This article first appeared in the January 2020 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now for less than £3.80 an issue and get £29.97 worth of bookazines!
“Don’t get too close…”
FourFourTwo is pitchside at Leicester City’s King Power Stadium, where moody darkness and a swirl of lifeless mist make today’s photo shoot a haunting one. But there’s nothing scary about our subject, whose early warning is supposedly for our benefit. “Rough-looking Irishman,” smiles Brendan Rodgers, while attempting to pull off a surprisingly tricky facial expression at our snapper’s behest; a peculiar side-on glance that even the pros struggle to get right. Apparently, he’s a natural. “Now let’s bring a bit of flair into these,” grins Rodgers. He’s getting into it.
It’s bitterly cold, however, and we’re glad when the Leicester manager ushers us into the confines of a warm dressing room to dissect another remarkable year for man and club. There is plenty to discuss: although Rodgers has been the Foxes’ boss for less than nine months by the time we meet, a sharp upturn over the summer means the East Midlanders are outstanding top-four contenders again, four seasons after shocking the world with their Premier League title victory of 2015/16. That, and joint-holders of the Premier League’s all-time record win following their 9-0 shellacking of Southampton in October.
Before we begin, though, Rodgers talks us through a new addition to the Foxes’ dressing room – a circular light installation on the ceiling that features the words ‘respect’, ‘courage’, ‘unity’ and ‘responsibility’, circled around the initials ‘VS’ in tribute to late owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. The players specifically asked for that part, says Rodgers.
“It starts with respect here,” he adds, pointing down at the corresponding word which is mirrored on the floor. The rest, in theory, will follow.
Pleasingly for Rodgers, it has at Leicester – and quickly. He rolled the dice to leave a treble-treble-bound Celtic and return south of the border in late February, joining a club in need of new direction after the death of their chairman and a nosedive in form under Claude Puel.
“I wanted to continue Claude’s good work, because he had introduced a lot of positive things here – several good young players, for example,” Rodgers tells FFT. “There was a lot of sadness when I arrived because of Khun Vichai’s death, but I knew the expectations and ambitions of the club, and where they wanted to be.
“What I found was a really great bunch of players who were very keen to work how I wanted to. My aim was to bring European football back to Leicester. I always knew it was going to be tough because of the nature of the Premier League, but could we find a way of challenging that?”
So far, the answer is an unequivocal yes. The Foxes are flying thanks to a team whose first-choice line-up includes six players aged 23 or under, playing with style and consistency. The football was insipid under Puel, but Rodgers’ predecessor did have the unenviable job of ripping up the playbook and transitioning Leicester away from their counter-attacking culture, all while introducing several fresh faces from the club’s academy.
The Frenchman’s signings were hit and miss, but the good ones stand out: Ricardo Pereira, Jonny Evans, Caglar Soyuncu and James Maddison are all essential today, while Ben Chilwell, Hamza Choudhury and Harvey Barnes were each promoted from the youth ranks.
Puel also engineered the loan signing of talented Belgium midfielder Youri Tielemans from Monaco, but only got to deploy him in two games – both defeats – before Leicester’s top brass took decisive action.
Enter Rodgers. The Carnlough-born boss faced the wrath of Celtic fans when he departed Parkhead midway through their historic campaign, but has no regrets about the manner of his exit.
“It was always going to be a really difficult choice, because I was living my dream at Celtic,” he reflects. “I just felt that there was an opportunity here at Leicester. It wasn’t ideal timing for lots of people, and there was a lot of commentary about me leaving, but as a manager you have to be very single-minded. For me, that single-mindedness was benefiting from some extra time with a new group.
“I’d won trophies at Celtic, we were eight points clear at the top of the table, and I felt like I could join Leicester for the final block of the season. The ideal scenario may have been to go there in the summer, but it was presented to me that I had to make a decision. I could watch the players under pressure, and that would make the summer much clearer for me in terms of where and how we might improve.”
On the evidence so far, the 46-year-old made the correct call. Leicester improved on his watch for the final 10 games of 2018/19, but didn’t do enough to trouble Europe-bound Wolves and finished 9th.
Ambitions for the current campaign were set at breaking into the top six, with Arsenal and Manchester United both wobbling and a youthful, transfer-stricken Chelsea under new management. The Foxes were not helped by losing central defender Harry Maguire to Old Trafford – albeit for a cool £80 million – and yet Leicester boast the Premier League’s second-best defensive record in 2019/20. Maguire wasn’t replaced, but in his stead, 23-year-old Turkey international Soyuncu has stepped up as a new cult figure.
“Fundamentally you defend with all 11 players, and all we’ve tried to do is bring clarity to how we want to play,” explains Rodgers. “We want to be an aggressive team, and we want to dominate with and without the ball. If one player comes out of the team and another comes in, they all understand systematically how we play.
“We didn’t replace Harry and he was a fantastic player, but Caglar has come in and become everyone’s hero. It’s a great tribute to him, because when I came in here he was the fourth choice and not even making the substitutes’ bench. It’s a testament to Caglar’s focus. We believed in his talent and just had to manage that so when his opportunities came, he would be ready to take them.”
The proof has come in the performances. Leicester’s pressing has been fearsome under the Northern Irishman, leading to thumping wins over Newcastle United (5-0) and Southampton (9-0) against 10 men, as well as a dominant 2-0 home victory over Arsenal.
That record obliteration on the south coast – FFT’s performance of the year – was a useful indicator of Leicester’s mindset under their manager: go hard, aim high. At half-time, with his side 5-0 and a man up, he left the players alone for five minutes and asked what message they would give themselves for the second period. The response was clear: no mercy.
“The conditions were awful, but to produce that level of performance made me so proud,” says the Leicester gaffer. “I was most pleased with the players’ mentality. At half-time I said we still had a job to do – to win by as many as we possibly could. I wasn’t being disrespectful to anyone, but if you’re a top team, you’re seeing that game at 0-0. It’s an incredible tribute to the players and their hunger in that match. What’s interesting is that we scored the seventh goal in the 58th minute and didn’t get our eighth until the 85th, so there was virtually a 30-minute period without one. So we could always be better…”
And he’s only half-joking. By his own admission, Rodgers isn’t the same manager he was four years ago, when he left Liverpool under a cloud of disappointment having come agonisingly close to ending their wait for a first Premier League title.
His life’s work from the bottom up – a playing career ended by injury at 20; taking a part-time job at John Lewis to help him through his coaching badges; early breaks at Reading and Chelsea, through to Football League lows and highs with Watford, the Royals and Swansea – had earned him his big shot at Anfield… and then it was over.
His experience was positive but chastening, and in reality the prospect of returning to that level would require journeying down a longer road. Perhaps for the better, though: something clicked at Celtic – the kind of thing that turns 5-0 half-time leads into merciless routs for the ages.
“I’m quite different now, in terms of experience,” says Rodgers. “I think at Celtic I became a winner. I learned that the feeling is different, and it really whet my appetite for more success. Following Celtic as a boy, you know that you have to win every game. You don’t even have that down here with the biggest clubs – sometimes you draw and that’s still a good result. But at Celtic it never is. So that feeling, that pressure… once you get your hands on that first trophy, it gives you the feeling for even more. Hopefully, Leicester get the benefits of that.
“I arrived at Liverpool aged 39. I didn’t have many years as a manager behind me at that point, but I’d been coaching, working and developing for a long time. It was a huge challenge but you get that everywhere, in every job. At Watford, I had a team towards the bottom of the division. Swansea wanted to become the first Welsh team in the Premier League. Reading didn’t go well, and that was a failure for me. Liverpool had just finished 8th, so the task was to get them back into Europe while cutting the budget. At Celtic, it was winning in a better way and sustaining that with my dream club.
“Liverpool was part of the journey. I felt afterwards that I’d been given a great experience. You’re never happy when you lose your job – no one is – but I’ve always felt that failure is success. It’s on the same coin, you know? It didn’t quite work out for me, but I gained so much from it. I had a brilliant time at an amazing club, but it was time to move on.”
At Anfield, losing Luis Suarez to Barcelona hit his Reds side really hard. Letting the title slip so late in 2013-14 hurt, and Liverpool’s attempts to go again the following campaign were thwarted by a summer in which they tried to replace Suarez with Mario Balotelli and a green Divock Origi. Rodgers later lamented that he disliked what his Merseysiders became without their hard-running Uruguayan, unable to press from the front so effectively. Luckily for him, he had his Suarez 2.0 at Leicester already.
Jamie Vardy had become a problem for predecessor Puel, who simply dropped him on occasion last term while the Foxes struggled to service their talisman. It has been an entirely different scenario under Rodgers, however: two days after FFT meets the Foxes’ chief, Vardy slots home his 21st goal in 23 games under the Northern Irishman as Leicester win 2-0 at Brighton & Hove Albion. He might be on a difficult run at the moment, but he remains the Premier League's top scorer this season; it’s no fluke.
“It’s the style of football which hopefully brings the best out of Jamie,” says Rodgers, who has asked the 33-year-old England forward to press more economically, keeping him central. “He’s a very aggressive player with and without the ball, but it’s a collective effort. I’ve always felt that watching him from the outside, he’s a top-level striker. He’s intelligent – you never see him offside. Why? Because his timing is perfect. His brain is always thinking, searching for space. We’ve tried to help centralise his game; linking play, creating space for himself and others. I was happy he was here when I arrived, and hopefully he’ll score many more goals.”
Whatever Rodgers has done at Leicester so far, it’s certainly working. Talk to people around the club and they will tell you of a manager who is incredibly well-liked; not just with the players but staff too (“a breath of fresh air after Claude,” as one Foxes source said). He is meticulous and particular, but amenable and human; one-to-one chats are an essential part of his management, perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who studied neuro-linguistic programming during his days at Chelsea.
“I’m very much about environment,” he tells FFT. “I want one where players and staff like to come into work, and where they feel energised. If you create the right environment, 99.9 per cent of people will improve. We wanted to bring a mentality and develop a process, and part of that is creating a set of values that serve as a signpost every single day. We had lots of great discussions with the players around that – people don’t often give them enough credit for how bright and emotionally intelligent they are. I asked them, ‘In 30 years’ time, what will you want people to say about this Leicester team?’
“There are different ways in life that you can help people, especially the young ones, as there are many pitfalls in their careers. That’s something I’ve always done, from wee players of eight or nine. I’ve always tried to look after the welfare of a player professionally and personally.”
Sometimes, however, you have to give them news they don’t want to hear – just as Rodgers did with wideman Demarai Gray. The 23-year-old didn’t make the squad for the opening two games of 2019/20, and was an unused substitute as Leicester edged Sheffield United and Newcastle.
“I think the key thing is respect,” says the manager, returning to our starting point. “With players, you have to be honest and open with them. I believe you can tell a person anything – it’s how you say it. You’re still there to support them, because otherwise their careers will just drift by. Demarai had probably never been out of a squad in his life from the age of 17. He’s drifting along, this big talent – but he can get better. We sat down and had an honest chat. It was difficult for him but he took it well, and then his training was unbelievable.
“I spoke to his agent too, although he probably found it hard to hear me say, ‘I really like the player but he’s not playing’. Hopefully, Demarai’s starting to see the benefits – he’s coming on and having a real impact.” Since mid-October, Gray’s work off the bench has directly contributed to goals against Burnley, Crystal Palace, Arsenal and Brighton.
“I think it’s so important that you can relate to the players,” explains Rodgers. “I’ve always tried to do that because I have an interest in them, not just the player. I want to know about all the guys; their families and how they’re feeling. You want to drive your players and boost them, but you want to be there for them. Communication is key.”
Listening to Rodgers speak, it’s clear that such values are ingrained in everything he does. He mentions processes and approaches, visions and growth, but fundamentally there is simplicity behind his beliefs – hard work and being a decent human. His parents were a huge part of that: Malachy, a painter-decorator, and charity worker Christina. Both passed away in their 50s amid an incredibly hard period for Rodgers; his mother only two months after his sacking at Reading in 2010, and his father to throat cancer 18 months later.
“If I could do anything in this world, it would be to bring them back for one day,” he admits. “They were hard workers. They didn’t have much in their life and everything they did was for us children. My father worked so hard and my mother was at home to look after us all, so the values they put in place for us have stayed with me.
“I’ve never really mentioned it before, but I saw my dad work tirelessly throughout his life and he was a real, real nice man. He did maintenance work for people, honest work – and once he was done, he would go away and look to get paid by people who might leave him for a few weeks. He had a family of five young kids, had worked honestly to earn his money, and wasn’t always repaid by that. But he never flinched – he just got on with it and worked hard to provide. That’s always something I’ve taken: you work, and you work hard for yourself and your family.
“The values they gave me as a young man, that resilience, I had to use. I was sacked by Reading in December 2009 and my mum passed away in February, then my father became ill not long after that. But he had the chance to see me get Swansea promoted into the Premier League at Wembley. He passed away on the morning that we were playing Arsenal. From that point, my life has been about honouring their memory – I fight for everything they taught me growing up.”
Rodgers still has plenty more he wants to do as part of that promise – first with Leicester, then overseas. He can speak Spanish to a good level, but isn’t set on La Liga as a dream destination.
“I hopefully have another 20 years left in management,” he smiles. “At some point Leicester will get fed up with me, so at some point in my life I’d like the challenge of working abroad. I’m very interested in languages. I started Spanish when I was at Reading. I went for classes and my tutor was Julio Delgado, who’s the father of Jamie Delgado – he used to be the British No.2 tennis player and is now Andy Murray’s coach. I carried it on when I went to Chelsea, where I had the chance to practice most days with Spanish-speaking players. I’ve tried to pick up one or two others, but wouldn’t be so good having a conversation.”
As for the short-term, it’s all about bringing that Champions League theme back to the King Power. Is the tune tinkling in his head already?
“If it can play in my time here, it’d be great,” laughs Rodgers. “Every manager and player aspires to it, that big flag when it’s shaking in the middle of the pitch… it would be amazing to bring it back to this place. But that’s the challenge. You look at the competition in this league and we still have lots of work to do. You can’t get too ahead of yourselves.”
Even when you win 9-0.
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