Brendan Rodgers' Season
Padraig Coyle appraises the Carnlough man's impressive second campaign as leader of Liverpool FC
During the Giro D’Italia’s three day visit to Ireland, there were continual media references to the profusion of pink, the colour associated with the world’s second most famous professional cycle race.
Many among the thousands of supporters, mesmerized by the power and speed of those elite sportsmen, waved non-contentious pink flags around the streets of Belfast and at the City Hall finishing line. In rural Antrim, sheep and horses had been given a make over for the day, and there were some sculptured pieces of farm machinery that also reflected the positive mood of the whole country.
As the peloton snaked its way along the rain-swept Antrim coast road into Carnlough and past the Londonderry Arms Hotel – once owned by Sir Winston Churchill – the television commentators were briefly distracted from the main business at hand to mention the name of another man more closely associated with the Glens, who is presently making a huge impression on the nation.
They were referring, of course, to Carnlough native Brendan Rodgers, who came within a wheel’s length of steering Liverpool Football Club to a first Premier League title in 24 years. And, for his fine efforts, Rodgers has since been selected by his peers as the League Managers Association manager of the year.
In only his second season in charge at the iconic Merseyside club, the 41-year-old has turned things around at Anfield. Having succeeded Kenny Dalglish – whose second, rather less successful term as manager was cut short – Rogers, now settled into his famous surroundings, targeted Champions League qualification as the club’s main objective for the season.
While that was secured a few weeks ago, a five-point lead at the top of the table meant the bigger prize was within its grasp – the Premier League title was Liverpool‘s to lose.
That’s exactly what they did. An uncharacteristic Steven Gerrard error against Chelsea – for whom, Rodgers once worked under Jose Mourinho before managerial spells at Watford, Reading and Swansea – led to a two nil defeat that broke the hearts of those in red and handed the title race back to the favourites, Manchester City.
However, Rodgers – who has patiently built his coaching reputation through an apprenticeship forced upon him when injury wrecked his playing ambitions at the age of 21 – was quick to deflect any criticism of his captain. 'There is no blame on Steven,' he said. 'He’s been brilliant for this club. He’s been instrumental in us being where we are.'
Ultimately, Liverpool finished the season as Premiere League runners up, climbing five places on the previous season's finish, their highest league ranking since 2009. Rodgers was justly rewarded by his peers for his remarkable efforts, having fought to the end with a team that included several English players in key positions against other clubs spurned on by endless riches.
Rodgers' man management skills appear to have played a part in rekindling Luis Suarez’s desire to stay in the Premiership following a ten-game suspension at the end of the 2012/13 season from the FA, imposed for biting an opponent. The Uruguayan had expressed a wish to leave, but reversed that decision and ended this season as the PFA player of the year and the league’s leading marksman with 31 goals in 33 games.
Speaking ahead of the PFA award, Rodgers said of Suarez: 'The supporters have seen him mature over the course of the last season. He’s a really intelligent man who fits the values of this club which are about humility and class. His development on and off the field has been remarkable.'
Brendan Rodgers will need all his powers of persuasion to fend off outside interest in Liverpool’s prize asset as summer 2014 progresses; close season signings will be an indication of his strategy for the premiership and European campaigns. Already on the hunt for additions to his squad, Rodgers stated this week that 'our criteria that we look for is players with strong technique and football intelligence'.
'Mentally, they need to have the attitude and capacity to learn and they have to be so hungry to fight for every ball on every day in training and in the game,' he added in the wake of a 4-0 victory in the friendly match against Shamrock Rovers in Dublin.
And any recruits will have to deal immediately with one of Rodgers tried and tested methods of team initiation: singing. New arrivals to his squads are required to stand on a chair and sing a song. The thought of Southampton and Seville targets Adam Lallana and Alberto Moreno harmonizing to Rodgers' rendition of 'The Green Glens of Antrim' is intriguing, to say the least.
While Rodgers has yet to lead Liverpool to a trophy of any kind, the belief is that he is building something at Anfield that will succeed. His fellow countrymen, Martin O’Neill and Neil Lennon, have proven their worth in leading Celtic to Scottish Premier League titles, and along with it some memorable European nights in Glasgow.
Rodgers, meanwhile – with a potentially larger transfer treasure chest – will move above those two reverred names in the Northern Irish managerial rankings if he is able to bring major silverware back to Merseyside. Should that happen, this particular homegrown coach will have the world at his feet.
However, the city of Liverpool’s growing respect for the Carnlough man is not based solely on his tactical prowess on the football field. His personal contribution at the recent 25th anniversary memorial to the 96 Liverpool fans killed during the 1989 Hillsborough disaster give a little insight into the man as orator.
Having thanked the Hillsborough families for inviting him to speak at the memorial service, Rodgers paid tribute to his predecessor, Kenny Dalglish, who had graduated from player to player manager and subsequently manager in 1985, and was in charge in 1989.
'The leadership, the human dignity and courage shown by Kenny at that time was more inspiring than any goal scored or trophy won, and I think it serves as an example to us all,' said Rodgers during the emotionally-charged service. 'We will always strive to honour you, the families, and the memory of the 96 people we lost. You will never walk alone.'
If Liverpool are guided back to the top of English and European football, the venerated list of successful managers who have previously led the club to victory – namely Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Kenny Dalglish and Rafael Benitez – will easily find room to add the name of Brendan Rodgers.