Brendan Rodgers stood over a 17-year-old Connor Randall as the youngster signed his first Liverpool contract. Five years later, both men have come to Scotland to further their careers and now meet in a potential powderkeg fixture in Edinburgh this weekend.
Randall is on loan at Hearts until next summer and playing an important role in the team’s recent resurgence. Rodgers is masterminding the longest unbeaten run in Scottish football history with his swaggering Celtic side.
Sunday pits Randall up against his former mentor when Celtic visit Tynecastle Park. The atmosphere will be voltaic in front of the stadium’s new main stand and it is the type of game the Scouser thrives on.
He encountered Rodgers on the opening weekend of the Ladbrokes Premiership in August, coming on as a substitute as Celtic beat Hearts by a comfortable 4-1 margin at Parkhead. The Edinburgh club had just sacked head coach Ian Cathro, youth coach Jon Daly was in temporary charge, and new players were still finding their feet. Randall expects an entirely different affair in Gorgie and insists Hearts will have a go at their all-conquering opponents.
He isn’t pre-occupied with getting the better of Rodgers. His priority is securing another morale-boosting result for a Hearts team who are unbeaten in five games and have won their last two without conceding a goal.
“Brendan Rodgers was the manager when I signed for Liverpool at 17. He might have had a say in it,” explained Randall. “I remember signing the contract with him although I’m not sure how much influence he had on it. Sunday isn’t about me trying to get one over on him. It’s about our fans and trying to give them the performances they deserve. It’s not a personal thing for me.
“I trained with his [Liverpool] squad quite a few times. He’s a good manager and I spoke to him at the end of the game in Glasgow. Players like to work under him and you can see what he’s done with Celtic. He’s done a fantastic job.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge, that’s what you play for. All the lads are up for it on Sunday and we’ve been working as hard as ever in training this week.
“We all know how tough it will be but it will be a good game against the best players in the league. We are going to test ourselves and have a go. We’ll do everything to keep our own run going. Obviously people talk about the Celtic record but you can’t really think about that going into the game.
“It would be nice to be the team to do it. No-one has beaten them for a very long time and it would be good to break that record. We won’t concentrate too much on that, though. We just have to focus on our own game, work hard, do what we can do, and try to get a result.”
Finding a formula for victory hasn’t been easy since Hearts returned to their spiritual home last month. They drew three games in succession against Partick Thistle, Ross County and Hamilton after opening their new stand. Then Randall returned to the starting line-up.
The two fixtures since have brought wins over Motherwell and Dundee, with the Englishman looking assured at right-back in a defence which hasn’t conceded a goal.
“There have been good performances in the last two games,” he said. “The whole team has been defending well and that’s shown in the two clean sheets. It’s something we’ll take forward after another win and clean sheet against Dundee. There were a few draws and we just weren’t getting that goal, or we were conceding late on. We’ve won the last two without losing a goal so we’re gaining momentum.
“Everyone has been patient. We knew, if we carried on doing what we were doing, the wins would come. Now that they’ve started to come, it’s a boost for everyone and the morale is up. We’re playing well, we’re getting the wins now so we’re only going to look forward. Our confidence was there because we believe in ourselves but it’s tough when you aren’t winning. Two victories has boosted every player and, with Sunday coming up, I think we have turned the corner.
“It is a physical league. You get some games which are more physical than others. Then you come up against some good footballing sides as well. It’s a mixture and I’m enjoying it. I’m getting a good run of games after I got a little issue with my hamstring sorted. I’m feeling good so I want to keep the momentum going.
“There are some big games in this league and every one is important. There are different style of games but when you think about Scotland, you think about the Celtic games and the Rangers games. For ourselves, there’s Hibs as well. These are big games that everyone wants to play in. These are the ones you look forward to a lot more.”
The Hearts players and manager Craig Levein will be grateful to face Celtic at Tynecastle rather than their temporary home at Murrayfield Stadium.
“No matter who you’re playing, it’s massive to play them at Tynecastle,” said Randall. “The Motherwell game was my first game there and to play with the fans behind you makes a massive difference. The support at Murrayfield was great but Tynecastle has more of an atmosphere. You really feel it because it’s so close. That’s been reflected in the last couple of performances, I think. When we give the fans what they want, they really get behind us. We’re going to need them as loud as ever on Sunday.”
The match will be broadcast live by Sky Sports, giving Randall the opportunity to impress people down south.
“Any game you play in, you never know who is watching or what consequences it could have. You can’t think too much about it. I’ve just got to focus on every game here and playing for Hearts. I want to help the team and if something comes out of that, then something comes out of it. I’m not thinking too much about.”