Brendan Rodgers Sings When He's Winning
The Swansea City manager looks forward to the Premiership challenge
Legend has it that when Saint Patrick was first brought to Ireland as a slave from Wales, he tended sheep on the hillsides of County Antrim. Many centuries later, that connection between the two countries has been re-established as a man from the Glens spreads the gospel of football in South Wales.
Since taking over at the Liberty Stadium a year ago, 38-year old Carnlough raised Brendan Rodgers has steered the Swans to Premier League promotion via an epic Championship play-off final, at Wembley in May against his former club Reading.
Rodgers has become so popular among the supporters of Swansea City that he could be known by any one of three titles: Rodgers, the singer; Rodgers, the manager; or Rodgers, the messiah. And having met this saviour for the first time, I have no doubts he might well be capable of creating miracles in what is accepted as global football’s toughest league.
Amid the sounds of grass-cutting machinery at the Liberty stadium, Rodgers – the singer, with a smile as wide as the main street in Cookstown – serenades me with 'her eyes they shone like diamonds, you’d think she was queen of the land…' My feeble attempt at finishing the chorus in two-part harmony obviously end in disaster, but Rodgers is complimentary all the same.
'Whenever someone new comes into the team, I get them to sing something. It breaks the ice, promotes the spirit of the club and the team. Everyone has to do it,' says Rodgers. 'I’m not very good, but that doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t expect the players to do something that I won’t try myself.
'That has been one of the big things here for me at Swansea. The Welsh and the Irish, we are very similar. We both like to sing, to communicate and to be welcoming. They have taken to me as one of their own.'
And that seems to be the consensus about Rodgers, the messiah. Season ticket holders queuing at the Liberty Stadium to collect their tickets have little hesitation in heaping adulation on him. 'The football he had this team playing last season was the best in the Championship,' says one. 'Brendan Rodgers has brought us to the promised land. Let’s hope he can keep us there,' jokes another.
'It’s going to be very tough for us and we know that,' admits Brendan, the manager, who has been a coach for nearly two decades since injury ended his playing ambitions as a 20-year old. 'The months ahead are going to present us with an incredible challenge. This is the most competitive league in the world. The quality goes up a few notches now. In terms of global exposure, this will be fantastic for Swansea.'
Rodgers speaks warmly of those who gave him his chance. 'I recognised that since I wasn’t going to be a player, I wanted to be the best coach I could be. When I was 30, Jose Mourinho saw something in me and brought me to look after Chelsea’s youth team.
'Not many managers would give a young coach the chance to work with some of the elite players in European football. He did and I will always be grateful to him for the respect it gained me and how it helped my career to flourish.'
At the age of 35, when the time was right, Rodgers stepped away from Stamford Bridge and into club management at Watford and Reading. After some rocky roads and disappointments, he found his way to South Wales, where he is now in charge of the first club from the principality to become a member of the Premiership.
'You have to have your own identity and walk alone,' Rodgers asserts. 'Command is very lonely and you have to have an inner strength and a belief in your own ability. There is a saying that the best coaches and managers are the best thieves. They take things from other people, observe and learn what to do and what not to do. I’ve learnt from everyone I’ve worked with.'
And while the immense challenges of the forthcoming season include visits to Old Trafford, the Emirates, Anfield, the ‘Bridge and Villa Park, the Premiership’s newest Irish manager is more than aware of the pitfalls that lie ahead as he prepares for the opening game away to Manchester City – who put on a very good show against current champions, Manchester United, in the 2010-11 season-opening Community Shield.
'Have we arrived in this league before we thought we would? We have.' Rodgers, the manager, asks and answers. 'We had a fantastic season in winning promotion. Now we have to embrace this challenge and enjoy it.
'A lot of negativity surrounds every club that come up. The sweat hadn’t even dried on our jerseys after the play-off final and the betting industry was reporting that there was a better chance of seeing Elvis than of us staying up. I had to laugh.'
In a league where clubs that wave huge cheque books seem to have the pick of the best players, a club like Swansea must make do with the resources that it has. How does Rodgers motivate his current squad to compete on such a level?
'I tell them that if they come and play for me, they get the chance to express themselves and play with freedom within the tactical framework of the team. That won us many admirers last season. I know certain players who wouldn’t want to come here because there aren’t enough shops for them or that the airport isn’t big enough.
'It gives us a cause to fight for every point we can get,' explains Rodgers. 'I don’t cry myself to sleep worrying about that kind of thing. It’s important that we don’t sell the soul of the club and that we continue with the philosophy and style of football that brought us so many admirers last season. We are in a small market for a certain type of player who will fit in with the qualities that will suit this club.'
Now there’s an invitation to any young professional footballer from Northern Ireland with ambition to impress in the big league. And let me add an extra few words of advice if you are thinking of sending in your footballing curriculum vitae to Brendan Rodgers at Swansea City. Brush up on the words and tune of 'The Black Velvet Band'. Never mind that you prefer to playing in behind the back four, wide midfield or as a lone striker, you might be asked, 'What song do you know?'