To reach the manager’s office at Melwood, there is a narrow staircase that leads from the reception and up to the second floor of the facility. To the left is the canteen and games area, to the right is an atrium and doors to at least twenty different rooms, the majority of which are taken by backroom staff. On the landing in front of you is another slightly bigger door, which leads into the swishest space – one with leather seats, a couch, a table, a lampshade and views of the training ground with West Derby beyond.
It was late afternoon and the rays of the lowering sun were peeping through the blinds when Brendan Rodgers looked out for a final time at what had been his domain for three years and three months. The news was delivered swiftly by Ian Ayre, then Liverpool’s chief executive, something along the lines of: “Brendan, can we sit down? Brendan, we’ve decided to make a change…”
There had been defiance in Liverpool’s performance at Everton in the Merseyside derby. Barely an hour before, Rodgers was conducting interviews – his delight for Danny Ings clear and genuine, Liverpool’s goalscorer in a 1-1 draw. Wherever Liverpool went, Rodgers was always the first to get off the bus. At Melwood, Ayre was waiting for him. Of all the people on Liverpool’s board, Ayre’s relationship with Rodgers had been the closest. No result, however, was going to save the manager from this outcome.
It is by coincidence that he is close to returning to the Premier League on the week of the fixture which once marked his departure, though this time he won't be involved. It had been a sad but predictable end for Rodgers at Anfield, leaving behind a sense what could have been.
His appointment in 2012 came after an exhaustive interview process that initially, he did not wish to be a part of because he did not want to work with a sporting director. Roberto Martinez – who eventually went to Everton – met first with John Henry, Liverpool’s principal owner, in Florida. Henry, it is fair to say, learnt a valuable lesson here because when the pair were photographed strolling together in their linen trousers, Liverpool’s owners were accused of conducting their business too openly.
This would ultimately explain the stealth with which Rodgers was eventually let go. The manner of hiring and firing is dilemma for football club owners. They know if they speak to other managers before getting rid of the current one, they risk criticism. They know too that if they act first and think about what comes next later, they place themselves in arguably a weaker position and risk missing out on targets altogether – and are then accused of a lack of foresight or being absolutely feckless. In this case, Jurgen Klopp had been lined up to replace Rodgers and Liverpool’s owners did what better owners do – they held the meeting at a trusted law firm’s office in Manhattan and did not get caught.
Upon his own introduction to Henry, Rodgers had produced a 180-page manifesto which plotted Liverpool’s future under his guidance. It would take him twelve months to establish a team with identity, heaving Liverpool into an unexpected title race. It was claimed then that without Luis Suarez, Liverpool would never have been in such a position and although that is probably true, this should never have reflected as badly on Rodgers as it did. Rodgers helped bring the best out of Suarez by building around his strengths, showing throughout the course of the 2013/14 season a tactical flexibility as well as pragmatism in his approach while remaining true to his instincts. Though he had promised to deliver a team which dominated possession, Liverpool at their very best under Rodgers were a magnificent counter-attacking force.
Liverpool would miss out on what would have been the club’s first title in 24 years, with the focus then sharpened around the visually dramatic slip from Steven Gerrard, though really it was the lack of solutions on that warm, uncomfortable day against Chelsea that really cost Liverpool. Did Rodgers’ inexperience show here or did he simply not have the squad to get Liverpool over the line when it mattered? The sight of Iago Aspas, from a corner, giving Chelsea the chance to relieve the pressure and break when Liverpool really needed to score might answer that.
The summer of 2014 proved to be a turning point in relations. After Suarez was sold to Barcelona, he was effectively replaced by two players. Rickie Lambert had always been part of Rodgers’ plan but Mario Balotelli was not, forcefully telling journalists a fortnight before the Italian was signed that he’d never go near the controversial Italian. Those leading Liverpool’s transfer operation saw a bargain who ultimately would score just once in sixteen league games.
Liverpool fell from second to sixth, losing the final game of the 2014/15 season 6-1 at Stoke. Having been persuaded to sign Balotelli the previous summer, Rodgers dug his heels in twelve months later and effectively agreed with Michael Edwards that if the sporting director in waiting allowed him to sign Christian Benteke, he would not get in the way of Roberto Firmino’s recruitment. In going for Benteke – who had always done well against Liverpool – Rodgers was getting what he wanted in a target man but it felt like he was abandoning his beliefs.
Three months later, he was on the brink. Liverpool had lost at home to West Ham for the first time since the sixties, then at Manchester United. There had been dispiriting draws with Bordeaux and Norwich City before penalties were needed to beat Carlisle United in the League Cup – despite being almost at full-strength.
By then, that word was being used all of the time. The word that been with Rodgers since his days as a promising Swansea manager. It is a word that now seems to follow any manager who speaks confidently but then doesn’t quite deliver or falls away – even if he doesn’t get quite to where he wants to be because of an unscripted impossible-to-imagine, surely never-to-be-repeated slip like Gerrard’s. The word: fraud.
His lack of elite-level experience invited suspicion and Liverpool’s decision to proceed with the ‘Being Liverpool’ documentary, which covered his first months as manager was unfair. He did not help himself by a series of personal decisions (amongst them, the new teeth) which may have made him look as though he’d arrived at the point where the focus on him had led him to believe in his own hype.
Yet in another life, they may have built a statue of Rodgers outside Anfield. As Leicester’s manager, he will face Manchester City on the same weekend Liverpool go to Newcastle and meet Rafael Benitez. Might two of Klopp’s predecessors conspire towards taking the club they used to manage to where they’ve wanted to be for so long?
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