SUMMER seems a distant memory. Events have shrunk from the mind like small boats on the horizon. Brendan Rodgers’ return to Glasgow in June occupies so negligible a recess of the mind it is like a buoy bobbling near the shoreline, far removed from the fanfare of the 20,000-strong Gatsbyesque welcoming jamboree witnessed at Celtic Park on his first arrival to these shores back in 2016.

There were murmurs amongst the fan base, still smarting from the loss of Ange Postecoglou and his barnstorming style, that this represented a backwards move. Adjacent to that theorising, there was the sense of betrayal still lingering like scurvy from Rodgers’ smart departure to Leicester City in the February of 2019 (with no hint of irony that the messianic Postecoglou had jumped ship from the cinch Premiership Waverley paddle-steamer to the same Premier League mega yacht in taking the reins at Tottenham Hotspur).

The Northern Irishman quickly set out a mission for his second spell at the Parkhead wheel: to progress in Europe. But defining progress in this realm is not as straightforward as it first appears. Qualifying for the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time since 2013 would be a giant leap for the club; securing third place in their group and parachuting into the Europa League would also be an improvement on the previous year. Would merely winning a game for the first time in five years – or better still, ending a decade-long winless spell in the competition at Celtic Park – also be enough to signal progress?

The Herald: Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers congratulates his players at full-timeCeltic manager Brendan Rodgers congratulates his players at full-time (Image: PA)

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Well, when Celtic dust themselves down in January to the realisation there will be no additional stamps in their passports this term, it may feel like something of a fait accompli. But there have been green shoots of recovery. And progress is the operative word.

Rodgers bettered his much-vaunted predecessor’s record at Europe’s top table (doubling the two points secured by Postecoglou last time out). Do we call that progress? In the context of how this was achieved, yes. Postecoglou’s refusal to bend to pragmatism against the likes of Real Madrid was generally accepted by the club’s support, given their backing of the high-jeopardy “Ange-ball” approach. But standing ovations at the conclusion of 3-0 home defeats to any side are something of an aporia for this historic club. Putting on a show is, by definition, a part of the Celtic way. And Rodgers, for his part, suffered a similar fate in his first spell as Celtic manager. After all, despite burnishing Celtic’s own silver trove with domestic titles galore, results on the continent were generally lacking, especially in the Champions League.

This season, despite finishing bottom of a relatively generous section where the top seeds were Dutch champions Feyenoord, progress was notable. The 6-0 drubbing against Atletico Madrid in the Spanish capital aside, the Scottish champions were highly competitive.

Celtic drew the home leg against Diego Simeone’s side having taken the lead twice and conceded an injury-time equaliser. They conspired to lose at home to Lazio in injury time at Parkhead having seen what appeared to be a late Luis Palma winner chalked off after a VAR review. After finally getting the 10-year monkey off their backs with victory against top-seeds-apparent Feyenoord on Wednesday night, Rodgers & Co have been left with a stiff, lingering sense of what could have been. It’s the salty, bitter taste of regret. This, believe it or not, is a sign of their progress.

The biggest marker of this progress comes in the form of an individual who epitomises why Rodgers was always the best man to steer Celtic through the tricky straits of advancing at this level. And supporters really ought to be counting their lucky stars that they have him.

The Herald: Matt O'Riley fends off the attentions of Feyenoord playersMatt O'Riley fends off the attentions of Feyenoord players (Image: PA)

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Rodgers is renowned for his ability to improve individuals. Development has always been a driving force in his managerial repertoire: standouts like Raheem Sterling as he broke through at Liverpool, a teenage Philippe Coutinho at Anfield, and, perhaps most pertinently, the more overlooked Joe Allen, the Welsh midfielder he worked with at Swansea and trusted to join him on Merseyside at one of the biggest clubs in world football. At Celtic, his work with Moussa Dembele, Kieran Tierney and Odsonne Edouard helped that trio to reach greater heights than perhaps anyone could have expected of them. Patrick Roberts (remember him?) was starting to look like he could return to parent club Manchester City and compete for a first-team place. What’s notable about this list, with the exception perhaps of Sterling, is that their careers have not continued on the exponential curve they were travelling on under Rodgers’ stewardship.

O’Riley appears to be the latest on this list. On his arrival at Parkhead from the dimmer lights of MK Dons almost two years ago, the then-21-year-old immediately showed great promise with his distinctive height, athleticism and clear technical ability. Signed for the bargain price of £1.5m, the future Denmark internationalist was always going to be a stellar bit of business under Postecoglou. But towards the end of the Australian’s spell as Parkhead manager, there appeared to be something of a rift between the club’s hottest prospect and their manager.

O’Riley spoke of an upturn in mood around Lennoxtown on Rodgers’ arrival, suggesting the amiable Irishman’s approach to players was “refreshing”, with Postecoglou responding to the inadvertent criticism of his renowned stand-off approach with: “That’s just me.” The midfielder was not a regular starter last season under Postecoglou, although he did finish the season strongly after failing to score in his first 34 outings for the club.

This season, with Rodgers at the helm, O’Riley has been the standout player in the team both domestically and in Europe. Nine goals in 24 appearances only tells part of the story. It seems any time the Parkhead side score, the Dane is always conspicuous by his presence. Take his two sublime assists for Kyogo Furuhashi in the Champions League this season against Lazio and Atletico Madrid at Celtic Park.

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Furuhashi, who has been a revelation since Postecoglou plucked him from J-League outfit Vissel Kobe, is one of the major success stories of the former Yokohama F Marinos manager’s spell with the Scottish champions. But while the striker has not been without his injury troubles and dips in form this season, he has taken his scoring platform to the highest level in those two Champions League encounters under Rodgers, having failed to get off the mark in six previous attempts on that stage.

This progress is the real sell Rodgers offers Celtic, a club unashamedly offering development to players who can go on and secure them big-profit sales. O’Riley is currently a totem of that model, and the midfielder has made no secret of his desire to make a step up from the Premiership in the not-too-distant future. The task for Celtic now, in terms of backing their manager, is in keeping hold of this talismanic talent for at least one more crack at the Champions League next term.

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There is no doubt a host of major clubs down south and further afield keeping tabs on the player, and offers will probably even arrive in January. While much of the talk has been about Rodgers being allowed to add quality to his squad, he will be desperately keen to keep hold of O’Riley, and the board ensuring that happens could be the biggest backing they could afford him.

Under Rodgers, O’Riley is only going to get better. And this is a lesson that other players with high hopes of reaching the very top of the game will take notice of. The Northern Irishman has amassed great clout in this area from his Swansea, Liverpool, Celtic and Leicester days. For this reason, Celtic are on the precipice of greater progress at the top level than they have been for a long time. Under Rodgers, players like O’Riley can only go in one direction, and the club’s fortunes will reflect that.