He was the soul of the place; into the training ground by 9am, mapping out sessions second-by-second, and tuned into his players like few other managers could be – their problems, their interests, their lives.
It is why those players Brendan Rodgers left behind will feel a little sense of loss all over again, when he returns to Swansea with Liverpool.
“He was so clever. It wasn’t just about football,” says the club’s captain, Garry Monk, attempting to crystalise what allowed Rodgers to achieve so much with so little in the city. “He will know how to talk to someone. He will know what you are into, outside of football – whether it’s golf, movies, cars or something like that. And he will tap into that. Not in a devious way. In a genuinely interested way, knowing it is going to get the best out of you and that you are going to think ‘oh he knows about this’. When you’ve got that sort of understanding with someone you want to do your best for someone like that.”
There was the occasional Rodgers stare, as well. “One where you kind of know ‘right he’s serious now’. It goes on for a bit longer and you think ‘oh s**t!’” But Rodgers is also the one to whom Monk owes his small but significant place in football lore, as the only player to have captained a side in all four divisions in the Premier League era.
The little band of brothers who have taken that Swansea journey from Tuesday nights at Mansfield and Rochdale was reduced to only Monk and Leon Britton, following Alan Tate’s departure to Leeds United this week. Sentiment played an equally little part when Michael Laudrup arrived, sized up the 33-year-old club captain and told him during the club’s pre-season tour of the United States this summer that no one would stand in his way if he wanted to go.
“It wasn’t as harsh as it sounds, not ‘oh you can go if you like, that’s it. I don’t care about you,’” Monk says, from the modest surrounds of the health and fitness club which doubles as Swansea’s training base, pitching players into conversation with the public in the showers. But after all that had gone before for Monk, it was a substantive blow. This is the man known in these parts for “the £90m block” –his fabled, hugely decisive goalline clearance from Reading’s Noel Hunt in the triumphant 2011 Championship play-off final. This July he had all but packed up his bags and gone – desperate to play some football and ready to take up Bristol City’s offer to do so. That was before a back spasm, sustained on the way back from the United States. He told City he would be fit in two weeks if they could wait. They couldn’t. “And I thought to myself ‘you know what, I’m just going to get my head down and work hard and hope for an opportunity’,” he relates. It came – when Laudrup’s £2m Spanish defensive acquisition Chico was injured in last month’s League Cup game at Anfield. Monk has more than seized his chance in a three-game undefeated run since.
Rejection was not something entirely new. In some respects it has marked out a 17-year career which plunged Monk into the England Under-17 set-up in the early days and brought him up against Ryan Giggs, Dwight Yorke, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp after his big move to Southampton. (He is also the only individual to have played for two teams on their last league fixtures at a stadium – The Dell and Swansea’s Vetch Field.) The educative though ultimately unhappy experience at Southampton – where he was loaned out five times in six years before finally making a break for Barnsley – included the afternoon at Anfield which remains seared across his soul: the 7-1 defeat when Robbie Fowler ran amok in January 1999. “I was 19. We didn’t have a great game,” he says. “It’s a memory that’s always stuck with me from that point onward. Before every game I promise myself that I will never let myself go through that again. It’s a little thing I do. Before every game.”
Even when he found succour and security in professional football’s bottom flight, signing for Kenny Jackett at the Vetch Field when the Barnsley move didn’t work out, Monk kept being tracked by the doubters. The club’s rise was rapid, built on the radiant, cultured, fearless football inculcated by Roberto Martinez, who made him captain. “But as you get a little bit older and you get promoted all the time and people are always saying ‘ah, can he take it to the next level?’,” he says. “They write you off a little bit. I had a serious knee injury when I was a bit younger, too. All of those things have always played on my mind and made me more determined. My mum, bless her, she reads websites and forums and stuff and then ends up saying, ‘I’ve written in and told them they shouldn’t say stuff like that.’ It’s sweet; she’s looking out for me but I tell her, ‘Look it’s the way of the world.’”
So here come Liverpool. The noise around tomorrow’s match has included the serialised autobiography in which Ashley Williams, Monk’s defensive partner, has said his piece about Luis Suarez – on the basis of Swansea’s goalless draw at Anfield a man “streets ahead of any player I’ve truly disliked since we’ve been in the Premier League… he dived more than any other player I’ve played against… so bad I was genuinely shocked”. It seems fairly obvious that Suarez was a nark that day and that Monk gave as good as he got on the pitch, in Williams’s defence. “I’m one who never says anything to an opposition player unless they come to me first,” he says. “I didn’t get it but obviously Ash did and if Ash gets involved I have to get involved. You stick up for your own players, don’t you? It doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong. I don’t want to get into it on Luis Suarez but he’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and he’s not particularly my cup of tea, but he’s a top, top player and that’s the side of it you have to worry about.”
So good, in fact, that in an unrelated part of this conversation Monk singles out Suarez as the most difficult opponent he has encountered in the Premier League. “You could just imagine him in a Chelsea or a Man City team where there were chances after chances and he would score a hatful of goals,” he says. “No disrespect to Liverpool but there he makes his own luck a bit more. It’s difficult [to deal with him] because he is always moving, always on the move, dropping deep, going wide. He is very clever about where he goes and very difficult to pick up unless you go man for man on him and even then he would be difficult.”
Swansea have their own ammunition. Laudrup’s subtle changes give the wide players licence to drift in and that has improved Wayne Routledge, a far better player this season. Swansea are 10th in the table, better than anyone expected in the November after a summer of managerial upheaval, and will probably spend £5m on a striker in January. The message to Rodgers will be “life goes on”.
“We love him to death after what he had achieved,” Monk says. “He got us into the Premiership – tactically, physically, mentally he took us on to a different level than anything we had been on before. But after all we’ve been through with him, we don’t want him to have one over on us now.”
My other life: Golf
Mark Gower, Alan Tate and I have a bit of competition going. We are all members at the Gower Golf Club, which overlooks the Gower Peninsula – the coastline is one of the great things about having made a home down here in South Wales. When we play away from there we beat Mark quite easily but when we play there he always seems to do. Maybe it’s because the holes are a bit shorter but he has the voodoo on us! Other than that, it’s a busy time of life at home and I spend what time I can with my partner Lexy and daughter Remy.Reuse content