From envelope gimmicks to under-appreciated brilliance, how Brendan Rodgers shed his Liverpool scars

·11 min read
Brendan Rodgers celebrates after winning the FA Cup semi-final (The FA via Getty Images)
Brendan Rodgers celebrates after winning the FA Cup semi-final (The FA via Getty Images)

“It’s very easy to like Brendan Rodgers, but it’s hard to love him because you feel there’s sometimes a show on. You never really hate him either. He’s just… he’s just Brendan.”

There is no finer point to begin this portrait. Sketching out that conflict, sharply captured by a former colleague who worked closely with the deserved Manager of the Year candidate during three significant years at Liverpool, contours much of his career.

It somewhat explains why a supreme tactician, with a habit of improving team structures, on-pitch identity and individual players, has never received the full credit, respect and reverence his work deserves.

Brendan Rodgers is bloody good at his job, but has been bloody bad at selling himself, partly because he has erroneously always felt he needed to - how else would a young British coach beat out those fancied foreign options for top jobs? Forgive the eye roll.

Quickly and unfortunately, his David Brent-tinged soundbites started to speak much louder than his outstanding work. One ex-Swansea staffer pinned Rodgers’ exit from the club to Liverpool as “losing an incredible coach” while Anfield gained “a s*** management consultant that can also be an incredible coach.”

This ‘always be pitching’ mantra was encapsulated perfectly in Living on the Volcano, a book about the secrets of surviving as a football manager. The chapter on Rodgers begins with the Northern Irishman talking about his three-mile jogs around the Melwood training ground when he was still in charge of the Merseyside club.

“I love to run on the streets around here,” he starts. “I love seeing the people going about their business. These are our people. I love running late in the afternoon, when the doors are open and the dinners are on, and you can smell the mince cooking…”

Michael Calvin, the author, cuts the story with surgical literary intervention. “Stop. Right. There. Please,” he begs. “You are too important an asset to sell yourself short. Don’t give snide whispers about your superficial substance. Deny the snipers a stationary target.”

Rodgers, it must be said, has become better at talking less and allowing his reshaping of Leicester City to rather serve as testimony. There have been relapses - the recent tale of a conversation with the club’s cleaners at the beginning of his tenure had a Twitter user surmising: “Brendan Rodgers is always 100% Brendan Rodgers, isn’t he?” - but they are now the anomaly.

The 48-year-old has become more rounded in the dugout: much less attached to the traditional idea of an all-powerful manager, shorn of envelope gimmicks, better at being flexible in approach, and without the paranoia over threats to his position. While the critique regarding selling himself stands, the opening stage for it was out of his hands.

Rodgers has spent just shy of a decade trying to repair the damage done by the Being Liverpool documentary, a six-part behind-the-scenes documentary with Fox Soccer that was signed off before he became manager of one of sport’s greatest institutions at 39.

In that job, at that age - with only three-and-a-half seasons of managerial experience during which winning the Championship play-off final with Swansea was the highlight - constantly being in front of the cameras was rolling out the welcome carpet to be slaughtered.

Rodgers has long been tagged a performer, but how could he not be when his first major role involved all-access filming that his club’s owners were huge supporters of?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher both felt the young manager was doing his best to impress, playing up to the cameras rather than maintaining a healthy and clever distance, especially with no control over context.

The shot of a sizeable self-portrait hanging in the manager’s Formby home, for example, was taken as evidence of the scale of his ego. In reality, it was a gift from a disabled Swansea supporter who was beside himself to learn of how much Rodgers appreciated it - well before the series aired.

The training ground scolding of Raheem Sterling at Harvard University during a pre-season tour would later be used against the Liverpool boss when the player pushed for a move to Manchester City in 2015.

Rodgers had pulled up the Academy’s brightest prospect for saying “steady” to him in the middle of a session, but what the player was actually trying to get out was “he stepped… on my toe” to explain why he couldn’t stay on his feet.

For all the misunderstandings that stemmed from the documentary, there can be no argument over why Rodgers wasn’t right for Liverpool. First, though, there is the need to dispel some myths. It wasn’t all Luis Suarez, who developed into a more formidable prospect under his watch.

“He helped me with my runs, arriving in the area at the right time and coming in from wide, which benefited my confidence,” the Uruguayan explained two years after leaving Anfield. “We worked hard on finding ways I could isolate players and then try to beat them, man on man. That was the only way I could succeed in England.

“I wasn’t proven and I had to adapt to the Premier League, which Brendan knew. He knows all about English football and he educated me to become successful.”

Suarez had netted 15 goals in his first 44 league appearances under Kenny Dalglish, before blitzing 54 across his next 66 under Rodgers.

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Getty Images

The manager maximised the talents of Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Sterling too, marrying their offensive brilliance with tactical intelligence.

Pep Guardiola would admit that the big attraction for City in paying £49 million for the latter was his versatility and effectiveness across positions, which Rodgers specifically honed.

The man from a council estate in Carnlough did not get sacked due to Gerrard’s gutting, unfortunate slip or perceived naivety during the surprise title tilt in 2013-14. The emotion and exhilaration around Liverpool clouded the fact that Manuel Pellegrini’s side - with Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Yaya Toure and co - were better equipped to triumph.

The Chilean addressed the sentiment that Liverpool lost the league rather than City winning it during a 2015 interview with The Guardian: “Where do people get the idea that they deserved it more? Competitions? We were in more. Goals for? We scored more. Goals against? We conceded fewer. Points? We had two points more and played I-don’t-know-how-many midweek games. I just don’t see it…”

Neither was Rodgers solely sacked because everything was scorched when Suarez departed, Sturridge was injured and “the goals were taken out of the team” as Adam Lallana put it, while eight new first-team signings - including Mario Balotelli - costing £107.5m tried to settle. Even the hugely unpopular axing of Colin Pascoe and Mike Marsh, with an “abrasive” Sean O’Driscoll as the new assistant manager, was not the bullet.

These were all significant contributing factors, but the relationship between Liverpool and Rodgers was doomed from the outset given it was built on an unhappy compromise. Fenway Sports Group were committed to fully revolutionising the club by following the European model of hiring a director of football to oversee operations and take the lead on recruitment. Rodgers refused to accept the job if such a role was established and so a patchwork of both preferences materialised, shaping into a transfer committee - “a collaborative group of people working to help Brendan deliver the football side of it.”

Rodgers hated this concept and would publicly hint at a lack of financial backing when he was the biggest obstacle to several deals. One such case was during his first summer window in 2012 when Liverpool were on the verge of signing Sturridge from Chelsea. The manager tanked the process because he wanted Clint Dempsey from Fulham instead and was willing to offer Henderson in part-exchange.

Andy Carroll was already offloaded to West Ham on loan, and the rest of the committee as well as FSG prioritised bringing in a forward, but Rodgers unsuccessfully went all in on the USA midfielder. The distrust of and discontent at working with Michael Edwards (then director of technical performance), head of recruitment Dave Fallows and chief scout Barry Hunter, inevitably led to dysfunction.

Rodgers had edged Roberto Martinez for the Liverpool vacancy based on a 180-page dossier titled ‘One Vision, One Club’ but they were operating a competing dual policy. Edwards, Fallows and Hunter would get their preferred targets like Emre Can and Roberto Firmino, with the manager being able to bring in his like Joe Allen and Christian Benteke. It was conflicted from the start, was always going to lead to chaos and an unceremonious ending.

At Swansea, whom Rodgers guided to mid-table in the Premier League with a ballsy possession-based game that drew applause at some of the grandest grounds in the country, he could focus on his great gift: work on the training ground.

His only initial concern in the south coast of Wales was having an office, with a tiny physiotherapy room converted for such a purpose. There was too much of a leap from that to wanting absolute control at Liverpool in an appointment that came too soon, but Celtic was the perfect next step.

Diminished global interest and attention, but a healthy dose of expectation and established dominance was just the tonic.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Rodgers delivered back-to-back clean sweeps of Scottish silverware - becoming the first manager in the club’s history to win his first four domestic trophies - as well as an Invincibles season, all while enhancing the aesthetics of their play.

There will be a natural tendency to talk down his achievements with Celtic, but Kieran Tierney and Moussa Dembele are just two players who preach about the difference he made.

How and when he left the club will always court criticism, but the ‘why?’ made complete sense: Leicester were an attractive proposition that presented Rodgers with a much-needed challenge. A squad bursting with potential under good owners needed to be more than their 5000-1 miracle, they had to be able to sustain success.

How we see Leicester now under his guidance is disparate from our view when he took over. Last season, there was derision when the club finished fifth - four points off both Manchester United and Chelsea after a dip in the final months.

Leicester, with the 10th-highest revenue in England’s top flight and eighth-largest wage bill (well over £100m less than those two clubs), holding a net transfer spend of under £20m during the Rodgers era, are defying convention.

They are in the mix for Champions League places again and will contest their first FA Cup final in 52 years on Saturday despite being without Wilfred Ndidi, Harvey Barnes, Ricardo Pereira, Wesley Fofana, Caglar Soyuncu, Timothy Castagne and the exciting James Justin for swathes of the campaign.

A look at their roster brings temptation to say Leicester have a squad superior to the likes of Tottenham, Arsenal and Everton. This was a category United fell into as well last season. But the truth is they have a manager that is skilled at extracting potential and advancing individuals under a clear blueprint. He has made the group heaps better than what they originally looked on paper.

The work that Rodgers has done is deserving of Champions League football and a trophy, but not sealing either would not count as failure. It is a success that Leicester are unsettling the ‘Big Six’ to such an extent that it formed one of the strands behind the Super League’s closed shop approach.

Will returning to Europe’s top table or securing major English silverware change some of the unkind perceptions of Rodgers? Probably not. There are those hell-bent on breaking him down because he whitened his teeth and shed weight after going on a health kick following the loss of both his parents too early.

His mum Christina, who volunteered for an Irish charity, was 52 when she had a sudden heart attack and his father, Malachy, succumbed to throat cancer aged 59 not long after. Rodgers also dared to fall out of love and then in love with someone else. The vast majority of jibes directed at him have nothing to do with his life’s work, which finds a sweet bit of symmetry this week.

Rodgers will lead Leicester out against Chelsea, whom he served as head of youth and reserve team manager, in the FA Cup final. The venue, Wembley, is the stage of his Championship play-off with Swansea in 2009 that came against another former club, Reading.

It has been some trip, and whether he lifts the trophy or not, whether you like him or don’t, it is foolish to deny that Rodgers is one of the best coaches on the continent. If you want the brilliance of Brendan, you’ve got to put up with the Brentism.

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