Not many managers provide such cause for vacillation as Brendan Rodgers. Nobody is quite sure where the Ulsterman stands on the sliding scale between potential genius and verbose charlatan. It was pleasing to see Rodgers back in the midst of things during recent television appearances on Goals on Sunday and Monday Night Football. One felt certain that his words would either provide genuine wisdom or at worst give everyone a good laugh. This dichotomy between Brendan, the über talented young coach and ‘Brenton’ (named after Ricky Gervais’ grating character in The Office), was superbly encapsulated in this recent piece by Nick Miller. Aside from the more amusing aspects of his character, Rodgers’ re-appearance was notable because it hammered home an aspect of English football that refuses to go away; the stigma that surrounds getting sacked.
A point that is repeated almost to the point of cliché: English football is becoming increasingly like its continental neighbours due to the frequency with which managers are sacked. The argument is a sound one in essence and backed up by the figures; 29 Football League managers lost their jobs between 1st June and 31st December 2015, the most ever at the halfway stage of a season. Of those managers, their average tenure was 1.58 years. However, despite the fact that managers are being sacked at an ever increasing rate, the consequences of getting the sack remain as grave as ever for the managers in question. This is a crucial difference between footballing culture in England and continental Europe, as we shall see.
In Italy, it far easier for a manager who has been sacked to find another job. Moreover, it is even possible for a manager to be sacked by a Champions League club and find himself a job at another Champions League club. The trajectory of Carlo Ancelotti’s career is a good example. He achieved promotion to Serie A with Reggiana in his first managerial job which attracted the attentions of Parma. In two seasons at the club, Ancelotti guided them to 2nd and 5th in the league. This earned Ancelotti a shot at the Juventus job, however he won a sole Intertoto Cup in his two years at the Old Lady and was sacked. Not that this prevented AC Milan from appointing him in the same year, from where he established himself as one of the best managers in the world.
Massimiliano Allegri guided Juventus to the 2015 Champions League final just a year after being sacked by AC Milan, where admittedly he won a single Serie A title in three and a half seasons. Leanardo received the sack after just one season at Milan, yet was appointed by Inter the very next season. Other examples of this abound. The prospect of Brendan Rodgers or David Moyes getting the manager’s job at a Champions League club in this country seems almost unthinkable following their recent dismissals.
There are cultural reasons for this. In Italy, there is a cold-blooded attitude towards football in this respect; it is viewed as a profession like any other. Movement between different employers is typically part of a ‘normal’ job, and football isn’t viewed any differently. In Britain, Corinthian values fostered in the game’s amateur beginnings continue to pervade our consciousness and how we collectively understand the game. Football ought to be played for the honour and glory involved; principles such as ambition and furthering your own career viewed as thoroughly unvirtuous. (If all of this sounds a touch esoteric, just look at how the media and public treated Raheem Sterling for having the temerity to desire a move to a club that pays higher wages and has a better chance of winning trophies).
The same process happens with players in Italy, who regularly move between the country’s biggest clubs. Gianluca Zambrotta played for Juventus and Milan, Fabio Cannavaro moved from Inter to Juventus, Andrea Pirlo joined Juventus on a free following a long spell at Milan, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic played for all three clubs. If a player moves from one ‘big’ club to another in England, there is a collective raising of eyebrows. A sense of genuine shock descended when Fernando Torres moved from Liverpool to Chelsea or Manchester United allowed Danny Welbeck to join Arsenal. The role of Judas was reserved from the likes of Carlos Tevez, Robin Van Persie and Ashley Cole when they joined close rivals.
The political, historical and regional divisions in Spain make it more complicated for managers and players to move between elite clubs. Yet it’s still more readily accepted as a fact of footballing life than in England. Manuel Pellegrini managed to gain employment at Champions League club Malaga after being sacked by Real Madrid. No doubt Rafa Benitez will land on his feet following his brief spell at the club. Vincente Del Bosque certainly did, taking the Spanish national team to unprecedented success after being harshly binned by Real Madrid. Simply put, it comes as no surprise when Real Madrid sack a manager and therefore the chop isn’t viewed as a terminal judgment on that manager’s ability. The socio-political chasm between Catalonia and Castile ensures that players and managers do not move as seamlessly between Real Madrid and Barcelona as they do between the biggest clubs in Italy but it does happen; a certain pig’s head is testament to that. Barcelona’s current coach Luis Enrique played for Real Madrid, in fact.
In England, though managers are getting sacked at an alarming rate, we still maintain the pretence that an emerging top class manager should be able to evade such a fate. There are no logical grounds to maintain this position; after all, how likely is it that all 29 managers sacked in the first half of the season are incompetent? Incredibly unlikely, yet how many of those managers will find themselves without a job for the foreseeable future?
Sam Allardyce spoke a couple of weeks ago about why he would advocate a ‘Rooney Rule’ to try and get young British managers managing Champions League clubs in England. Leaving aside the flawed reasoning behind such a policy, Brendan Rodgers is the leading ‘young British manager’ by some distance.
He did a modest job at Watford prior to an ill-fated stay at Reading where he was given the sack after just six months in charge. Swansea gave him a second chance, and he managed to get them into the Premier League and keep them there while playing progressive football. At Liverpool, he took the Reds back into the Champions League and helped construct their best ever Premier League season in 2013/14, the second half of which saw Liverpool produce the best football we have seen in the post-Ferguson Premier League era. All of this by the age of 41. You can claim that Luis Suarez helped Rodgers on his way, but Rodgers still deserves credit for developing him as a player and fitting an extremely individualistic forward into a fluent collective.
It is a distinct possibility that the England job could be available in the near future. How revealing of our footballing culture, that a majority of fans and the media would favour Gary Neville getting the job over Brendan Rodgers. Whatever your opinion of either man, this makes no sense at all. There is simply no comparison between the two, in terms of managerial experience and achievement. Yet how many people would prefer Neville, simply because his CV is without the blemish of a sacking from a big club?
Rodgers, like any other manager, is not without flaws. Coaching a back four and defending set pieces seem to be a couple of major blind spots (Liverpool conceded 51 goals when they finished 2nd in the league, which in all likelihood cost them the title). His record in the transfer market at Liverpool was chequered, though he could well claim that some of the responsibility for these failures lay with the notorious ‘transfer committee’. Rodgers’ fondness for talking in great depth about his own mental formulations and tactical dilemmas hasn’t cast him in a particularly good light either; in victory, this type of talk can sound like a desire to claim the credit. There is quite a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in English football, as there is in English society in general. As John Lennon once sang: ‘They hate you if you’re clever, and they despise a fool.’ When Rodgers begins one of his lengthy meditations on the game and his coaching methods, many suspect that he is trying the blind the public with science or pull the wool over their eyes. He would be well advised to cut some of this out.
His achievements to date tell you that Rodgers has something to offer the game. It isn’t clear as yet whether this will be as a manager, coach, youth development officer or director of football. Brendan Rodgers remains a man of great promise, and deserves more chances.
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