James Lawton: Brendan Rodgers a dead man walking as Liverpool lose faith
Manager with proven track record needed for Anfield
Published 25/09/2015 | 02:30
The last managerial rites at Anfield are rarely uplifting. Even Rafa Benitez suffered a lingering death despite the huge under-pinning of his extraordinary if ultimately flattering Champions League triumph in Istanbul.
Gerard Houllier had his moments, of course, but in the end he signed too many mediocre players and that early glory could no longer sustain him.
Roy Hodgson froze and withered and left, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But then this is what tends to happen when a great football club forgets what it is supposed to represent.
This - as the most cursory examination of the tradition founded by Bill Shankly and so brilliantly maintained by Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and, for a while, Kenny Dalglish tells you - is a certainty of will, an understanding of what it takes to stay, punch for punch, season by season, among the elite.
There are no half-measures, no pussyfooting once there is a well-founded suspicion that the level of club leadership in the most vital of areas, the shaping and developing of a team, has fallen into inadequate hands.
When this is so apparent, it quickly turns patience from a virtue to a vice and it is this that makes the increasingly excruciating ordeal of Liverpool's current lame-duck manager Brendan Rodgers such a grim spectacle.
Rodgers, who rode the enigmatic, troubling but astonishingly consistent brilliance of Luis Suarez to within a few heart beats of Liverpool's first title win in 23 years, has for some time been so adrift of his targets, so plainly bewildered by the challenge of re-making the team, in character and tactics, that his survival has surely become not a matter of relief but self-pity.
The increasing consensus is that Rodgers is indeed a dead man walking for just so long as Liverpool take to nail down a heavyweight successor - and how can it be otherwise?
Under Rodgers, the signing spend is now nudging £300m. Yet with each new performance, there is fresh evidence of a team increasingly desperate for a sense of cohesion, even some common purpose.
No-one was flint-hearted enough at Anfield this week to offer a mocking version of You'll Never Walk Alone, but the manager's isolation was painful to observe as three bouts of sustained booing greeted a performance so abject that League Cup survival against fourth-tier Carlisle was ensured only by goalkeeping defiance in the penalty shoot-out.
Rodgers' assistant Gary McAllister, the former Liverpool midfield stylist who won a league title with Leeds United around about the time the Reds were beginning to lose touch with serious contention for that prize, was required to front up for his boss in the post-game press conference.
He said that Rodgers was "delighted" with the character shown and another chance to re-group in an important competition.
McAllister spoke the lines dutifully enough but then what else could he do? He could hardly say it was time to put a SOS message in a bottle and float it down the Mersey.
The hardest response to such an entreaty would most likely be found, of course, at the other end of the Manchester Ship Canal.
There Manchester United, who engulfed Liverpool's title haul in the rampaging years of Alex Ferguson, had their time of drift under the embattled command of David Moyes.
The United response was altogether more stringent than Liverpool's: they fired Moyes, a man of highly respected professional values, inside a season.
The jury is still out on the man United chose to rescue them, the eccentric Louis van Gaal, but then no-one could say that the Dutchman, a Champions' League winner, inspiring coach of third placed World Cup team Holland, a hard-driving, successful boss of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, lacked proven status for such a demanding task.
Ironically, Rodgers warned the well-travelled Van Gaal against the unique challenges presented by Premier League football.
Yet, the subsequent record, with United returned to the Champions League and looking set for automatic re-qualification, strongly suggests that the United instinct, even over a short time, was essentially sound.
United invested in a man who had survived and prospered on a long football road, while Liverpool kept faith in someone who thought he saw a future which he had the means to shape.
For the moment at least, it is hard not to believe that the older man had a much sharper grasp of reality.
Unsurprisingly, the hardening view in football circles is that Liverpool may well have learned the toughest of lessons, with some insiders suggesting that they are targeting, above all others, the amiable but serially winning Italian veteran Carlo Ancelotti.
The Champions League winner with Milan and Real Madrid has voiced his admiration for the passions of the Liverpool tradition, but whether he can be persuaded to undertake one of the great challenges of an already fabled career seems open to question.
Certainly the targeting of Ancelotti - and the widely held belief that the charismatic Jurgen Klopp, who twice got the better of Bayern Munich in his reign at Borussia Dortmund, would be guaranteed an instant hero's welcome at Anfield - suggests that Liverpool's American ownership has finally accepted the need to seek out the best of proven football leadership.
Such an appointment would breathe some old belief into the idea that Liverpool remain a club prepared to set themselves the most exacting standards.
It would say they retain the capacity to recognise swiftly - brutally, if you like - that they have made mistakes.
In the case of Rodgers, it probably needs to be said that there were, for a while at least, extenuating circumstances.
The brilliance of Suarez was so profoundly influential that it inevitably blurred the line between Rodgers' team-building and Liverpool's thrilling drive towards a title.
Certainly Suarez created a degree of dependency which led Dalglish, the first beneficiary of his often breathtaking virtuosity, into some uncomfortable compromises - and no doubt helped to de-stabilise his second coming.
It is also true that, for a while, Rodgers impressed some of Liverpool's most demanding critics, not least the legendary Ian St John.
St John said that he liked the cut of the new man's football. Liverpool ran and passed the ball in a way that reminded him of another time of confidence and adventure.
Liverpool were playing, he added, in a way that he was pleased to recognise and made him confident that good results would come soon enough.
The trouble was they didn't and, if Rodgers suffered from the departure of Suarez, the injuries of Daniel Sturridge and the fact that Steven Gerrard could not indefinitely stem the years, it was not as though he was stripped of all opportunity to re-group, re-invest and go about the business of developing a team more concerned with hope for the future than regrets for the past.
At Anfield this week those regrets were always bound to dwarf the tumult of any penalty shoot-out.