Liverpool v Manchester City: Brendan Rodgers draws on rich heritage to prepare for glorious future
From the Greek chorus of legends on the front row of the directors’ box to the raw memory of glory days lost, this red shirt “weighs much heavier than any other shirt,” was how Brendan Rodgers put it on the day he was first presented as Liverpool manager nearly two years ago.
His was a more eloquent form of expression than the one Gérard Houllier found when declaring, as he departed in 2004, that “there are some here who want to go back to the Seventies and Eighties. Fine. Not with me.”
It is the case no more. The freedom and fearlessness which are the new Liverpool’s most powerful components have made a virtue of the old days. They allowed Rodgers to say without compunction, in another compelling demonstration of his motivational powers, that: “I sense a real nostalgia about the place at the moment. There’s a feel of the old Liverpool.”
How could the club not be looking back to that time? The lives, loves and hopes of the 96 supporters which were extinguished at Hillsborough, 25 years ago next week are currently being examined in a heart-breaking level of detail at the re-opened inquest in Warrington. “That gives us great commitment and motivation of course,” Rodgers said. “For us, we carry it every day of our lives here. The 96 are with us every day of our lives and that is one of the reasons we work and try to work well.”
The people who matter certainly appreciate that. “A little help along our way,” is how Evelyn Mills, who travelled to Hillsborough to identify the body of her brother Peter McDonnell 25 years ago, described Liverpool being top of the Premier League on the morning the new inquest opened. But what Rodgers has inculcated runs much deeper. The team is better than the sum of its parts because he has positively embraced history. He ordered the reintroduction of the old red goal nets, ordered that Bill Shankly’s original “This is Anfield” sign be restored and drove fear out. So, no, the shirt’s not so heavy now, he said yesterday, with a power of oration befitting the most important league engagement at Anfield in 24 years.
“I look at the players so relaxed,” he said. “They are so confident. The quality. There’s no nerves. We are just excited by it. If you become fearful of it, that’s the first-class ticket to fail.
“So for us and for me it’s exciting. It’s the joy of going and playing. This is why we work! It’s nothing to be frightened of. Nothing to be frightened of.”
Liverpool is littered with the stories of those who found this juncture less than joyful. Robbie Fowler related in yesterday’s Liverpool Echo the story of 19 April 1997 when victory against Manchester United would have put the club top of the Premier League with three games to play. Instead, they lost 3-1, finishing the season fourth in a two-horse race. “Winning the league is just massive for the club,” Fowler observed.
Obviously Manchester United were a dominant force over many years,” Rodgers said, in allusion to the club whose denial of Rafael Benitez’s side in 2008-09 brought even more agony than the season Fowler discussed. The old enemy’s absence certainly increases the sense that this might be Liverpool’s time.
The players seem to hear what Rodgers tells them, too. No manager has ensured that “This is Anfield” quite like him since the old days and perhaps the expanse of time needed to be broad enough before the weight of responsibility finally fell away. Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling were not born when Liverpool last won a title. “Maybe you need to drop down to where we were to shake it up and go again. You’ve no divine right just because you’re a big club,” Rodgers said.
He is immune from the past, too. Certainly, he spent formative weekends in the 1970s and early 1980, watching the team with his Liverpool-supporting father and grandfather at home in Carnlough, on the Antrim coast. But he was just starting out in 1989-90, when Liverpool last clinched a title. “It was my first year as an apprentice at Reading Football Club. I left Northern Ireland in the July so Hillsborough had just happened. Sixteen years young! Been here ever since. You think of the history and what’s happened since that period. Incredible.”
The romance attached to this Liverpool story makes it the dominant football narrative, while Manchester City, four points behind but with two games in hand, are happily passing under the radar. But a Liverpool title would also be an affirmation of an investment in youth winning out over riches, albeit that Rodgers has hardly been a pauper in the transfer market.
“It’s a different model [here] to Manchester City,” Rodgers said. “We are a club that is looking to introduce young players… it’s something very important to us.” Of his own club he said: “Why would you plough millions in if you’re not going to give kids an opportunity? And that’s something that I’m very keen on. I’ve spent a lot of my life, 15 years, on development, and you can drain the life out of families and young players if they don’t feel they’ve got any hope. I think for us and our model and how we want to work, it fits the club and fits the direction we’re heading.”
There are weaknesses. Liverpool lost 2-1 at the Etihad in December because their defence was simply not equipped to withstand City’s counter-attacking. The standard of defending which allowed City to equalise was particularly dismal. But the home side certainly needed the resilience of Fernandinho and the goalkeeping of Joe Hart that night and there is a belief that at Anfield, Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis will be attacked and turned around in a way that they are not comfortable with.
“That’s all we hope to go into the game with,” Rodgers said, deftly lacing his answers with paeans of praise for Kompany . “Hopefully our pace and precision in the game will hurt teams. “We are a team that wants to be aggressive in our game. We create a lot of chances. We score a lot of goals because we are relentless in our work to score.”
It was a simple expression of intent from which simpler days seemed to call out once again. The caveats and qualifying statements abound from Rodgers – “look, there are five games to go yet” – but he did not deny that he believes in destiny.
Belfast Telegraph Digital