There are a handful of individuals in football who transcend the sport itself. Certain people are recognised as pseudo-celebrities, their role as player, manager or former professional a second thought. Some are elevated – through choice or otherwise – to ‘newsworthy status’, regardless of the story.
Gary Lineker is a household name not for his England career or Leicester, Everton and Tottenham goals, but because he’s that bloke who advertises crisps, presents Match of the Day and has split up with his wife. You would be hard pushed to find the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom using a debate in the House of Commons to discuss the prospect of Mark Hateley presenting a television show in his underwear.
Memphis Depay is a connoisseur of motor vehicles first, a Manchester United winger second. A search for the Dutchman’s full name in Google generates 503,000 results; add ‘car’ to the end of that search, and it produces 374,000 results. For way of comparison, the name ‘Jesse Lingard’ generates 496,000 Google search results, but adding ‘car’ produces just 129,000. Won’t somebody think about Jesse’s poor Range Rover?
‘Jose Mourinho takes a casual stroll in west London as he continues to be linked with Manchester United following Chelsea exit,’ read the headline to a prominent story on the MailOnline website on Wednesday afternoon. Few other out-of-work managers are the subject of ‘Man takes walk’ stories. Nigel Pearson is linked to more jobs than Mourinho, so is the former Leicester boss simply not ‘casually strolling’ anywhere? Gus Poyet is presumably ambling, while Paul Jewell is obviously a strider.
What separates Lineker from Hateley, Depay from Lingard and Mourinho from Pearson, Poyet and Jewell is at partly through their transcendence of the sport. Celebrities first, football figures second. It is an art which Brendan Rodgers has mastered – perhaps too well.
Two days ago, Rodgers completed the Belfast Marathon; the MailOnline were among many to publish a story on the feat. Last week, a video emerged of the Northern Irishman training in a boxing ring; Sky Sports News HQ showed the footage numerous times. How many other unemployed 43 year olds would have made headlines by proposing to his girlfriend in New York in February? For a man who has been out of work since October, Rodgers remains in the public eye. It is easy to forget that he is still a football manager, and harbours very real – and realistic – hopes of returning to the game this summer.
“At this moment of time I’m just enjoying my time off and I’ll wait and see what offers come in and, at this moment, there is nothing concrete,” said Rodgers earlier this week. “I’ve had a great break, enjoyed it and I’ll be refreshed and ready for the summer.”
The return of Rodgers the personality will capture the imagination. If he finds a home for next season, the football world will hang to his every word, analysing each phrase for another ‘Rodgersism’, waiting impatiently for a mention of ‘outstanding character’, seeking any excuse to criticise or belittle. This site, much like the rest of us, can hardly protest its innocence in that regard. “Every word you say goes throughout the world,” said Rodgers of football management in January. You feel that is one of many lessons learned during his rest.
The return of Rodgers the manager has been strangely overlooked. This is an individual who oversaw Swansea’s promotion to the Premier League, was crowned LMA Manager of the Year in 2014, and has managed over 300 games in an eight-year career spanning four teams in England’s top two divisions. This is a man who would have enjoyed the fanfare surrounding Claudio Ranieri and Leicester if his captain could control a six-yard sideways pass. Rodgers is projected as a joke figure in football because he took over a team who had finished eighth, came within the closest of margins of winning the Premier League in his second campaign, then finished his final season in sixth. What’s more, he’s responsible for that joke.
In the same week that Pep Guardiola has been branded a ‘fraud’ for once again failing to reach the Champions League final, the importance of perspective in football management has been magnified. Some choose to view the Spaniard’s fourth consecutive semi-final knockout as a failure; others would rather commend the achievement of reaching that stage with such consistency. Aged two years younger than Guardiola, Rodgers’ career already hangs in the balance. His last 18 months in charge of Liverpool are held as a representation of how he will fail as a manager, with the Premier League title challenge written off as a blip. What if it is the other way around?
Buried under the quotes is a perceptive tactician. Hidden amid the parodic personality is a master motivator. Disguised by the picture of himself in his grand office is a talented football manager. There is a fine line between genius and madness. Many believe Rodgers crossed the latter long ago but, in truth, he stands on the precipice of both. His next move is as intriguing as it is so very crucial.
The lack of eagerness surrounding his imminent managerial return is explained by the list of his possible destinations. England? Aston Villa? Qatar? In the Premier League, only the familiar faces of Swansea and Watford provide a viable home. After his capitulation at Liverpool, Rodgers must take a spiritual step down the career ladder. Having relished but eventually failed in the lead actor role at Anfield, he will welcome a low-key return at a respectable budget production. He will have to.
Much has changed in the footballing landscape during Rodgers’ self-imposed seven-month exile. An established elite has been dethroned as Premier League champion by an emerging upstart. His former club have replaced him with a popular manager, and are aiming ever upwards. One hopes that the Northern Irishman will return with a renewed focus, a fresh outlook, an improved vigour.
Rodgers has always been a ‘soundbite’ manager, one who preaches of ‘philosophy’ and ‘projects’, and is ridiculed more often than revered for his words. From 2012-2014, he was an affable, enigmatic young coach. From 2015 onwards, he became an eccentric goon who bought into his own hype. The reality lies somewhere in between. In an era where the Premier League promises to be the battleground for the game’s most interesting, talented managers, the league misses him, quite frankly.
Wherever the future lies for Brendan Rodgers, he will know he stands at a crossroads. On the right is the path down which leads the continuation of his role as pseudo-celebrity and his transcendence of football. On the left is the path to redemption, to rebuilding and reinvigorating a once promising career. If he takes the latter, he could transform from a joke figure to one of the more promising young managers in Europe once more.