­ity, firstly to or­gan­ise and then to im­prove and de­velop play­ers – and then to find the man­age­ment skills to con­sis­tently get the best out of them,” he said.

“He’s get­ting the best out of ex­pe­ri­enced guys like Gary Dicker and­chris­burke,who’ve been around the block and un­der­stand the game. And he’s get­ting the best out of Stephen O’don­nell and Gary Tay­lor, too.

“Steve’s nur­tured and de­vel­oped them and shown his coach­ing qual­i­ties. He’s do­ing a fan­tas­tic job. It’s not an ac­ci­dent how con­sis­tent they are and now they have a be­lief they can win games.”

Kil­marnock have lost only once in 11 games and haven’t sur­ren­dered three points away from home since be­ing un­for­tu­nate to go down 3-2 at Hiber­nian on 15 Septem­ber. That is enough for Rodgers to ac­cept that they are gen­uine ti­tle con­tenders… for now.

“Well, why not?” he said. “That’s what they will think them­selves if they can con­tinue with that kind of con­sis­tency. I think that when there are just ten games to go you look closer at it be­cause then there’s a dif­fer­ent pres­sure with ev­ery­thing else that comes into play, which is to­tally dif­fer­ent and new if you haven’t been in that sit­u­a­tion be­fore.

“But you can’t ar­gue with what Kil­marnock have done over a sus­tained pe­riod, which has been ab­so­lutely bril­liant.”

SAME STYLE “Steve and I are both what you would call coach­ing man­agers. We like to be on the grass – or the Astroturf – with the play­ers and feel them close and help them de­velop. That’s our nat­u­ral habi­tat. He’s done a great job and re­ally gal­vanised the club and the team” BREN­DAN RODGERS

Bren­dan Rodgers and Steve Clarke shake hands be­fore Celtic’s 2-1 de­feat at Rugby Park ear­lier in the sea­son, while Cal­lum Mc­gre­gor, James For­rest, Scott Brown and Jack Hendry train at Len­nox­town yes­ter­day ahead of to­day’s re­turn fix­ture in Glas­gow.

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