Friday 24 November 2017

the Brendan voyage

Playing a brand of exciting, attacking football not seen on Merseyside since the days of Dalglish, Rush and Barnes, Liverpool boss is attempting to become the first Irish manager in over 100 years to conquer England's top flight, writes Garry Doyle

Garry Doyle

In Liverpool, they are used to historical contexts, their hopes for this season interlinked with references to the 1990 one, when they last won the English title. "Twenty-four years is a long time to wait," admitted their Irish manager Brendan Rodgers.

Yet Irish football has been waiting far longer for the trophy Rodgers and Liverpool are chasing, more than a century having passed since the last, and only, time an Irish manager lifted English football's biggest prize – when Bob Kyle guided Sunderland to their fifth championship in the season sandwiched between the sinking of the Titanic and the outbreak of the First World War.

Since then, Sunderland's fortunes have dipped – yet not to the extent of Ireland's managerial stock. Whereas the Scots have provided 10 different men who have won 36 titles, Ireland – bar Kyle – have rarely come close, David O'Leary's third-place finish with Leeds United in 2000 being a lonely exception.

Then last season came along and so did Rodgers – an Antrim man who shared the same geographic roots, self-belief and sense of adventure as Kyle – the catalyst behind Liverpool's unexpected title charge.

"It was great for the supporters to dream, to take pride in what we were doing, but we haven't done anything yet," said Rodgers. Really?

Last season Liverpool did plenty, finishing second, qualifying for Europe, making a city believe in itself again, motivating crowds to mob the entrance to Anfield an hour and a half before kick-off prior to a Wednesday night game against Sunderland.

"Well, I'm certainly glad they were there," said Rodgers.

"It filled me with great pride (to see all the supporters) as we were driving in. They got us over the line in that game because as you can imagine, those scenes gives you a real boost of energy because the supporters get pride from what the players are producing."

And what Liverpool, and by extension Rodgers, are producing is a triumph of positive, vibrant football – which saw them rise from seventh in 2012-13 to finish runners-up.

And all the while, they rewrote the history books. First Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez became the first Liverpool strike force to each score 20 times in a league season since 1965.

Then Sturridge scored his 30th goal in just his 37th game for the club – reaching that landmark quicker than any Liverpool player had in 118 years.

And finally Suarez became the first Liverpool player to score 30 league goals in a season since Ian Rush. With the Uruguayan, no one can deny their attack had bite.

"We all know about the incident (when Suarez received a 10-match ban for digging his teeth into Branislav Ivanovic's arm).

"But he's a quite humble guy off the field who becomes a gladiator when he crosses the white line," said Rodgers. He certainly does. In total, Suarez scored 31 league goals last season – clearly benefiting from Rodgers' tutelage.

"There's no doubt about that," said Robbie Fowler, no stranger to scoring goals in a red shirt at Anfield. "Brendan is a superb man-manager and the way he reacted to Luis' transfer request last summer was an example of that.

"It took a lot of persuasion on Brendan's part to get him to stay. That shows a lot about his management and his ability to communicate."

But in football, money talks more persuasively than any man. The World Cup would bring more goals, further controversy, another bite, a longer ban and then a £75m bid from Barcelona that neither Suarez nor Liverpool could say no to.

Since then they have shopped extensively, adding Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Emre Can and Lazar Markovic to their squad – with the promise of more arrivals to come.

"Brendan speaks so persuasively and so passionately," said Lambert. "He made me want to join."

Yet there is clearly more to Rodgers than the gift of the gab. Tactically, he emerged last year as a brilliant strategist who refined his initial possession-based game into a counter-attacking philosophy which allows for Liverpool to use two centre-forwards, a practice which bucks modern trends.

And the return was sensational. They scored 101 times in 38 league games last year, the six they delivered against Cardiff in March taking Liverpool past the 150-goal milestone in just 68 games under their Irish manager.

Neither Bill Shankly nor Bob Paisley got to that landmark as swiftly.

"We became a team that could score from anywhere, any angle, and a team that can dominate the ball," said Rodgers.

"The variety and imagination in our game was at a real top level."

No one can argue with that – with Sturridge's contribution proving almost as important as Suarez's, a fairly remarkable turnaround for a player whose reputation was on the line when Rodgers gambled £12m of the club's money on the 24-year-old.

"Maybe people have the wrong perception of me because I had been at big clubs – Manchester City and Chelsea before Liverpool – but I have always chased to play," said Sturridge.

"I want to be successful, I'm a winner and I've always wanted to win – but it's not about sitting on the bench, it's not about watching from the sidelines and earning money and being content.

"It's about playing, living your dream, winning medals and leaving the pitch with a smile on your face.

"People think I got loads of money at City and left for Chelsea to chase more money. They said, 'He's a money grabber', yet they were the richest club in the world, so how was I chasing the money when I was leaving them?

"I moved to Chelsea because they told me I would get opportunities and they believed in me, and I won things there (the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup).

"But it's not about looking back and saying I've won these medals. I am still hungry. Would it feel different to win the league at Liverpool? Definitely. The camaraderie is something I have not been part of for a long time. And that comes down to the manager who drives it."

What drives Rodgers is the need to leave a legacy. Like the pathfinder Kyle, he is an innovator (Sunderland's longest-serving manager introduced a passing game into English football at a time when kick-and-run was the norm) and like Kyle, he mixes big-money signings with the promotion of the club's own players.

Like Kyle, he has had his doubters – each man enduring worrying starts to their reigns before key away victories at bitter rivals finally made the dissenters believe, Kyle avoiding the chop in 1909 by going to St James' Park and beating Newcastle 9-1, a result which remains a record for an away win the English top flight.

Rodgers' job, meanwhile, was far from being under threat when he led Liverpool to their 3-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford in February but this was the victory which saw him – rather than Suarez – finally acknowledged as the catalyst for their upturn.

"We will continue to look for an aggressive attacking game – it's my job to remove any fear from the game for the players," he said after that win.

He has done that and now he is looking at a new season, a new chapter and at making history.

Two famines – one lasting 24 years, the other 101 – may soon end.

Irish Independent Supplement

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