What Brendan Rodgers has done at Liverpool is staggering - I knew he was good, but not as good as this
Published 10/04/2014 | 08:50
Brendan Rodgers is an avid reader. He devours all kinds of books. Few though will provide a better story than the one he is writing at the moment.
If publishers had been handed a script last August proclaiming that Liverpool would be top of the Premier League table with a month of the season left they would have thrown it out for being too far-fetched.
The fantasy football tale has become reality.
On Sunday against Manchester City, Liverpool will play their biggest domestic game in almost a quarter of a century. It promises to be an epic clash between the two most attractive sides in the country and emotionally charged with the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster just days away.
City are favourites to claim the title because although four points behind table topping Liverpool, they have two games in hand.
Chelsea are sandwiched in between, two points adrift of the Merseysiders, and should not be counted out, but Jose Mourinho knows the destiny of the title is in the hands, feet and heads of the clubs going toe-to-toe at the weekend.
Not since the Reds defeated QPR 2-1 at Anfield in 1990 to claim an 18th championship success, and a 10th in 15 seasons, have they been involved in a more important league encounter. Liverpool may have challenged occasionally for title glory in the years which followed, but lacked the belief and bottle to become champions.
They have both now and a brilliant team built by Ulsterman Rodgers, who only started working at the club in June 2012. His arrival then was greeted with suspicion and concern from many supporters who found it difficult to accept King Kenny Dalglish being given the sack and harder still when Brendan, with only one season in the top flight behind him, replaced the club's most iconic figure.
Fans in Liverpool, here in Northern Ireland and all around the globe, were crying out for a bigger name with greater experience.
I didn't see it that way myself. Even before his appointment, I backed Rodgers, taking some stick for writing in this newspaper the day after Dalglish's departure that Brendan was the best man for the job.
Why? Well, his excellent record at Swansea was one reason. He took the Swans from nowhere to the Premier League and encouraged them to play without fear when they got there. Relegation certs, they finished mid-table.
Another reason was that mega-names like Pep Guardiola and Mourinho are only interested in jobs that guarantee Champions League action.
Most of all, though, it was because having spoken to the county Antrim native several times that year, there was just something about him... something new, fresh and exciting.
Here was a guy that had coaching ability and leadership skills, but perhaps even more importantly had the self-belief and personality to take on a club, almost weighed down by its history, and flourish rather than falling flat on his face.
I felt he was right for Liverpool and Liverpool was right for him. Now I have to admit that I got it wrong about Brendan Rodgers.
He's an even better manager than I thought.
I knew he was good, but not THIS good that he would have Liverpool battling for a Premier League title in his second season against big-spending Manchester City and Chelsea.
I reckoned that Rodgers would steer Liverpool to Champions League qualification in his third season... yet here he is five wins away from one of the most astonishing championship triumphs ever.
Remember in Dalglish's last season, the Reds finished eighth and in Rodgers' first season they finished seventh. Today they are first and the side everyone wants to watch.
The rocky start to the manager's reign when wins were hard to come by and he was being criticised from all angles has been forgotten.
Crucially the club's American owners gave him time to shape the tactics and personnel he wanted. And while they did that, Rodgers had the courage of his convictions to stick to his footballing principles which were mocked early on. If the Ulsterman was going to fail at Anfield he would do it on his own terms, not trying to operate in a way that felt alien to him. Why do you think he got rid of Andy Carroll so soon?
Rodgers is a strong character. The way he dealt with and kept Luis Suarez in the summer when the South American was playing up and demanding to leave illustrated that.
Look further back and that mental strength was evident.
As a youngster when injury put paid to his dreams of earning a living as a professional footballer, the easiest thing in the world would have been to return home to his loving family in Carnlough.
But this eldest brother of five stayed in England deciding he could make the grade as a coach. He so impressed Mourinho that the Special One employed him at Chelsea where he worked with the youth team and first team stars. Later, sacked as boss of Watford, instead of feeling sorry for himself he opted to learn more about his trade so he would be better prepared for his next job.
At the start of his Swansea reign, there were questions from the fans about his pedigree. He answered every one and now at Liverpool the 'revelation', as captain Steven Gerrard describes him, is leading the Red revolution, forging Suarez and Daniel Sturridge into a dynamic striking partnership, improving youngsters such as Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan and giving his influential skipper a new lease of life in a deeper midfield role.
City, with all their finance, may have the better squad, but ahead of Sunday Liverpool look to have the superior team.
And in Rodgers they have an outstanding manager on top of his game, doing Northern Ireland proud.
The sports loving lad, who grew up in Carnlough, has come a long way.
So too Liverpool Football Club under his expert guidance.
He's about to write the final chapter of this season's sensational story. Here's to a happy ending.