Brendan Rodgers’ record finally stacks up to the brand he has created
A quiz: which of these stories about Brendan Rodgers is true? Story A: when he was a youth-team coach at Chelsea he once tried to cheer up an out-of-form John Terry by commissioning a bespoke motivational poem, which he then had framed. Story B: when his Swansea side won promotion to the Premier League, he celebrated by going off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with Chris Kamara. Story C: when he meets young players for the first time he draws them a little stick figure with a crown on its head, in order to illustrate that they are “king of their own destiny”.
Of course, they’re all true. This is the inimitable legend of Rodgers: people person, friend to the stars, all-round wit. For some this is the sort of stuff that renders him ripe for ridicule. And yet, let’s examine the evidence. A visibly moved Terry scored in his next Chelsea game and dedicated the goal to Rodgers. The Kilimanjaro jaunt was a longstanding charity commitment, raising almost £400,000 in the fight against cancer, the disease to which he lost both his parents. And when your record of youth development includes Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, Kieran Tierney, Harvey Barnes and James Maddison, perhaps it’s fair to say his methods have some merit.
But then, this has always been the basic and fascinating paradox of Rodgers: an artifice that has always been underpinned by a strong sense of authenticity, an authenticity that owes so much of its potency to artifice. This tension – between bombast and insecurity, style and substance, the holistic guru who just wants you to be the best person who can be and the self-publicist with a vaulting personal ambition and a habit of leaving his clubs abruptly – is the defining note of a career that has taken him from the 6am shift at the Waitrose warehouse to the Wembley dugout.
There are times when it feels impossible to take Rodgers seriously: when you glimpse the unworldliness that has spawned hundreds of Twitter parody accounts and led Joey Barton to describe him as a “sophist”. And yet on Saturday evening, Rodgers will lead Leicester City into their first FA Cup final in 52 years, having steered them to third in the Premier League after losing Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell in successive summers. If that’s not serious substance, then it’s hard to see what is.
“He’s the best manager I’ve worked under by far,” says Àngel Rangel, one of the stars of his promotion-winning Swansea team. “He’s a man who brings a legacy with him everywhere he goes: Swansea, Liverpool, Celtic. He doesn’t just train and go home. He blends into the community. For him it’s a lifestyle. He likes perfection.”
From the very start of his career, as a young coach with zero playing pedigree, Rodgers realised he needed to project himself. “I’ve had to create a brand for myself,” he tells Michael Calvin in the book Living On The Volcano – a brand based on attacking, continental‑style football, intense personal magnetism, catchy mantras and near-delusional levels of self-belief. His own football career ended at 20 through injury, and as soon as he finished his shift in the Waitrose warehouse he dedicated himself to coaching. A devotee of the Coerver coaching school which prizes dazzling technical ability and speed on the ball, Rodgers attended conferences, travelled across Europe, read voraciously on psychology, communication and sports science.
His big break came in the summer of 2004, when his Reading youth team came to Cobham and destroyed a highly rated Chelsea side. Watching on from afar was José Mourinho, who brought Rodgers on board soon after. Mourinho was an ideal mentor: a fellow self-made coach who practised a fiercely personal style of management. After three years at Chelsea, Rodgers was ready to go it alone. Ironically, Leicester came calling before ultimately plumping for Gary Megson. So Rodgers went to Watford, who he kept in the Championship before leaving for his old club Reading.
Reading was a sharp learning curve. Rodgers and his methods were popular there, but even so he was sacked after six months due to poor results. Afterwards, Rodgers took stock and resolved that he needed to be quicker on the trigger. Being liked was all very well. But in a world where owners were ruthless, he needed to be too. It was a lesson he carried into his next job, where he took unfancied Swansea to the 2011 Championship play-off showdown and – until now – his last Wembley final.
“There were two weeks of buildup, and we didn’t do any football,” remembers Rangel. “We’d already played 48 games, so we knew how to play. It was all about the psychological part. We had a couple of psychologists come in to give us insights, and then in the team meeting at the hotel he played a video about the importance of inches in sport. The little detail that makes a huge difference. And then in the final, Garry Monk makes a massive block, without which we probably lose the game. That was that inch.”
Next came Liverpool, where the Rodgers legacy remains contested. To some, he was the alchemist who took a team with Jon Flanagan to the verge of a sensational Premier League title in 2013-14. To others, he was a talented coach undone by his own hubris, who oversaw a gradual disintegration, made needless enemies and left one embarrassing documentary and no trophies.
As ever, the ledger requires a certain balance. Rodgers had about as much say in the documentary as he did in the departure of Luis Suárez and the injury to Daniel Sturridge. Yet his poor eye for a signing, his fractured relationship with Steven Gerrard (who felt “misled” after Rodgers dropped him for a crucial game against Manchester United in his final season) and a delusional belief in his ability to get a tune out of Mario Balotelli stored up problems that would take his successor, Jürgen Klopp, years to unpick.
Even so, the Rodgers brand – allied to an exhaustive attention to detail and phenomenal workrate – had powered him from the park pitches of Reading to the very cusp of the title. And yet what has been interesting over the past few years is that the more success has come his way, first at Celtic and then at Leicester, the less pronounced that persona seems to be.
Occasionally he still succumbs to his own bombast. The story Rodgers told at Celtic about a Rangers fan getting out of his car in the Clyde Tunnel to thank him for bringing “a breath of fresh air” to Scottish football almost certainly did not happen. But by and large he’s surer these days, more confident, more relaxed. He now has a body of work that advocates for him more persuasively than he ever could.
Seven trophies out of seven with Celtic. Taking Leicester to the cusp of the Champions League. A track record of improving players. And now an FA Cup final and a chance to write his name into Leicester legend. Perhaps the biggest tribute you could pay to Rodgers as a coach is that he may finally be as good as he was always telling us he was.