Monday 27 January 2020

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Rodgers' remarkable job at Leicester sure to sicken doubters who branded him a spoofer'

Brendan Rodgers has had an impressive season with Leicester. Photo: PA Wire
Brendan Rodgers has had an impressive season with Leicester. Photo: PA Wire
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Brendan Rodgers is a terrific manager. This should hardly be a controversial statement but, as Rodgers' reign at Liverpool neared an ignominious end, there was a large body of opinion which held that the man was being found out.

Brendan Rodgers was apparently, to use the favourite word of the streetwise soccer hack, "a spoofer".

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Yet just a season and a half previously he'd brought Liverpool closer to the league title than they'd been since winning it in 1990. They came up a couple of points short in the end but their 101 goals was the highest total for a Premier League runner-up, and the fourth highest of all-time. It was every bit as gallant an effort as last season's second-placed campaign.

Of course they still didn't win the title but describing that campaign as a failure is setting the bar pretty high. Liverpool's failure to hold off Manchester City may show that Rodgers is not an elite manager but it hardly revealed him as a bad one.

Rodgers bounced back from his dismissal to win two trebles in a row in Scotland. You could probably manage Celtic to win the Scottish League title yourself to be honest. But the achievement was accomplished with a certain style, the 106 goals scored in 2016-17 was Celtic's highest league total in 50 years, while keeping the team unbeaten through 47 domestic games was a significant feat of motivation.

In February, Rodgers left Celtic with the league title almost wrapped up and took up the reins at Leicester City. At the time of writing the Foxes are an unexpected second in the table, more than a dozen points ahead of Manchester United, Spurs and Arsenal, the last of whom will probably offer Rodgers the job as manager should he deign to leave Leicester.

Not bad work for a spoofer, is it?

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Rodgers' stint at Leicester is that it shows he's learned from his mistakes at Anfield. That century of goals in 2013-14 remains a Liverpool record but the 50 goals they leaked that term was the most since the 1992-1993 season.

At Leicester, Rodgers has adopted a much more pragmatic approach with the result that City have the best defensive record in the division with just nine goals conceded in 15 games.

The old antipathy persists in certain quarters all the same. Why? Perhaps it's because Rodgers can at times exhibit a kind of prickly self-importance and it's enjoyable to needle someone who gets visibly annoyed by criticism. Human beings are mean that way.

His refusal to take refuge in formulaic explanations has also been held against Rodgers, whose punishment for attempting to be articulate is to be portrayed as pretentious. Jurgen Klopp shipped some criticism for this kind of thing early on at Anfield with the 'S' word invoked by those who prefer football managers to talk like football managers have always talked.

Rodgers isn't as good a manager as Klopp but it's odd how much criticism he's shipped from people who consider Eddie Howe, Sean Dyche and Chris Hughton to be beyond reproach. His face doesn't fit somehow.

Should he go to Arsenal, Rodgers can expect to be derided as a mercenary, as he was when leaving Watford for Reading and Celtic for Leicester. This strikes me as the strangest criticism of all. If there's one job where platitudes about 'loyalty to your employer' are entirely inappropriate it's football management.

Having been sacked by both Reading and Liverpool, Rodgers will know that Leicester's loyalty will last only as long as the results are right. This is a club which sacked Claudio Ranieri nine months after he delivered the most miraculous Premier League title of all time.

But there are sound pragmatic reasons for Rodgers to stay put. This day last week Arsenal could only scrape a draw against Norwich City when all the predictions had been that some kind of bounce would follow the departure of Unai Emery. Then they lost to Brighton at the Emirates. A team containing the prima donna trio of Mesut Ozil, Granit Xhaka and David Luiz is a team with the ability to make a manager look very bad very quickly.

The man from Carnlough might be better off securing a Champions League slot for Leicester, something which would show that he's amongst the best managers in the English game.

It might not convince the doubters but it would surely sicken them.

The Last Word

Last Sunday’s Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse witnessed a titanic duel between Joseph O’Brien’s Fakir D’oudaries and Gordon Elliott’s Samcro. With both horses having jumped superbly to pull clear of the field, a finish for the ages seemed in store as Samcro prepared to make his move against the leader two fences from home.

Unfortunately the former Cheltenham winner slipped on landing and fell, leaving his rival to win by a whopping 22 lengths. No-one seemed more disappointed about being denied a grand finale or more excited about the exhibition of jumping given by the winner than Ted Walsh.

Walsh has been analysing races for RTE for a long time but the years have not seen his enthusiasm diminish. Listening to him do his unsentimental, down to earth, supremely intelligent thing is one of the great pleasures of Irish sporting life and his reappearance is a welcome sign that the run-in to Cheltenham has begun.

Filling the role of sorcerer’s apprentice is another former jockey, Jane Mangan, whose easy fluency and unflustered excellence is remarkable for a relative broadcasting neophyte. We’re quick to criticise RTE Sport when they get things wrong so it’s only fair to point out that they’re getting racing dead right.

* * * * *

Mona McSharry’s bronze medal in the 50m breaststroke at the European Short Course Championships in Glasgow was a fine achievement. Given the Sligo swimmer is still just 19 and was a world junior champion two years ago, predicting a glorious senior future would seem a pretty safe bet.

But swimming doesn’t always work that way. The gold medallist in that race, and world silver medallist, Benedetta Pilato of Italy is 14.

Regan Smith of the US, who is 17, broke the 100m and 200m backstroke world records this year and could be one of the big stars of next year’s Olympics. That the latter of those records previously belonged to the great Missy Franklin who set it at the age of 17 shows there’s no end to the swimming wonder kids.

* * * * *

Whereas many of the great fast bowlers seemed to relish their run-up to the wicket, Bob Willis always seemed like a man performing an arduous duty under duress. This could have been because Willis, who died on Thursday at the age of 70, battled through the pain barrier for most of his Test career after a double knee operation in 1975.

It didn’t stop him being one of the finest pacemen in the game at his peak, most notably in the 1981 Ashes series when his 8/43 in the second innings of the third test helped England achieve one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history.

His somewhat Eeyoresque disposition in the commentary box after his retirement made him a bit of an acquired taste. I was a fan myself. You felt with Willis, as you feel with Colm O’Rourke, that anything which impressed him must be genuinely impressive.

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