Ken Early: Only Henry’s belief can keep fading star Rodgers in Liverpool job
If he’s winning, he’s singing but if he’s losing, Rodgers lapses into defeatism
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers looks on grimly during the thrashing at Stoke. Photograph: Tony Marshall/Getty Images
“Performances like today don’t help me and I’m fully aware of that.” It was a hell of a time for Brendan Rodgers finally to grasp the art of understatement.
Rodgers is famous for his soaring rhetoric, with a particular penchant for phrases faintly redolent of SAS survival manuals – death by football; hunt and suffocate; per ardua ad astra. The last, as everyone must know, is the motto of Britain’s Royal Air Force. As Rodgers once explained: “I use a Latin quote with the players – ‘per ardua ad astra’ – which is Latin for ‘through adversity to the stars’.”
It seems bathetic to use a Latin phrase which you then immediately have to translate so the players will understand it. Then again, nobody complained when Robin Williams’s character Mr Keating did something like it in Dead Poets Society, so maybe this sort of thing really does work with young footballers.
But losing 6-1 at Stoke left Rodgers almost dumbstruck. No pithy phrases, even Latin ones, just a stark admission: “I’ve always said that if the owners want me to go, I go.”
Keynesian thinkingIn fact, nobody could remember Rodgers saying anything quite like that before. Yet in a broader sense, it was just the sort of response you would expect from Rodgers to such a setback.
John Maynard Keynes believed that governments’ fiscal policy should be counter-cyclical. They should spend more when the economy is weak, to support demand, and spend less when the economy is strong, to prevent it getting carried away with itself.
The masterminds in charge of Ireland’s fiscal policy during the Tiger years famously took the opposite view. They pumped money into an already over-excited economy, with well-documented results.
Some football managers display an intuitive grasp of how Keynesian thinking can apply in their own field. In victory, Alex Ferguson would often criticise his players for sloppiness, but when they lost he usually claimed they’d been the better team. Rodgers is a pro-cyclical manager. If he’s winning, he’s singing but if he’s losing, he lapses into defeatism with alarming speed.
Reflecting yesterday on Liverpool’s season, Rodgers said: “In particular towards the end, this period now, we’ve come up short.” The real story is more complicated. It’s been a tale of boom and bust or, more accurately, bust and boom and bust – a sort of double-dip recession.
You can divide it into three distinct phases. In the first, which lasted from August until December, Liverpool crashed their league campaign by losing not only to rivals like Chelsea and the Manchester clubs, but also cannon fodder like Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa.
They managed to get knocked out of the Champions League by Basel but that’s not what their miserable European efforts will be remembered for. That honour belongs to Rodgers’s decision to run up the white flag at the Bernabeu, fielding a weakened XI against Real Madrid on the pretext of resting key players for a game against Chelsea, which was also lost.
Yet Liverpool were about to turn a corner. Rodgers said yesterday: “I always say it’s easy if you’re 5-0 down, you can’t do much more than work hard.” Rodgers had never actually been 5-0 down at half-time at any point in his career, and neither had Liverpool in their 123-year history, but that’s not relevant to his point: when you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way is up.
By mid-December, Liverpool were like a team that is several goals down at half-time. Sure enough, green shoots sprang. They put together a run. The defence tightened up to the point where Rodgers felt emboldened to gently mock the critics who had suggested his team might benefit from the appointment of a defensive coach. By mid-March, they had risen to fifth in the league.
The day before Liverpool played Manchester United in what looked like a decisive match in the race for fourth, articles appeared in two UK newspapers giving detailed insight into how Rodgers had personally turned the season around. The articles dwelt on the ingenious new tactical scheme Rodgers had hatched to liberate the talents of his players. Readers could be left in no doubt how lucky the players were to have such a hard-working and perceptive figure at the helm.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the publication of these articles marked the moment at which everything fell apart. Having painstakingly reconstructed the season, Liverpool blew it up again. They lost six and won just two of their last nine league games, a run that ended with a record Premier League defeat.
Poisonous disputeIt’s not that defeat itself that should trouble Liverpool’s principal owner John Henry, but the way in which the season unravelled not once, but twice.
And then there’s the poisonous dispute with Raheem Sterling, which culminated in yesterday’s astonishing images of Liverpool supporters screaming abuse at the best young English player to emerge at their club since Steven Gerrard.
Rodgers may not be responsible for Sterling’s disillusionment but it’s safe to say that the player doesn’t see him as an inspirational Mr Keating figure. If Rodgers keeps his job, it can only be because Henry – somehow – still does.