From a limp to a swagger
Rodgers has made Reds' title charge look like the most natural thing in the world, writes Dion Fanning
In the depths of Liverpool's winter, the club's manager Roy Hodgson gave an interview to Richard Keys and Andy Gray after a 3-0 win at Anfield against Aston Villa. It was December 2010 and Liverpool's fourth league win in a row had moved the club up to eighth in the Premier League. Gray's remark that it was title-winning form was met with a rueful chuckle from Hodgson, the chuckle of a man who had encountered too much cock-eyed optimism in his lifetime.
In the same interview Hodgson would also give what passed for a rallying cry, "We shot ourselves in the foot early doors and we're still limping but the limp's getting better."
If Brendan Rodgers ever had to deal with a limping team, he would insist that it was something of a swagger.
In less than four years, Liverpool have moved from the darkness of Hodgson to the blinding light of Rodgers; they have moved from the relentless gloom and despair of Tom Hicks and George Gillett to the energetic intelligence of FSG; they have replaced David N'Gog and Ryan Babel – the partnership Hodgson praised that night – with Daniel Sturridge and the phenomenon that is Luis Suarez.
Today they can move closer to a league title nobody anticipated. They began the season with a level of expectation that would have pleased Hodgson and they end it with Rodgers making their position at the top of the table seem like the most natural thing in the world.
"It would be something that no one would believe," Suarez said last week. "We have good players, but if you look at the complete squad, we don't have the tools to be up there. The truth is that we have surprised ourselves at how well we're playing."
Liverpool would not be there if it wasn't for Suarez, who has scored 30 league goals and provided 12 assists this season. He has been the central force in the team but Rodgers has done more than some less adventurous coaches would have by not relying solely on the side's outstanding talent.
Instead Liverpool have raised the stakes and defied convention. An attacking quartet of Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling is sent out when logic and caution would suggest it couldn't work.
But Rodgers, as he might even say himself, has always been committed to the poet's view that a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for.
In 2010, Brendan Rodgers had just been given another chance at Swansea City, a club where he could demonstrate his endless capacity for reinvention and his ability to make the most of an opportunity.
A year before he was appointed Swansea manager, Rodgers became manager of Reading, leaving a job at Watford as he tried to take the next step in management. By Christmas he had been dismissed but he left a mark on those who came across him, even if only for a few weeks.
"He was a joy to work with," Stephen Hunt says. "He was energetic and organised. You could tell he was new to the game, he had training methods you wouldn't see in other, older managers.
Reading had just been relegated and Hunt wanted to return to the Premier League and he recalls that Rodgers dealt fairly with him. "He was spot on with me."
There were curiosities. At that stage, Rodgers had a different emphasis, according to Hunt. "He wanted us to be hard to beat, there was a bit of Mourinho in there."
Sometimes there would be even more of Mourinho. According to Hunt, Rodgers would sometimes switch to speaking a language Hunt thought was Portuguese on the training ground. "He wanted to come across a bit different. He had his Northern Irish accent with a touch of Portuguese."
Rodgers had a pedigree which he was making clear. He may have been speaking Spanish – a language he studied – not Portuguese but Rodgers didn't want to be considered "one of the bottle". He had risen at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho and that brought a certain credibility.
Mourinho only spoke a little about Rodgers last week as he pursued other battles instead, crediting Rodgers alone for his development as a manager. Mourinho was right not to engage because Liverpool's success undermines the story Mourinho has been telling all season about Chelsea's brave battle against the giants of the Premier League.
Rodgers' rise is even more remarkable than Liverpool's. Within months of arriving at Reading, he was gone, sacked in December. "I either disappeared to become an Academy director, where I'd been for 14 years, or I could show character, perseverance and go again," he said recently. He also questioned his approach in those few months.
"That was part of my reflection when I left Reading," he told Sports Illustrated last week. "That I did veer from my philosophy under pressure for results, I wasn't being true to myself. I can adapt and be pragmatic of course, but I had success all my life as a coach working with players and developing them in my way – which is not just the right or wrong way, but how I operate, what I've devoted my life to, what I've rehearsed a million times on the training field."
At Swansea City, he would find the perfect club. It had been transformed by Roberto Martinez – they seem certain to spend their careers encountering each other – and Rodgers took it forward. As Liverpool endured Hodgson and recovered from Hodgson, Rodgers was taking Swansea to the play-offs and then promotion in a final against Reading.
In October 2010, Tom Hicks gave an interview to Sky during which he complained bitterly about the process which had seen the club sold to FSG, or NESV as they then were. Behind him as he spoke, an artist's drawing hung on the wall. It was of the New Anfield he had hoped to build but which didn't get much further than the pretty picture on the wall.
Hicks went out as he had come in, making wild statements, although they had become apocalyptic rather than fanciful. "There are better owners out there," he said as he talked about the "epic swindle" that had seen the club sold.
Liverpool released drawings last week of the plans to redevelop Anfield and while there was some criticism, there was the expectation that the redevelopment of the Main Stand at Anfield will go ahead, which in itself is progress from the Hicks and Gillett era. Last week managing director Ian Ayre recalled the dark moments in October 2010 before FSG took over.
"People sometimes forget how bad it was," Ayre said. "I speak to people now and they have really short memories. When you think about that day when we tipped it over the edge and finally pulled it back, we've come such a long way."
The arrival of FSG brought the end for Hodgson. John Henry and Tom Werner had an idea how the club would be run but Hodgson's catastrophic spell meant they couldn't implement it straight away.
They appointed Kenny Dalglish on a temporary basis in January 2011 and he was made permanent manager at the end of the season.
His time captured the problems Liverpool have had in the modern era. After Hodgson, Dalglish was needed to restore hope and give a sense that the club was reconnecting with the values it prized. He was appointed because he represented all that was good about Liverpool's past, and in May 2012 he was sacked because he couldn't be the face of the bright, modern future.
In that time, Dalglish and the director of football Damien Comolli brought Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam to the club. These signings prevented Liverpool from representing anything other than laboured, strained football. Yet they also signed Suarez and Jordan Henderson, central players in this season's title challenge. Henderson would take time to develop (he has matured under Rodgers who, in another example of his ability to see the past only as an encumbrance, considered swapping him for Clint Dempsey in August 2012, but has now made him central to everything his team does).
Suarez, too, had made Liverpool less appealing. Dalglish's handling of the racist incident when Suarez abused Patrice Evra overshadowed the season. At his peak during his first spell as manager, Dalglish's style of management ignored the media's need for information – 'write what you see' – and connected with the Liverpool supporters who trusted him implicitly, helped by Liverpool's success.
The Suarez case exposed the limitations of the style and made Dalglish vulnerable, despite success in the domestic cups. "No one is saying we didn't enjoy winning the Carling Cup and getting to the FA Cup final but ultimately the backbone of football now is the Premier League and European football at the highest level," Ayre said when Dalglish was dismissed. Alex Ferguson would later offer an alternative point of view which put the Suarez-Evra case at the centre. "Their owner John Henry has obviously looked at that incident and felt it wasn't handled in the right way. It certainly wasn't a nice thing to happen and it must have been part of it."
In the summer of 2012, FSG decided to go with their instincts. The manager would be young, progressive and he would work well in the collective FSG envisaged. Comolli had been sacked but they had no hesitation in persevering with their plan for the wisdom of crowds.
Roberto Martinez was pictured in Miami with John Henry and it is understood again that he was the man FSG wanted. "Liverpool made me an offer," Martinez said later that summer but he is believed to have been reluctant to work with a director of football. Martinez is believed to have relaxed his objections but by that stage Rodgers had impressed FSG. Later he would have his own objections to the FSG model which led, in his first summer, to a battle over transfers.
Last week Rodgers understandably said he would like more control over transfers. "It's one of the leading clubs in the world and I want to be allowed to build and develop the club without interference." It is the point all managers want to reach yet, without a collective and some interference, Liverpool might have Clint Dempsey instead of Daniel Sturridge today and Ashley Williams instead of Martin Skrtel. The structure at Liverpool has allowed Rodgers to do what he does best: work with players and allow them to prosper. "He's a top man," was the verdict of Damien Duff, who knew him at Chelsea.
When Rodgers demands more power over transfers, he could point to the mixed record of Liverpool's transfer committee, but his own player recruitment hasn't been impressive either.
After Rodgers' difficult first season, last summer Liverpool kept Luis Suarez at the club. Arsenal's bid of £40m plus a pound is believed to have angered John Henry, who went on to articulate the reasons for keeping Suarez – and in keeping him Liverpool were catapulted into this extraordinary dimension.
This season Liverpool have scored 96 goals and conceded 44. They have scored more goals than Norwich City, Cardiff City and Sunderland combined. They have let in more than Crystal Palace. This is not how underdogs are supposed to win the title.
Rodgers has created a team as bold and as daring as his rhetoric used to be. Liverpool's ambitions this season were to return to the Champions League and many thought that would be beyond them. Rodgers could have approached that cautiously, and for the opening weeks of the season, when Liverpool were without Suarez, who saw out his suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic, they were a changed side, winning their opening three league games 1-0.
Rodgers insisted to Sports Illustrated that he hadn't changed at all. "I've seen lots of stuff written about how I've changed, which is totally not true," he said. "What has changed has been the speed of the game, the understanding of our game, the understanding of the philosophy amongst the players and their intelligence around has improved and that's what has helped us to where we are. I've seen stuff saying I'm more pragmatic, but nothing has changed, except with time and the constant exposure to the ideas, the players have adapted."
If Suarez has been the most important factor, the manner in which Steven Gerrard has adapted to his deeper midfield role has been almost as important. Gerrard has changed his temperament and his technical approach to the game.
Gerrard has always been a worrier and these anxieties could manifest themselves on the field. He has worked with Dr Steve Peters in recent times and his thoughts on the psychiatrist were revealing.
"Steve Peters is not going to make the players run 100 metres any quicker, although he is a former sprinter himself, or do a Cruyff turn better or hit a 40-yard pass any more accurately," Gerrard says. "But what I can guarantee is that if the players buy into it, he'll be able to help them with mental preparation and make them understand how the mind works, especially when you're going into pressure situations."
Liverpool have managed to overcome the pressure situations. They have remained true to themselves in recent weeks: attacking ferociously and then defending abjectly, but it hasn't mattered. This would be remarkable in itself but at a club that has waited 24 years for the title, it is extraordinary that Rodgers and his players have handled the expectation with such freedom.
"Command can be lonely," Rodgers said recently, demonstrating that his rhetorical ambitions have not disappeared entirely. "When things go well, the manager is one of those responsible," Mourinho said of Rodgers on Friday. "When things go wrong, he is responsible."
In Liverpool's case, there is a persuasive argument for giving credit to a collective, even as Rodgers thrives.
Rodgers has taken to his heroic role. His career has seemed like a preparation for this part and he hasn't sounded a wrong note or betrayed a hint of pressure. He has what Arthur Miller called "the glow that power paints on the human being". Liverpool's limp has become an invincible swagger.
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