WHEN Brendan Rodgers climbed into the Celtic cockpit for a second time last summer, he knew what he was getting himself into – so the merry refrain goes.

There was a time when the omniscient football manager – a Bill Shankly, Jock Stein, Alex Ferguson type – would oversee all aspects of club management from recruitment, team selection, right down to what players got up to in their spare time. In the modern game, the structures at clubs resemble more a Formula One team in how the mechanics of putting the side together have become part of a logistical operation involving boards, executives, recruitment teams, managers, coaches, medical staff, players and their own representatives. When the manager enters the cockpit, they must do so in full confidence that no screw has been left unturned in the mechanical operation surrounding them.

The Herald: Brendan Rodgers during training at LennoxtownBrendan Rodgers during training at Lennoxtown (Image: SNS)

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The narrative around Rodgers’ return to a club where he had enjoyed a clean sweep of seven domestic trophies out of seven before leaving midway through his third season five years ago often resembles the rueful “if it sounds too good to be true” address normally reserved for the parents of recently qualified drivers whose bargain £800 car purchase has just dropped an exhaust system on their driveway.

So Rodgers’ first term was perhaps less “Rolls Royce” and more Max Verstappen’s Red Bull Formula One car as he swept everything before him, but he’s hardly been driving a Reliant Robin this time around and it’s not as if the wheels have come off – despite some significant dunts along the way.

Far from running away with the title, challengers Rangers are merely two points ahead of the Scottish champions, and served up a glorious overtaking opportunity last weekend when they lost at home to Motherwell before Celtic blew a tyre at Tynecastle the next day to allow the chance to go begging.

The Herald: Hearts players celebrate scoring against CelticHearts players celebrate scoring against Celtic (Image: SNS)

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And while praise has, quite rightly, been raining down on Rodgers' Rangers counterpart Philippe Clement since the Belgian replaced Michael Beale in the first half of the season, with the Ibrox manager collecting his first piece of silverware as early as December after the Viaplay Cup final victory over Aberdeen, the outcome of the title race remains very much in both managers' hands with two derbies still to play in the league.

While Rangers’ transition under Clement has been marked, much has been made of the modifications to the vehicle which, piloted by Ange Postecoglou, clinched a fifth clean sweep in seven years last season at Parkhead. The close-season MOT carried out by supporters and commentators in Scottish football flagged several advisories for the incoming incumbent, with the centre of defence a particular area of concern.

With the Northern Irishman still having the carpets and upholstery measured at his Lennoxtown office, centre-backs Gustaf Lagerbielke and Maik Nawrocki were added to his roster for a combined total of around £8 million. With the issue of a lack of investment believed to be at the heart of Rodgers’ change of heart last time around, it seemed like billionaire owner Dermot Desmond was willing to oil the machine this time around.

The Herald: Defenders Gustaf Lagerbielke and Maik Nawrocki in trainingDefenders Gustaf Lagerbielke and Maik Nawrocki in training (Image: SNS)

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And, indeed, as the league flag was waved to signal the start of the Premiership race at Celtic Park on the opening day of the season, the Scottish champions came firing out the blocks and followed up their victory over Ross County with an away win at Aberdeen. It seemed like business as usual, with Rodgers slipping into cruise control and able to focus on that elusive progression in Europe which has been conspicuously absent despite a decade of unprecedented dominance domestically.

Then came the third match of the season, a Viaplay Cup second-round match against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park, an oil-slick encounter which sent Celtic spinning off course. While the debate around the suitability of plastic pitches in Scotland’s top league moves into another gear with clubs set to vote on whether to ban them altogether next month, it was up to Rodgers to fit the correct tyres for the surface. Installing novel centre-back pairing Lagerbielke and Nawrocki from the start, Rodgers’ lament after the 1-0 defeat to Derek McInnes’s side which relinquished Celtic’s grip on the trophy that his side were bullied was an ominous indictment of the recruitment job mustered by the constructors’ team around him in the summer.

The first warning light had illuminated on his Parkhead dashboard with his side barely having turned out of the street. A dreary goalless draw against St Johnstone at home just six days later failed to inflate the flat feeling which had engulfed the supporters at this early stage – and it is one that has returned time and again despite flashes of brilliance along the way.

A 1-0 derby victory over Rangers at Ibrox a week later, for example, got the pistons firing again and that nagging warning symbol could be ignored as Celtic pressed on ahead. But in Europe just a few days later, Lagerbielke’s dismissal for two yellow cards in the Champions League opener at Feyenoord was further evidence that the Swede did not possess the required spec for that elite level just yet, while fellow Scandinavian novice Odin Thiago Holm was shown a straight red card shortly after coming out of the pit in the second half to leave Rodgers’ side with an impossible hill to climb as they succumbed to a 2-0 defeat to a decidedly average pot-one outfit.

The Herald: Kyogo Furuhashi scores to make it 1-0 to Celtic at IbroxKyogo Furuhashi scores to make it 1-0 to Celtic at Ibrox (Image: SNS)

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Rodgers could only work with the tools he had at his disposal, and installing Liam Scales, who appeared to be a spare part under Postecoglou, was seen as a temporary fix. But the Irishman has been a steadying influence at the heart of defence, especially when first-choice Cameron Carter-Vickers has been partnering him there, and his form at home and in Europe has demonstrated a strength in Rodgers’ ability to make the most of his lot. That warning symbol may have temporarily gone out, but the need to upgrade the model remains apparent.

The whole season has felt like an inability to get into top gear: while Celtic actually performed better under Rodgers in the Champions League than they had done in the previous campaign under Postecoglou, finishing fourth in a group containing Feyenoord, Atletico Madrid and Lazio must be seen as a missed opportunity to make some inroads on that platform.

His side were unfortunate to only have finished with four points in that group, given they conceded an injury-time winner from Pedro against the Serie A side at Celtic Park just when it looked liked Luis Palma had earned their first home win in the competition in a decade before his strike was ruled out for offside, and twice they led in the 2-2 home draw against Atletico. Had results gone the Parkhead side’s way in those encounters, they would have qualified from their section. Instead, they crashed out of European competition altogether.

The Herald: Brendan Rodgers can count himself unlucky not to have earned more point in Group EBrendan Rodgers can count himself unlucky not to have earned more point in Group E (Image: SNS)

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And Rodgers knows full well that finishing first is all that matters at Celtic. That’s why his assertion that clinching a double this term would eclipse his exploits first time around rings true.  But it remains a long and winding road to that end.

The Celtic manager will put pedal to metal in his bid to clinch pole position in the league table and get on the podium at Hampden, but when the club reaches its close-season pit stop this summer, some fine tuning of the engine will be required if Rodgers is to continue to pilot the side in future campaigns. And while that will be the responsibility of the whole club, it will always be down to the manager to drive past the chequered flag first.