The Long Read: Two years on from Liverpool, how far has Rodgers come?
Two years ago today Brendan Rodgers was sacked by Liverpool. It came less than 18 months after he had led the Reds to an improbable title challenge but at the time, Rodgers’ stock couldn’t have been lower. It seemed unlikely that he would ever get the chance to manage at the top level again. But that all changed once he joined Celtic. By Jamie Braidwood.
The dream and the nightmare
It’s a moment that will be replayed for years to come. As the news broke, Jamie Carragher puffed out his cheeks and glanced forlornly at the camera. Thierry Henry’s eyes popped out in amazement while he placed a comforting right hand on Carragher’s lap.
The news, though, wasn’t as shocking as the two former pros’ reaction made it out to be. Brendan Rodgers had been sacked as Liverpool manager following a 1-1 draw away to Everton. It was only Liverpool’s eighth Premier League game of the new season but already his time was up . Rodgers needed a quick start following a difficult previous campaign, but it never happened. By October 4, Liverpool were 10th and had only won two games in all competitions.
Even if Rodgers had beaten Everton and salvaged his job, he surely wouldn’t have lasted much longer. The mood around Anfield was poisonous, the football was stale and the Northern Irishman looked out of ideas. Not only that. Rodgers looked tired, perhaps even haunted by the Premier League challenge that not only fell away at the final hurdle in May 2014, but that he was expected to repeat with a much inferior team the following season.
Rodgers’ stock couldn’t have been lower as he left Liverpool. The LMA manager of the year in 2014 was already having his achievements torn up as he left the building. Apparently, Liverpool’s success was all down to Luis Suarez. Perhaps Liverpool would’ve won the league in 2014 if Rodgers could organise a defence. He was roundly mocked for his mannerisms and interviews, as well as his decisions in the transfer market. A big Premier League team wouldn’t have gone near him.
So Rodgers took a break, and watched as Jurgen Klopp arrived to instant success at Anfield, guiding Liverpool to two cup finals and a series of memorable results against title rivals, and all with the same squad he had left behind. The fans took to Klopp instantly and Rodgers was quickly forgotten about, the start of the season dismissed like a muddled and fuzzy dream.
As is the nature of the Premier League, managerial positions soon became available, notably at relegation threatened Aston Villa and Newcastle. Rodgers never came close to taking either one. Instead he waited and in May 2015 he was rewarded. The job was probably a little further north than Rodgers expected, but the pull of family connections, alongside a generous salary, was too good to turn down. Brendan Rodgers was back.
A man redeemed; a man invincible
The field is a flurry of green and white. It’s the dying stages of the match but bursting forward are five Celtic players. On the left, Scott Sinclair is on his own. He also has the ball. He doesn’t need any of the options to his right. Instead, he opens his body and curls his shot into the top left corner. 3-0. Job done. A win in the Champions League group stage, their first since 2013, and an away one at that.
And all just days after a comfortable away win in the Old Firm, a fixture that Rodgers has negotiated with ease during his time at Parkhead. So much so in fact, that it is in danger of becoming stale. As is the rest of Scottish football actually given Celtic’s dominance over the past year. But that isn’t Rodgers’ fault. His job is to win football matches, which is something he has been doing routinely since the start of last season.
Since then, Celtic have played 58 matches across league and domestic competition and haven’t lost a single one. In Rodgers’ debut season, Celtic cantered to a domestic treble. They went the entire league season unbeaten, dropping only eight points out of a possible 112, as well as winning both the Scottish and League cups. Celtic finished 30 points ahead of 2nd placed Aberdeen, and a further nine ahead of 3rd placed Rangers.
But of course, Rodgers still has his critics. Apparently anyone can manage Celtic to a league title, as is the lack of competition in Scotland. But while it is true that Celtic are streets ahead of the rest, it was the style and manner of last season’s league campaign that was most impressive. That too the development of Celtic’s younger stars; in particular Kieran Tierney and Callum McGregor, as well the rejuvenated form of Stuart Armstrong and Scott Brown. Rodgers didn’t buy any of these players, but has now built his team around them.
Ultimately, Rodgers’ tenure at Celtic is being judged on his performances in Europe. His predecessor Ronny Deila’s two years at the club were severely marked by his failure to take Celtic to the Champions League group stages – a minimum requirement, and something Rodgers has already managed to do twice in two attempts.
In Europe, however, Celtic are a small fish. Rodgers’ lowest moments in charge have come at the hands of some of Europe’s heavyweights, notably their 7-0 defeat to Barcelona and, more recently, their 5-0 home defeat to PSG. Bayern Munich are still to come for Rodgers’ men but at this stage, 3rd place in the group and a passage into the Europa League knockouts would be considered a success.
Which is why last week’s victory at Anderlecht was so vital. It was, effectively, the first leg of a 3rd place playoff and it means that Celtic have the advantage ahead of match day six. While the Europa League still contains some big names, it represents Celtic’s best chance of a breakthrough in Europe this season. Celtic themselves are a team to avoid, however, and they have Rodgers to thank. Much like Rodgers has Celtic to thank. He is back. As bright eyed, brazen and exuberant as ever. Full of confidence and belief. This is Rodgers at his best. He is back. Was he ever gone?
To dare is to dream
The year is 2021. It’s a bright and warm afternoon in May and the Celtic manager and captain stand side by side with the Scottish Premiership trophy. Parkhead is a scene of joy and celebration. They have been waiting for this day for a very, very long time. It’s a day of which the significance cannot be understated. It means that Celtic have won 10 league titles in a row, surpassing any record, Rangers or Celtic, set previously.
This day may happen. It may not. But in your head was the Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers? When Rodgers signed a four year contract extension in April 2017, many Celtic fans jumped onto one key detail. The contact now ran until 2021. Was he really in it for the long haul? Was he really in it to reach 10 in a row?
There is no doubt that Rodgers is happy at Celtic. He has a connection with a passionate fan base who adore him, he has a talented squad with an emerging core of young and gifted players from the academy, and he has established total dominance over the rest of Scottish football.
But for how long will this be enough? It is a problem that Celtic and Rodgers both have. They are too strong for Scottish football, but not quite good enough to make any real impact on the Champions League. How long will Rodgers be satisfied with just making it into the group stages, only to be again drawn against two richer and more powerful clubs? How long will he stay and resist the temptation to join a club who will give him the resources to compete at the highest level?
Maybe Rodgers is happy to live without those expectations. Maybe Rodgers really does want to leave a long lasting legacy at Celtic, and maybe he does want to take them as far as he possibly can. But deep down there will be a desire to prove that he was not a failure at Liverpool, and that Liverpool failed him.
It all goes back to the dream. Rodgers only needed a glimpse. A glimpse into a life of Liverpool immortality. He was taken by the dream and consequently he perhaps worked too much and too hard to try and recapture it. While his confidence and self belief are some of Rodgers’ biggest strengths, they can also at times be his weaknesses. He is undoubtedly egotistical, and having to leave Liverpool less than half way through a season would have hurt a lot.
He is perhaps still not ready to return to England. He is perhaps still not ready to have to prove himself once more, but his time is coming. Rodgers does have the potential to take a Premier League club and do something special. Maybe, ironically, cruelly, that club is actually Celtic.
Celtic may be the club for him, but they do not provide what he truly desires.
For the dream lies elsewhere.