The look on Brendan Rodgers’ face says more than any words might achieve about the gift which this weekend has bestowed upon him.
He is one of life’s enthusiasts at the best of times but an FA Cup third-round tie against Oldham Athletic casts him for the first time into the same football arena as his son, Anton. And as they sit down together to discuss this occasion, from the sanctuary of a restaurant in north Merseyside, there is an unmistakeable sense of how the Liverpool manager, who has coached so many young players on their progression into football, has missed the chance to include his own boy in that number.
“I’ve told him how we were the highest scorers in the Premier League last year and how Anfield is a fortress and I look forward to seeing him!” Rodgers says, in mock banter of the lightest kind for the 20-year-old who will be in Oldham’s squad on Sunday. He settles back and watches with satisfaction as his son takes the questions and the limelight for once – and yet, with that delicate judgement which most parents intuit when their children advance through teenage years, displays an awareness of when and where not to intervene. “They’re asking would you want to be managed by me,” he tells his son, laying a gentle hand on his boy’s wrist, when he briefly misunderstands a question. For once, the weekend’s football conversation can’t be contained within the usual parameters, continuing when the recording devices are off. “Yes, we’ve got the same birthday,” Rodgers says. “He was due a few days before. Seems that was meant to be!”
The timing of their encounter is particularly significant for the 40-year-old, given what the last 12 months have had in store. This time last year, Rodgers was worrying desperately about a Crown Court trial which loomed for his son and fearful that his high-profile Anfield job – then still relatively new to him – would intensify the scrutiny. It did. Little did Rodgers and his wife Susan know when their son was one of four Brighton and Hove Albion players charged with sexual assault and voyeurism against a teenage girl that an Old Bailey trial and retrial would follow, before acquittal.
“As parents, both his mum and I found it really, really difficult, especially when you know the innocence of your son,” Rodgers says. “The one thing we took out of it was that his mum was there for every minute of the trial and saw everything. I was there for parts of it – and we are talking about two trials at the Old Bailey here, not just one.
“The nature of that and what you go through is surreal. It was a really difficult period because obviously Anton has got his professional life and I’m at one of the biggest clubs in the world. But this is about life and it was very, very important for us to defend his name. His mum and I would have done anything to defend his name.”
Like the progeny of many famous football people, Rodgers Jnr found his mother’s role deeply significant, as he began his journey through the sport. It was she who took him to his first competitive game and Rodgers Snr references her frequently as he describes his son’s progress.
Father and son shared the competitive sporting instinct, though. Pool, table tennis, tennis: summer holidays brought the two up against each other in most sports and though there was a little paternal indulgence for a while, neither was eventually inclined to yield. “His sister [Mischa] would say the same,” Rodgers says. “I’d be having a race with her and if I thought she was going to win I’d trip her up so she didn’t get there first! And she’d only be nine or 10!”
Rodgers’ youth development role at Chelsea, from 2004, led him to believe that Stamford Bridge was the right place for his son, who arrived in 2006, though there was a sense from the beginning that the boy would have to leap through extra hoops to avoid suspicions of nepotism.
“You get the stick and that and I’ve learned to deal with it. I will do my extra stuff and my extra work so I know myself that I’m doing it for me,” says Anton, before his father interjects to provide the fuller picture. “I think when you have a son like Anton in football he will always be deemed as if he got the prop up, no matter how he works,” he says.
“So much so that when he was offered a deal at Chelsea, when he was going there, I advised him not to take a professional contract. Lots of the young players there would get offered scholarships and professional contracts before they had earned it. I said to Anton: ‘It’s better for you to earn it son.’”
Though he did “earn it”, Rodgers says it is his single big regret that professional football did not draw the two of them together professionally at the west London club. “It’s something I always wanted to [happen] and there was a time when it looked like he was going to step up and come in under my remit,” he says.
His son reflects that “it looks like my dad is moving too fast and I can’t catch him, now!” He is by no means the last young Englishman from Cobham ranks to seek an alternative route through the game, though when the prospects of Championship football with Brighton, his next club, also began to look meagre, his father unflinchingly told him it was time to move on once more.
“I said to him he would have to give up the money [at Brighton],” Rodgers relates. “I said: ‘this is about your career and playing games. He only played a few games in the Cup down there, and needed to go out and play because he was in the reserves a lot of the time.” A promising loan spell followed at Exeter City in League Two, from last March. But his father knew the Oldham board’s commitment to youth, a further tier up the football ladder. This led him to a life, nearer his parents, at Boundary Park, with the club which eliminated Liverpool at the fourth round stage of the FA Cup last season.
He is still to break through as one of manager Lee Johnson’s key personnel there – there have been six starts this season and none since the FA Cup second round draw at home to Mansfield – but his father can talk about them all. He watched him in the excellent first round win at Wolves and has viewed clips of his substitute’s role in the midweek defeat at Shrewsbury, for reasons which have nothing to do with Liverpool’s Cup preparations. “I always look for the positives in his performance,” Rodgers says.
“This morning I was looking at his clips from the Shrewsbury game to see where he can improve and what he could have done better. But I do that with all players and I’ve always done it with Anton, probably more so as he’s got older. I always try to reinforce the positive side of his game and he is always looking to improve. He’s a great learner and always wants to improve.” Criticism can hurt, his son acknowledges. “But I don’t see it like that. It’s to make me better and he’s always been like that, since I was a young age – always giving me things to improve on and work on.”
So now to their footballing collision – an FA Cup pairing Brendan learned about when emerging from watching a Sunday afternoon match on television a few weeks ago to find himself bombarded by text messages from the Oldham chairman, the Oldham manager and, naturally, his favourite Oldham midfielder, among countless others. “I didn’t get an answer [to mine]. He was watching a game, but I think he was swerving my calls!” says Anton, who was with his own young son when he got the third round news.
The Liverpool manager will not be excluding his son from the team-talk, needless to say. “I’ll just tell them that the No 17 is the best player!” he says. His resolve to include that player in his Anfield dressing room talk owes something to an awareness that son scoring a winner against father’s far superior team is the kind of script written for football’s oldest competition.
“Sometimes fate takes over. It intervenes and maybe you get a goal that day,” says the midfielder.
“I have to get the team to keep an eye on him because he’s a good player: he’s got quality, he has a great view of the game and he’s a footballer,” adds his father. “But I will want the players to pay attention too because the footballing gods sometimes come into it as well. With the footballing gods, he could end up getting a goal.”