Read he previous installment of the Brendan Rodgers Project here. [PART 2]
The fixture against Newcastle United promised to be a challenge for Leicester City in their final meeting of the season. Brendan Rodgers’ Foxes remained unbeaten since he had taken the reigns at the club. Keeping the unbeaten run was important, if for no other reason than to keep the positive narrative change going. They also sat just south of a Europa League position, something that Rodgers declared he’d have the club competing for. On the other hand, Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle simply wanted to maintain the form that allowed them to hover precariously on the fringe of the relegation zone. They were two clubs headed in opposite directions. At least, that’s how things seemed.
The managerial match-up between Rodgers and Benitez offered an added level of intrigue. Both were former Liverpool managers, yet the current style of football being implemented at their clubs were polar opposites. Benitez, the Spaniard played something of a stereotypic Anglo-Saxon style football with heavy defending, direct passes, and solid counterattacks; the Irishman preached a more modern, Spanish-style of football that stressed short passes and the primacy of possession. Benitez stuck with Newcastle even when lacking financial support from the board. This from a man who won La Liga with Valencia and, famously, the Champions League with Liverpool. On top of that he won the UEFA Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup. Rodgers, who won his first title in the Scottish Premier League, was not known for his loyalty but rather a blatant and unapologetic opportunism. (Am stating facts, not personal opinion here.)
For Brendan Rodgers, it’s always been about style. Even from his earliest days as a manager, he had gone out of his way to stress his pedigree as coach of the Chelsea reserve team under Jose Mourinho, though with more than a fair share of enabling by the media. The way he spoke of his philosophy of modern football, of his role as a teacher, and his desire to create beautiful football inspired belief. He basically billed himself as the Second Coming of the Special One. Could he back it up?
Been to Spain, Fluent in Spanish
Brendan Rodgers’ professional football odyssey started at the age of 18 after he was signed by Reading from his local club, Ballymena United, in Northern Ireland. He was a defender by trade. Knee problems cut his playing career short, but ended up perhaps being a blessing in disguise. It allowed him to pursue coaching, which he clearly excelled at. Reading offered him the opportunity to learn by appointing him youth coach. Eventually, he rose through the ranks to become academy director at the club.
As the story goes, Brendan Rodgers spent time wandering the sunny streets of Spain like an Irish Sancho Panza in search of the hidden secrets of el hermoso juego. (A footballing quest if there ever was one.) He learned the language. He absorbed the culture. Most importantly, he observed Spanish football in its nascent tiki-taka era. Possession football made a deep and lasting impression on him. His football philosophy was borne out of his time in Spain.
Rodgers must have picked up a fair deal and showed promise because he ended up as the youth coach at Chelsea, picked from the crowd of aspirants by Jose Mourinho. By his second season, the Special One promoted him to reserve coach, surely a vote of confidence.
According to Neil Ashton at the Daily Mail, “Rodgers’ reputation soared at Chelsea where he helped Mourinho change the culture of the club by coaching the midfield ‘diamond system’. The tactical switch helped bring the club two successive Premier League titles, the FA Cup and two League Cups.”
In addition to making significant strides coaching a winning Blues youth team, Rodgers made the most of his time networking. During his tenure at Stamford Bridge, he made important contacts, including Frank Lampard Sr. whom he’d recruit as football consultants for the next episode in the The Life of Brendan — manager at Watford FC. (This after being seriously linked with a move to Leicester City.)
Rodgers spoke glowingly about Lampard, “He has great experience and as a young manager it is important to have that alongside me. He is a football man, an honest man and a loyal man and those are the key qualities you want in a mentor.”
The Rodgers Way
At the time, Watford struggled at the bottom end of the Championship table. They were a team in increasing disarray. After being promoted to the Premier League in 2006-2007 under Aidy Boothroyd, their fortunes went pear-shaped in spectacular fashion. They were relegated the following season. When Watford failed to perform in the Championship, Board disenchantment led to the firing of Boothroyd and the appointment of Malky Mackay as caretaker. It was an opening for Brendan Rodgers.
Rodgers not only spoke about bringing winning football back to Watford but also about doing it with style. He wasn’t just any ordinary coach who etched X’s and O’s on a board. He had a philosophy. A football way of being. Sure, he wasn’t at the level of Chicago Bulls/LA Lakers coach Phil Jackson aka the Zen Master, but he had his beliefs. Football was more than kicking a ball up and down a pitch. He believed in beauty.
His early interviews as Watford’s manager showed he was far from lacking confidence as he proclaimed, “An era has come to an end and I want to come in and change the philosophy of the club because I am a different tactician.
“I have come from a level where you have to play football. I am also looking with one eye on now and one on the future because if we, as Watford, get promotion in the next two to three years, we then need to be prepared to go into that level.
“Everyone that knows me within the game, knows my identity as a coach and from that the identity of Watford changes.”
Baptism by Fire
Rodgers’ first match resulted in a 1-1 draw with last place Doncaster. Tommy Smith scored Watford’s only goal. It was not the ideal result but not entirely unexpected. He wasn’t a miracle worker and nobody expected him to be.
Less than a week later, things deteriorated at Watford on a business level. Chairman Graham Simpson resigned; Elton John subsequently quit the Board; and the club teetered on the brink of administration. Making matters worse, Rodgers was also ordered to slash his players budget by more than half as the board looked to sell its best players — Tommy Smith and Jay DeMerrit —in order to pay for the remainder of players’ salaries.
Only 11 days after taking control of the team, rumors swirled that Rodgers was ready to move on from Watford.
Philosophy into Practice
They say football isn’t played on paper. It isn’t played in the manager’s mind either and Rodgers’ introduction to managing a football team started on a very rocky road. Their uninspired draw against Doncaster was followed by a string of uncertain showings.
Rodgers preached patience, saying, “There is a new way of playing and it is going to take time and the players are adapting but we need the patience of the supporters… The best thing in football, other than scoring goals, is when your side has possession, but what would be great for the players, is the understanding of the supporters that we want to play creative and attacking football with discipline. It is important that the supporters buy into that.”
Formations did not matter so long as they retained possession. He said so himself. However, that way of thinking led to constant tinkering as he got to know his players and also tried to instill a philosophy. He shifted from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 to his beloved midfield diamond.
And in what would become to be a frequent criticism of Rodgers’ sides from Watford to Liverpool, the team was defensively suspect. After a 4-2 loss to Bristol City on Boxing Day 2008, Anthony Matthews from the Watford Observer wrote, “There was no late Christmas cheer at Vicarage Road this afternoon as Watford’s defensive failings reared their ugly heads yet again to give Bristol City a 4-2 victory.”
In early January, Watford put together another shambolic performance. Again, Matthews singled out the team’s defensive frailty. “Watford enjoyed a fair amount of possession in the first half but were unable to capitalise and after conceding the second, the floodgates opened.”
While Watford only won 2 out of their first 9 matches under Rodgers, things finally began falling into place in a FA Cup tie against Crystal Palace which they won 4-3.
Reflecting on his first season as a manager, Rodgers said, “I think probably one of the turning points was in late January, on the 26th, when we had a team meeting and spoke.
“On the Saturday we played Crystal Palace in the FA Cup and won 4-3 and then on the Monday we made a commitment before our game against Burnley on how we were going to be and what we needed to be over the course of the next few months.”
February brought an improvement in Watford’s form and the team closed out the season strong by stringing together enough wins to avoid relegation. They finished in 13th place. Considering where Watford were when Rodgers assumed control, it was a significant achievement, to say the least.
Rodgers described his team’s effort, “To finish in 13th was a wonderful achievement considering where we were but because of my nature, I want to fight to succeed and that is what I want to do… Certainly being realistic, top ten in this league positions Watford where they want to be in English football – a top 30 club.”
Watford finished the season as the 33rd best team in England, just missing his goal, but the fact that it was that narrow showed what Rodgers was capable of manufacturing. He was hired to avoid relegation. He more than surpassed that task.
But the questions were already swirling. Reading wanted Rodgers back and he felt similarly. Would he stay with Watford as promised? The Irishman deflected inquiries regarding his plans.
“I love Watford,” Rodgers said when the suggestion was put to him. “Watford have given me a wonderful opportunity as a 35-year-old manager. I had to fight for my life every day to arrive to become a manager and a club has given me an opportunity here and what I want to do is, over the next few years, really create and build something. When I came in I said I wanted to change the philosophy at the club and I love everything about here.”
After proclaiming his devotion to Watford, Rodgers broke ties with the club and headed back to Reading as their new manager. He had been at Vicarage Road for only 192 days.
NOTES: Rodgers’ record with Leicester City this season:
IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons
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