Brendan Rodger's voyage: From hills of Antrim to Anfield
Raised during the Troubles - the son of a loving mixed marriage in the village of Carnlough - Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers had only room in his life for sport, first dabbling in GAA before turning to soccer. Graham Clifford profiles the Irishman who could soon be an honorary Scouser
Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers wakes up this morning as manager of the Premier League leaders. It's been an amazing journey for the 41-year-old from the quaint seaside village of Carnlough in Antrim where he learned how to hurl and play Gaelic football while always respecting both sides of the political divide.
While Brendan's father Malachy was a Catholic his mother Christina was a Protestant. But despite living at a time when sectarianism fuelled the Troubles the devoted couple didn't allow external pressures affect their happy home.
Brendan's father was a painter and decorator and his mother raised millions of pounds and ended up travelling the world as a volunteer for the Irish charity, Trocaire.
"The fact that one was Catholic and one was Protestant didn't play any real part in their lives, they never let the whole religious thing have an impact on Brendan and his brothers," explains Rodgers' first cousin Nigel Worthington.
The former Northern Ireland defender and manager and current boss of League two outfit York City explained: "The fact Malachy and Christina came from different backgrounds was never an issue – it was never discussed, it still isn't. They were loving parents and that's all that mattered. Brendan's mother Christina was my aunt, my mother's sister."
Brendan, the eldest of five boys, attended the All Saints Catholic Primary School in Ballymena before moving on to St Patrick's College in the town.
His former Geography teacher Cormac O'Loan remembers him as "the perfect student":
"I taught Brendan for three years and often you'd hardly know he was in the class he was that quiet. He was something of a shrinking violet back then so it's amazing to see how articulate and confident he has become.
"I do recall that any task you set him would be completed without fuss and to the strictest instruction – he never had a problem listening and taking in what he was told to do."
In contrast Brendan's four younger brothers were more outgoing. His younger brother Malachy became a well-known country and western singer locally and is now pursuing a singing career in Nashville.
Ballymena, where roughly 70 pc of the population is Protestant, wouldn't have been the safest place in Northern Ireland in the '80s for young students to wear GAA jerseys on their way to school as Mr O'Loan explains: "It would have been tricky for lads coming to the school to carry something like a hurl because straight away they'd be targeted.
"Any sign of playing GAA meant you could get trouble. So that, of course, would have been something that Brendan and his brothers would have encountered."
Brendan's efforts to become a hurler failed as quickly as they began. Pat Hamill, chairman of the Shane O'Neill's GAA club in Carnlough, explains: "He played a few games for us at underage level but I think his heart was in the soccer. Actually he sent us a message for a recent fund-raiser in which he admitted 'I wasn't very good at hurling!' His younger brother Declan was excellent and the family had a close association with the GAA club."
Though immersed in the world of GAA and Catholic schooling the young Brendan felt totally at home in north Antrim and as the years ticked by his pride in being a Northern Irishman became apparent.
His first football coach Arthur McClean told the Irish Independent this week that he wasn't surprised when Brendan was called up to the Northern Ireland schoolboy's squad in 1988.
"Even as an 11-year-old he showed tremendous dedication. His dad Malachy would bring him on the 30-mile round trip to training at Ballymena United twice a week and then there'd be a game at the weekend.
He wanted to play in midfield as he got older but I think his best position was at full-back. He'd listen to everything you'd tell him, there certainly was something special about that boy."
And Arthur believes Brendan's dedication to sport as a teenager, at a time when others his age were getting drawn into the Troubles, would have helped him stay away from such activity. In 1990, at the age of 18, Brendan signed for Reading.
"I always knew a club would come in for Brendan," recalls McClean. "He had a particular style as a young lad. While he was solid in the tackle he also wanted to pass the ball along the turf. His career was cut short with injuries to his knees but thankfully he's now flying."
Sadly Brendan's parents died within 10 months of each other. In 2010 Christina died at the age of 53 and in September 2011 Brendan was by his father Malachy's side when he lost his battle against cancer, aged 59.
"They were both a huge influence on his life and supported Brendan in his career without being overly pushy. They believed in talking things through, making their own choices as a family and going ahead," recalls Worthington.
In recent years Rodgers has confirmed that at some point in his career he wants to manage Northern Ireland and his loyalty to his country and local area is undoubted.
'Brendan will walk in here and remember the names of everyone sitting at the bar," says Debbie Burns, landlady of McCauley's the Bridge bar in Carnlogh. "He'll have a bit of time for everybody and even though he wouldn't be a big drinker now he won't rush, he enjoys himself when he comes in with his brothers."
Since going into management he's also returned to St Patrick's College in Ballymena for prize-giving days and to chat with the students there.
"If his team talks are half as inspiring as the chats he's had with our pupils here then I can fully understand how Brendan has had amazing success this season," says Principal Kate Magee adding, "he has a wonderful connection with the pupils and it's little wonder we have so many Liverpool supporters here now."
While Brendan's son Anton represents the Republic at under-19 level the Liverpool boss told reporters that this just happened because the FAI approached the player.
He strongly hinted that Anton would be available to play at senior level with Northern Ireland should the opportunity arise in the future.
Focused, determined and resilient, Rodgers has brought the traits which helped his family through tough times in Northern Ireland's murky past with him to Anfield.
With a foot in both camps he appeals to the masses in Northern Ireland and his patriotism is from the heart, it's non-political.
And if he can guide Liverpool over the line to a first title in 24 long years, Carnlough will quickly become something of a Mecca to Reds supporters.
"Can you imagine?" muses Worthington "Carnlough is only a small place. If Liverpool win it the place will go crazy. And to think one of our own could lead them to the title!"
BORN TO BE RED: The long road from Antrim to Anfield
Born: Ballymena, January 26, 1973
Family: Mother Christina and father Malachy (now both deceased), brothers Gerard, Con, Malachy and Declan.
Married: To Susan whom he met during his playing days with Reading FC. They had a son Anton, who currently plays for Oldham Athletic and the Republic of Ireland, and a daughter Mischa.
Education: Attended the All Saints RC primary school in Ballymena before moving to St Patrick's College in Ballymena until the age of 16.
Playing career: Started off with Star United before moving to Ballymena United, right. In 1990 signed for Reading but failed to make it past the reserve because of recurring knee injury. From 1993 to 1996 he had three seasons in non-league football.
Managerial Career: Youth coach at Reading before joining the Chelsea Academy as head youth coach in 2004 under Jose Mourinho.
Promoted to reserve team manager at Stamford Bridge. Managed Watford to a mid-table finish in 2008/9 season.
He returned to manage Reading in 2009 but left six months later. In 2011 he guided Swansea into the Premiership where they finished 11th.
On June 1, 2012 unveiled as new Liverpool manager. The side finished seventh in his first season.
Where is he today? Top of the Premier League.
ON SATURDAY, APRIL 12 LIVERPOOL SUPPORTERS HAVE ORGANISED AN EVENT IN THE PHOENIX PARK, DUBLIN ENTITLED 'IRELAND WALKS WITH THE 96' REMEMBERING THE VICTIMS OF THE HILLSBOROUGH DISASTER. FOR MORE INFO VISIT WWW.YNWAIRISHREDSSC.COM MEMBERS OF THE YNWA IRISH REDS