Brendan Rodgers loving Premier League life
Spend an hour with Brendan Rodgers in his modest office at the Liberty Stadium and you find yourself feeling better when you leave than when you walked in.
The Swansea City players are fortunate. They get to talk and work with the Carnlough man every day.
Now I know why the Welsh side have punched above their weight in the Premier League this season, beating some of the biggest teams in the land and doing so in such an entertaining, easy-on-the-eye manner that it has led to Rodgers being touted as a Manager of the Year candidate.
Swansea’s bubble has burst a little lately with last night’s 3-0 defeat at QPR their fourth loss on the spin. They are 10 points clear of the relegation zone and should be safe enough with just five games left, but Brendan will want another win just to make sure.
I’d back him to get it. He truly is an inspirational figure.
And he’s fascinating to listen to. Our conversation is littered with quotations from Brendan that you want to write down straight away, so you don't forget them. Thankfully having a dictaphone on the table between us means I don't have to whip a notebook out every 30 seconds!
When the subject of moving on to a bigger club with a bigger salary comes up, he says: “I'm not driven by money. I’m driven by making people better and, anyway, I’m a multi-millionaire because I have my health.”
He does too, looking bronzed and fit on the sweltering afternoon I met him at the Liberty Stadium.
I've interviewed the great and the good of world sport in this job, but few have impressed like the 39-year-old, who has proudly retained his Ulster accent despite leaving home for England when he was 16 to begin what has become a wonderful adventure.
Injury forced a premature end to his playing career at Reading, but it started him on a road to coaching which took him to Chelsea, where he worked under Jose Mourinho, an experience he describes as ‘a Harvard education in football management’.
From being a respected young coach at Stamford Bridge, he became a manager at Watford in November 2008. Then Reading came calling in the summer of 2009 and he couldn’t say no. Before the year was out, though, he had been sacked and was out of work for the first time in 20 years.
It wasn’t until July 2010 that he got another job — at Swansea, where he has shone like a beacon.
Last season Rodgers, against all the odds, guided the Swans to the Championship play-off final at Wembley where they defeated Reading, yes them again, 4-2 taking a Welsh side into the Premier League for the first time. Once in with the big boys, little Swansea were supposed to fall flat on their faces.
Not with Brendan Rodgers in charge they haven’t, soaring as high as eighth at one stage in the division and playing the type of uber-cool attractive football that other bigger clubs only dream about.
And all this with a group of players before this season virtually unknown outside Swansea and rejected previously by other clubs, believing they weren't good enough.
Rodgers has moulded the team his way and you can tell he is savouring every second of it.
On the day we met, the papers were full of speculation linking him to the manager's job at Tottenham. Asked about it on several occasions at a press conference ahead of a match with Spurs, he took it in his stride.
He doesn't do sarcastic put-downs or evil-eye stares like certain other high- profile bosses. Articulate and intelligent, he talks extremely well off the pitch and his side sings on it.
Just about every expert tipped Swansea to go down this season but their likely survival will continue a remarkable success story.
“As soon as the final whistle went at Wembley after our play-off victory we were the bookies favourites to go down, not deemed to get any more than 10 points,” says Rodgers, inside his small office, with no windows, which has pic
tures of that play-off win on the walls.
“The players have responded brilliantly to the challenge and for us to be sitting where we are in the league is fantastic. The last few results have been disappointing, but we have a great chance of staying up which to me would be a much bigger achievement than us getting promoted.”
While Rodgers has been coaching for two decades, this season is his first as the boss in what many see as the best league in the world. Rather than be intimidated by that, Rodgers feels very much at ease.
He tells me: “I always say don't run away from the challenge. Run towards the challenge and face it. That’s what we have done in the Premier League.
“We were always going to respect every opponent but I certainly wasn't going to be frightened of this level. I'd obviously seen the Premier League at close hand when I was at Chelsea and studied it hard. It gets better every year but our players have embraced it, not feared it, and they deserve credit for that.”
Rodgers arrived in the big time intent on playing his style of football. I ask did he think about changing his tactics after a 4-0 defeat to Manchester City in Swansea's first match in August. His answer outlined the belief he has in himself and his team.
“I felt after that game against City, when we took on one of the most powerful squads in European football, that for one hour we were the better side. Obviously their power and quality of player came through in the end but from that evening I felt we could go and attack this great league whilst retaining our identity as a team.
“As a young manager I was told there was only one way to get out of a certain league and only one way British players could play. I didn’t see it that way. I have my own ideas and follow them through.”
Those ideas have seen his side labelled Swanselona. The comparison with the European champions, led by the classy Pep Guardiola, brings great satisfaction to Rodgers. He says: “Barcelona have been a big reference point to my career — I'm never shy to mention that, though of course we are the little brother.
“I spent many years travelling to Barcelona and other Spanish clubs like Sevilla and Valencia, one because of their model of the game and two because of their inherent belief in young players.”
Rodgers adds that in the future he could manage abroad. The fact that he is a fluent Spanish speaker and can more than get by in Italian would help.
“I believe in quality communication and do my best as a multi-lingual Northern Irishman,” he says.
“I set myself a target when I was 30 to learn two languages by the time I hit 40, so I threw myself into Spanish and now have a little bit of Italian.”
Asked about his other targets, he says: “To be the best I possibly can. My big dream is to be a highly successful football manager whose methods provide innovation for youth and senior footballers and coaches. I started coaching for one reason and that was to make a difference for people, not just as footballers but as human beings. I'm learning lessons all the time. I've arrived as a Premier League manager at 39 and hopefully I've many more years to learn and improve.”