HAVING guided Swansea City to the Premier League, and the unexpected safety of a mid-table finish, Brendan Rodgers got his move to the next level when Fenway Sports Group selected him as the face of their project. This modern, innovative manager represented everything the boys from Boston wanted to exude; he spoke with confidence, and believed strongly in his own methods and ability. The aim was to win, and win smart, writes JOE WATSON.
The next three and a bit years of his time at Anfield would feature some glorious highs and crushing lows. Towards the end of Rodgers’ first season, Liverpool had new signings Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge transforming their attack, and by the second they seemed to be closing in on that long awaited Premier League title. Yet just one year later, Liverpool were still without a Premier League crown, and were 6-1 down to Stoke, in what would prove to be Rodgers’ final full season at Anfield.
Those halcyon days of 2013-14 have been written and rewritten. The man who fans think of when reminiscing is Luis Suarez who, for his part, was really quite good that season. He became the best player in England and arguably the best in the world over a relatively short period of time, and moved on to prove himself in one of the most frightening front lines in history at Barcelona. The puzzling part of his Liverpool story is where his ascent to greatness merely ‘coincided’ with being managed by Rodgers, in the eyes of some supporters.
When Rodgers took charge at Liverpool, Suarez was 25. Not yet at his peak, there was definitely room for improvement at that age, but he was by no means a young prospect. Rodgers discovered something in Suarez that no manager had done before, and found the key to unlocking some frightening potential that not many can claim they saw coming. His form of that infamous title run was unlike anything most Liverpool fans had seen before, and he was a joy to watch. His manager deserves a share of the credit for that.
For many of those players in the 2013-14 side, it is the highest level they will ever reach. Will Aly Cissokho see a sustained league title challenge again? Joe Allen? Could an ageing Kolo Toure have been expected to become a part of what he did? Iago Aspas will surely never grace the top of a Premier League table come the last six games of a season again.
Rodgers took a squad that featured the likes of those players, prodigious talents such as Coutinho and Raheem Sterling, and did something special. He helped those talents find an element of consistency far beyond their years, and inspired others to find ability far beyond their expected capabilities. When fans heard Jon Flanagan was starting in the derby at Goodison, there was confusion to say the least. Never was it dreamed that he would become a crucial player for a side dominating teams up and down the country, as he did from January onwards.
History shouldn’t be re-written in that case. Credit should be given where it is due, and it was certainly due that season. The next, however…
The 2014-15 season was quite unbelievable, in many ways. With Champions League football in the bag and a reputation established as one of the most stylish teams in the country, despite falling short of the ultimate goal, summer improvements were expected and the foundations appeared to be in place for a second push at Premier League glory.
Some baffling signings for a side playing the high intensity, fast paced football Liverpool had produced to devastating effect at times included Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli. These strikers were tasked with filling the void left by Suarez, and it’s fair to say their Liverpool careers never quite took off. Sturridge began to pick up injuries, Steven Gerrard started to look like a man who knew things were coming to an end, and suddenly Liverpool were losing 6-1 to Stoke on the last day. Rodgers’ stubbornness tactically and his failings in the transfer market came under intense scrutiny, and rightly so.
To the surprise of many, he was given the summer to turn things around. He could not. Wins over Stoke and Bournemouth and a 0-0 draw at the Emirates, in which Liverpool played excellently, took them into the first international break and seemed to paper over the cracks. But that was followed by back to back defeats against West Ham and Manchester United, and the cracks reappeared. Teams would come to Anfield with growing confidence, and by October the Rodgers seemed down and out. Hours after a 1-1 draw in the derby at Goodison on October 4, Rodgers was sacked.
The factors behind the continued slump and ultimate downfall of Rodgers have been analysed and discussed at length. He was dubbed by some as a ‘con artist’, his management credentials and the heroics of that season were put down to a combination of luck and the brilliance of his Uruguayan talisman.
The way he reacted, his next move, would be a huge test of his character.
When it was announced in the summer of 2016 that Rodgers would take over at Celtic, it seemed a smart yet unambitious move, in many ways. On the one hand, he was joining a reputable club where he could prove his credentials as a manager, on the other hand any success seemed a virtual certainty given The Hoops’ reign as Scotland’s top club.
Many would have thought that the ‘snake oil salesman’ was up to his old tricks, and it seemed like there was no way for Rodgers to come out with a vastly improved reputation. Arguably, there were two ways to prove himself; European success, or by somehow taking the league by such storm that Celtic’s title run stood out against all those that went before it.
In November, they won the Scottish League Cup, Rodgers’ first trophy as a manager (aside from a valueless play-off final trophy with Swansea back in 2010-11). Then in January, they began to set records. A 4-0 victory over Hearts saw them surpass the unbeaten domestic record set by the Celtic team of 1967, which would become known as the ‘Lisbon Lions’ as they overcame Inter Milan to win the European Cup. Somehow, this record was almost brushed off, with critics rushing to point out the lack of competition in Scotland, while explaining how easy it is to break records that have been around since the ‘60s.
Since the Hearts game, they have won a further four games, scoring 14 goals in the process. They’ve not only broken this record, they’re potentially going to extend it beyond recognition.
With one trophy in the bag and the league title all but wrapped up, Rodgers has just one cup to focus on in order to cement his place in history. If they can balance that with an unbeaten league campaign as well, then Rodgers will have delivered upon his promises at Celtic.
It isn’t inconceivable that he is learning as a manager too. Perhaps the mistakes made during his Liverpool reign will enable the Northern Irishman to establish himself as a big name in the future.