Fenway Sports Group’s methodical appointment process heralds a new era for Liverpool as Brendan Rodgers is poised to step into Kenny Dalglish’s shoes. Although, in stark contrast to the decision that handed the Scot the power to save the mess Roy Hodgson had originally created, this will arguably be far less popular with the Anfield faithful.
With just a solitary year of Premier League experience, Rodgers probably didn’t envisage such an opportunity arising so quickly. However, as FSG implement a top-to-bottom reform of the club, eyes will be cast toward the on-pitch revolution as his particular brand of football will be exhibited at Anfield.
It has been a steep rise and as he takes his place in the Anfield hot-seat for what will be the biggest test of his credentials, I look back on the Northern Irishman’s career that elevated him to one of the British game’s great clubs.
Rodgers began his association with football as a defender playing for Ballymena in Northern Ireland before moving to Reading at the age of 18. A series of injuries restricted his time to reserve team games before he was forced to retire because of a genetic knee problem.
Rather than walking away from the game though, he displayed the desire to succeed that became synonymous with the work we have been exposed to over the past few years. Driven by a need to support a young family and a genuine love for the sport, Rodgers moved into coaching, stating: “I started coaching for one reason and that was to make a difference.”
At the age of 22, Rodgers was in charge of Reading’s youth academy, spending copious hours on the training field honing the skills he now attributes to his success. The key, perhaps, was variety. In his early days, he would train the youth prospects in the day and coach at local schools during the evening.
As he formulated a plan for his career, the belief in strong communication became an integral part of his mantra. Rodgers recognised the importance of broadening his education and strayed away from the somewhat archaic belief in Britain that everything a coach could learn can be acquired on these shores.
He has cited the Dutch ‘Total Football’ side of the 1980s as an inspiration as well as Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ a decade later. The admiration for teams that played with a certain panache can be seen in the DNA of the Swansea side he managed to such acclaim over the last two seasons.
But getting there was far harder than it may look. Rodgers took Spanish lessons three times a week for seven years after he was advised that adding that extra string to his bow would open doors to the elite level.
During that time he organised weekend trips to Spain and Holland, taking in games at clubs renowned for producing home-grown talent. These trips took him to Amsterdam, Enschede, Sevilla, Valencia and, of course, Barcelona. The idea was to decipher the strategy and structure of clubs that carried a vision from the academy through to the first team.
The information he gleaned during his visits to the continent assisted his own development as head of the academy at Reading and his work was recognised in 2004 by Chelsea coach Steve Clarke, who recommended him to Jose Mourinho – Chelsea’s new boss – who placed him in charge of the youth set-up.
The skills he developed at Reading and the philosophy he had formed in his studies abroad were suddenly more applicable when used in conjunction with a higher calibre of footballer.
He made the step up from the academy to the reserve team just two years after his appointment and was charged with being the link between the academy and first team. His focus on the constitution of football clubs around Europe was all the more relevant and made an impression on Mourinho.
“I like everything in him,” said the Portuguese coach of his young charge. “He is ambitious and does not see football very differently from myself. He is open, likes to learn and likes to communicate.”
Rodgers himself has been effusive in his praise for his mentor saying: “With Mourinho, my football education was the equivalent of going to Harvard.”
Championship side Watford were the first club to entice him into the throes of senior management and the man from Carnlough guided them from relegation candidates to safety with typical style. However, impending budget cuts and an opportunity too good to pass up saw Rodgers move back to Reading to replace outgoing manager Steve Coppell.
Six months later, the romantic homecoming was over. Just five league wins, including a solitary home victory over Blackpool led to a mutual parting of ways and suddenly Rodgers’ burgeoning career was in the doldrums.
The then Reading striker Shane Long offered insight into the failure saying: “It just didn’t seem to work at Reading… the Barcelona way of playing. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, it just didn’t seem to click. It was a big transition in a short period of time and we couldn’t make it work.”
He joined Swansea seven months after leaving Reading and in his first full season led the club to the Premier League via the play-offs. He had found a club with a philosophy akin to his, with players intelligent enough to adopt his basic principles and took the Swans to unprecedented heights. He describes his current charges as ‘sponges’, so adept are they at taking on board his methods.
Despite being written off by all and sundry, he led Swansea to an 11th place finish in the 2011-12 season, drawing admirers from across the country and beyond for their hypnotic passing style. Only Arsenal and Manchester City – a team Swansea dominated and defeated – out-passed his side.
Rodgers took four points from Liverpool last season and had his team applauded from the pitch by the Anfield faithful – something he recalls with affection: “That was really touching because that is such an historic ground.”
Now he is moving from a club without a training ground to call their own to Melwood and the eminence of Anfield. All eyes will be on Rodgers and it will be up to him to prove he can convince Liverpool’s multi-million pound stars of his ideology. If as much patience is afforded by FSG as the fans, Liverpool may well have struck gold.