“Relentless.” Since the beginning of the season, it is the one word that Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers most wanted to use to describe his team. It echoed through every press conference, and given the manner it has slipped into the players’ vocabulary, apparently, every team talk too.
It is a word that has become ubiquitous with Celtic’s season. No team has dominated the Scottish Premiership in this manner in living memory, with Brendan Rodgers’ side finally claiming what had long been destined to be their crown by winning 28 of their 30 league fixtures and pushing 25 points clear of nearest rivals Aberdeen. The title was sealed in the most emphatic way possible, a 5-0 victory over Hearts at Tynecastle, in which Scott Sinclair, one of their outstanding players this season, bagged a hat-trick.
Relentless is what the manager wanted, and relentless is exactly what he got.
The SPFL crown marks the end of first stage of a personal battle for redemption for a manager whose career could easily have been so different. Had Steven Gerrard not made his infamous slip against Chelsea, the Northern Irishman would likely be a Premier League champion.
Rodgers won the LMA Manager of the Year award in 2014 for taking the Reds to the cusp of the title, but was sacked little more than 12 months later for failure to build on that success.
Unflustered, he took several months out of the game before returning to management with a Celtic side at a low ebb.
The Bhoys might have won the league under Ronny Deila, but they had set few pulses racing, failing to qualify for the Champions League in successive seasons, and had the embarrassment of failing to win either of the other domestic trophies despite an operating budget dwarfing that of their rivals. Moreover, they had lost to Rangers, then still a second-tier side, in the Scottish Cup semi-final – probably the fatal blow in the Norwegian’s reign.
Rodgers’ high profile and bullish attitude was just the tonic Celtic needed. The former allowed the Bhoys to attract the likes of Kolo Toure, Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembele to the club, while the latter imbued belief into existing members of the team who had not been well exploited under the previous regime.
The squad’s mindset needed transforming, as was made abundantly clear in the new manager’s first match. Playing a competitive fixture in mid-July, just three days after the Euro 2016 final, was far from ideal, yet Celtic’s 1-0 defeat to part-time outfit Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifying match ranks as one of the club’s great defeats.
“There is obvious disappointment. There is no embarrassment,” Rodgers said belligerently after the match.
It was the first sign of the unwavering self-belief of the manager, which was perforated throughout the squad that ultimately made them a credible force in the Champions League.
Of course, there was to be no mistake in the second leg against the men from Gibraltar, while Astana and Hapoel Be’er Sheva, who conquered both Inter and Southampton in the Europa League, were dispatched as Rodgers led Celtic back into the big time.
The league title has come as standard at Parkhead in recent seasons, especially since the demise of Rangers, and it is Europe that has become the yardstick by which managers are judged.
A 7-0 defeat to Barcelona on the opening night back in September did not bode well, yet the Scottish champions showed remarkable resolve to bounce swiftly back once more.
By the time they drew 3-3 with Manchester City in a thrilling clash at home a fortnight later, they were already infused by Rodgers’ brave spirit. Even as underdogs, they took the game to the Premier League giants for the best part of an hour, playing an exciting brand of pressing football and matching their opponents for quality.
It was the night when Dembele became a sensation and it was the night Celtic announced themselves as a credible European force once more.
The luck of the draw, however, had contrived against the Scots, who could not negotiate a tough group which Borussia Monchengladbach completed, but the performances offered a benchmark for the future.
Since the European campaign concluded in December, Celtic have routinely swept all before them domestically in a manner that seemed impossible barely six months previous.
Much of this can be attributed to the outstanding man-management of Jose Mourinho's former right-hand man.
“He manages every single player differently. He knows we have different characters in the dressing room and his one-on-one management is the best I have known. He makes you go out on to the pitch feeling a million dollars — full of confidence and belief. He is a very confident manager,” Steven Gerrard once said.
The testimony at Celtic is along the same lines.
“One of the main changes is how we play, but also socially, it’s been a big thing since the summer that people have come closer together and working really, really well. Everyone wants the best for each other and that’s a good thing,” Erik Sviatchenko told Goal.
Winger Patrick Roberts agreed: “I think he’s helped the belief. With most of the players, actually, there’s a new sense of belief.
“The manager has obviously worked with some top players. He’s worked in the Premier League and he knows how to get the best out of the players and I think every player here has benefited from that.”
Among those to have profited most significantly is Stuart Armstrong, who has scored 11 league goals and last Sunday made what Scotland boss Gordon Strachan described as “the best national team debut” he could remember.
Rodgers has rejuvenated Celtic beyond all realistic expectations and has done so in double-quick time. Unfortunately for the Scottish champions, that likely means losing their ultra-ambitious manager rapidly, as his drive for success will surely lead him back to England sooner or later.