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Brendan Rodgers must prove that he is the boss

Ulsterman's handling of the Gerrard situation could define his Kop career

By James Lawton

The man who founded the Liverpool tradition which Brendan Rodgers is now fighting to maintain along with his own embattled reign could never conceal the task that haunted him more than any other.

He hated to give the hard word to one of his great players.

The partings were rarely neat or convivial and the aggrieved included such Liverpool titans as Ian St John and Roger Hunt. St John only found out that he was dropped for a game at Newcastle when he was handed a team-sheet by local hero Jackie Milburn in a stadium corridor.

Now, maybe it is a case of reading Brendan Rodgers for Bill Shankly. Unfortunately for Rodgers, he has rather less credit in the bank as he agonises over the future of Steven Gerrard - and with not a sniff of an adequate replacement.

Indeed, if Merseyside call-in shows prove anything like an accurate guide, Rodgers must steel himself for a moment of unpleasant truth.

It is that the fans who lauded him so extravagantly on the way to last season's near-miss title drive are now on the point of open rebellion.

Last season's hero is - after the departure of Luis Suarez, the catastrophic signing of Mario Balotelli and a £116 million spend which seems to have netted only half a dressing-room of mediocrities - beginning to look like the king without any clothes.

Almost as disturbing as the growing evidence that the 34-year-old Gerrard, Liverpool's last major player of easily identifiable competitive passion, is plainly on his last legs at the highest level of the game, is the growing sense of dwindling demands on what is left of Rodgers' team.

Before the weekend disaster at Crystal Palace, which set in cement the club's worst start in 20 years, he spoke of the challenge represented by a team rooted second from bottom of the league. That brought considerable despair among Liverpool aficionados and not least in the heart of the celebrated St John.

An early enthusiast for the style of the man who succeeded Kenny Dalglish, St John has returned to local radio with the of kind stinging objections he raised to the regimes of Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez. At the heart of the Liverpool icon's complaints is his belief that Rodgers has presided over a parody of team-building since Suarez inevitably took wing at the end of his tumultuous summer.

"It is not clear what kind of input the manager had in the summer signings and this takes us to the heart of the problem. He has either made some very serious mistakes signing new players or he simply hasn't had enough influence in the matter of who comes in.

"Either way, I'm afraid it is down to his view of how he sees the manager's job. If he cannot make the big decisions, he cannot fulfil his role properly. He made a very good start and with the huge help of Suarez there was some spectacular progress.

"But then even before it turned into a title run last season, the football being played was extremely encouraging. Now it is as though the team has run into a brick wall. There is just no sense of a team going forward, growing."

In the absence of any audible alarm in the American ownership, the presumption has to be that Rodgers will at least see out the season. But even this stay of execution is likely to depend on some serious re-shoring in January.

Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet's technical shortcomings are obvious, and while the moving of Gerrard to a more forward position brought some stirrings of an old power to penetrate, it hardly lifted the feeling that one of Liverpool's most distinguished servants remains locked in his greatest and maybe final career crisis.

The departure of Suarez, the prolonged absence of Daniel Sturridge through injury and what may well prove the irrecoverable authority of Gerrard, has provoked not so much uncertainty as the impression of a collective disembowelling. And still Rodgers talks of a committed, character-filled group. So what does the Ulsterman do? If he has the time, he has to declare, quite unequivocally, that it will be by his own hand rather than the machinations of a ruling committee.

If he was uncertain about the quality of the club's signings, if the decisions were indeed taken beyond his power, the time to say it ideally would have been before the inflationary deals went through. Now, at best he can attempt a little damage control.

He can present his own case for the vital refurbishment necessary in January and he can say it is a prerequisite of his attempt to proceed in a job which started so promisingly.

He must insist on adequate security on his goal-line. Mignolet's ordeal is becoming the football equivalent of a nervous breakdown in the street. There is talk of a costly move for the becalmed veteran of Chelsea, Petr Cech. Each game that passes makes such a move look potentially the last word in prudent housekeeping.

Nor, we have to conclude, is the Gerrard problem about to go away. His old friend and team-mate Jamie Carragher, who has turned into a such a trenchant critic of his former club's current form and demeanour, has suggested that some of the captain's younger colleagues take on the burden of his running.

It was, you have to believe, loyal counselling on behalf of a besieged comrade but it was also filled with despair. Gerrard has never been one of the great creative forces of football. He has been dynamic and at his best hugely influential but without the ability to run hard into the most hurtful places he will always be a ghost of what he was.

These are the realities which Rodgers does not touch in his homilies about the need for patience and the inherent quality of his unformed team.

After the defeat, the profoundly abject one, at Palace, he did concede the previously muted possibility that his own head might ultimately be on the line. Given the high regard he so recently occupied, that probably required a degree of heart-searching.

But then the hard truth has to be encountered by every football manager.

It is that he is only as good as the players he sends out.

Belfast Telegraph


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