Brendan Rodgers: You might not remember me, Sir Alex...
When Swansea entertain Manchester United next Saturday, their manager will be meeting his old boss of more than 20 years ago. Steve Tongue meets Brendan Rodgers
When players, management and supporters of a newly promoted Premier League club scan the fixture list in mid-summer, it is fair to say that a home game against Manchester United is one of the very first they seek out. Saturday 19 November has long been ringed in many a south Wales calendar, the great day is approaching fast and Swansea City's bright young manager Brendan Rodgers fully appreciates what it means: "The city and the club have waited years for this sort of game. It's going to be a wonderful occasion, with the passion of our supporters and the belief and confidence of our players. For me it's about entertaining one of the biggest club sides in the world, a genius of a football manager, and us going out on to the pitch to get a result."
There is a little-known personal element too, even if Rodgers is inclined to play it down. United have long found both sides of the Irish border to be a fertile recruiting ground, from Johnny Carey and Jackie Blanchflower through George Best and Sammy McIlroy to Paul McGrath, Denis Irwin and the rest. For a few years in the late 1980s young Rodgers of Ballymena dreamed of joining them. "I was a typical Irish youth player, identified at 13 or 14, who used to travel over there, not long after [Sir Alex] Ferguson was appointed. I recognised what a wonderful life it was." Alas, he would not be part of it. A year older than Ryan Giggs, the first of the new generation that United's reinvented scouting network were signing up, Rodgers was not taken on, and moved south to Reading.
Does Ferguson remember him? "I wouldn't have thought so. I wasn't good enough to be remembered. I joined Reading at 16 and was about 20 when I stopped playing, recognised I wasn't going to be the player I wanted to be, so I moved into coaching, devoting my life to that."
The impression is that as a footballer he was out of step with the times, believing in a playing style encouraged long ago by his father Malachy, who died two months ago aged only 59. "My father loved Brazil, loved watching great football. It was very much from television, not live games, but that was something he passed on to me, a real belief in the way the game should be played.
"I was a little winger or central midfield player, more technically gifted than pace and power. I played in Northern Ireland youth international teams and they were always teams set up to defend and to not have the ball. I was not that type of player and didn't enjoy it.
"It was similar at Reading and I just felt there was a better way to play football and I knew there was British talent that could play that way. It's a lot more difficult to coach players to play that way than just to kick the ball up the pitch. But that was my mission really as a young coach, to go and help players to be technically strong and understand tactically the game. That's followed me from my very first step."
The early steps were positive ones, leading him to take charge of Reading's youth team and then their academy, before a highly desirable vacancy occurred at Chelsea when Steve Clarke was promoted to be one of the new manager Jose Mourinho's first-team coaches. "Jose wanted someone to implement that European type of idea and I was one of few British coaches that had that influence and belief. He wouldn't have known me personally, it was more a recommendation but there were loads of applicants and he maybe wanted someone that mirrored him in terms of working at a big club as a young coach. Jose really believed in my qualities and abilities and gave me the opportunity. He put a lot of time into his preparation off the field and was a terrific influence on me."
The admiration was mutual and after making him reserve team manager, Mourinho's was an impressive reference to have when Rodgers became keen to strike out on his own. He joined Watford in November 2008, staying only six months before being swayed by the pull of his old club, Reading, where an upwardly mobile career suffered its first setback; after five wins in the first 21 games of the season, he was sacked.
"My aim going into my first manager's job was to go somewhere for four or five years and prove I could be a manager through thick and thin. But then came the draw of a club close to my heart, that I thought would allow me to express myself and be creative. I was hoping to do a similar job at Reading, even if the process was going to take a bit longer because of the type of players. It didn't work out, which was a massive disappointment because I'd spent a lot of my life there, my children were born there, it was a club that gave me an opportunity as a young coach.
"I've learnt from it and the manager Swansea have today is a big part of the learning experience I got from that. I made mistakes but ultimately it was just the wrong time. My way of working wasn't what they needed at that time so we both moved on."
The next job needed to be the right one and Swansea proved a perfect fit. Lifted up from the lower divisions by Roberto Martinez playing a style of passing football not often seen at that level, they had consolidated under Paulo Sousa. "This was a club that liked the game to be a certain way over a certain number of years, which is why they pick a certain type of manager," Rodgers says. He soon proved his value in the transfer market by bringing in Scott Sinclair, who scored 27 goals last season, including a hat-trick in the play-off final – which was, inevitably, against Reading.
Widely written off, like most play-off winners, as relegation favourites, Swansea have had what Rodgers calls "an excellent start", sitting in mid-table and unbeaten at home. "A lot of these players have come from League Two, most of their career they've only read about these [opposition] players. It was going to take a few games for them to believe they have a right to be in the Premier League. Now there's a sense of that among the group."
Resources have to be carefully husbanded and the memory of previous financial woes caused by irresponsibility remains a useful corrective to over-ambition. In December 1982, when United last visited, Swansea's expensively recruited and well-paid squad had just finished a best-ever sixth in the top division but were starting to tumble back down a vertiginously sleep slope all the way to the Fourth Division whence they came.
Rodgers is speaking in his tiny office at the local fitness centre, where players mingle with the general public. Tempted last summer to sign the experienced Spanish international Marcos Senna from Villarreal, he declined for fear of upsetting the wage structure and team spirit.
"I've spoken to a lot of managers of promoted teams and the common denominator that causes problems is money," he said. "We needed to ensurethat wasn't going to be the case. The club has moved very quickly on the field and the infrastructure, the training facilities have to improve. That will hopefully come with success. But you see here today the players mixing with the public, they go in and shower with the public, which keeps them very much grounded."
It is not something that United are likely to instigate at Carrington, but on Saturday evening they should beware underestimating the task at hand – whether or not Sir Alex and Giggsy remember the boy from Ballymena in the home dug-out.
Swansea City v Manchester United is on ESPN on Saturday, kick-off 5.30pm
Then and now: Swansea versus United - a very short history
Only top flight meetings:
19 September 1981 Manchester Utd 1 (Birtles) Swansea City 0.
30 January 1982 Swansea City 2 (Curtis, R James) Manchester Utd 0.
18 December 1982 Swansea City 0 Manchester Utd 0.
7 May 1983 Manchester Utd 2 (Robson, Stapleton) Swansea City 1 (Latchford).
Manchester Utd Bailey; Duxbury, Moran, McQueen, Grimes; Wilkins, Robson, Muhren; Cunningham, Stapleton, Whiteside.
Swansea City Sander; Marustik, Charles, Lewis, Richards; Pascoe, Stanley, Kennedy; R James, Latchford, Dale.
The Way They Were, 1982-83:
Managers Manchester Utd: Ron Atkinson (2 years). Swansea: John Toshack (5 years).
League position Manchester Utd: 3rd. Swansea 21st (relegated).
Top scorer Manchester Utd: Stapleton, 14. Swansea: Latchford, 20.
Ground capacity Manchester Utd: 58,504. Swansea: 26,237.
Average gate Manchester Utd: 41,573. Swansea: 11,681.
Record transfer fee paid Manchester Utd: Bryan Robson, £1.5m. Swansea: Colin Irwin, £340,000.
Record transfer fee received Manchester Utd: Andy Ritchie, £500,000. Swansea: Alan Curtis, £370,000.
The Way They Are, 2010-11:
Manager Manchester Utd: Sir Alex Ferguson (25 years). Swansea: Brendan Rodgers (16 months).
League position Manchester Utd: 2nd. Swansea: 10th.
Top scorer Manchester Utd: Rooney, 9. Swansea: Graham, 4.
Ground capacity Manchester Utd: 75,769. Swansea: 20,520.
Average gate Manchester Utd: 75,495. Swansea: 19,661.
Record transfer fee paid Manchester Utd: Dimitar Berbatov, £30.75m. Swansea: Danny Graham £3.5m.
Record transfer fee received Manchester Utd: Cristiano Ronaldo, £80m. Swansea: Jason Scotland, £2m.
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