The Dream and the Downfall: A Tribute to Brendan Rodgers

Last week I wrote that if Brendan Rodgers won the Merseyside Derby against Everton at Goodison Park he could use that win to build some momentum and save his position as Liverpool manager. As it turns out however, it wouldn’t have mattered. Rodgers’ Liverpool drew the derby 1-1, their fifth draw of that score line in six matches, after Romelu Lukaku cancelled out Danny Ings’ opener.

Almost three hours after the match had finished, Liverpool released a statement announcing that Rodgers had been sacked. He reportedly received a phone call from the clubs owners before the game informing him of their decision, the outcome of the derby would not have mattered.

Rodgers leaves Liverpool sitting in 10th place after 8 league games, having won 3, drawn 3 and lost 2. He also drew both of his Europa League fixtures and had to rely on penalties to beat League 2 Carlisle United in the League Cup, meaning that he only won 3 games out of a possible 11 this season. The Northern Irishman needed a strong start after a horrid end to last season where Liverpool only won 2 of their final 11 fixtures, including a 2-1 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Aston Villa and a 6-1 defeat to Stoke City, Liverpool’s worst in 50 years, but despite spending roughly £80m on new recruits this summer Liverpool failed to impress and struggled to win matches.

One could talk about how Brendan Rodgers failed at Liverpool. You could criticise his signings, dissect his formations and tactics or compare stats about his defensive record and come to a conclusion on where it all went wrong, but I don’t want to do that. I’d rather talk about how Rodgers inspired a fan base, a city and a team to dream about winning their first title in 25 years playing the most exciting football the Premier League had seen in a decade.

I’d rather talk about that because for Liverpool fans who were born in the 80s, 90s or later this was the closest we had ever come to seeing our team win the league, and for those lucky enough to remember the glory days of the 70s and 80s this was Liverpool back at their best.

It was a strange season. As Liverpool won their opening three Premier League games in August 2013 to go top of the league the supporters were optimistic but no one dared to dream. Even as Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspur 5-0 away from home in December the hope was still very much for Liverpool to just finish the season comfortably in the top 4. No one seriously expected Liverpool to challenge for the title, teams that finish 7th the year before simply don’t do that.

But that would change, because Liverpool were about to go on an unbeaten run that would span 16 league games. At the turn of the year Liverpool were in 5th, six points off leaders Arsenal, having lost consectutive games against Manchester City and Chelsea. It was time for Rodgers to make his most significant tactical switch as Liverpool manager. Until then, many pundits had said that a certain Luis Suarez was the sole reason that Liverpool were playing so well. The Uruguayan’s performances and goals had fired the reds to the top, scoring a remarkable 19 goals in 14 games during the first half of the season.

The tactical switch was designed to partner Suarez and Daniel Sturridge together up front. Sturridge had been injured for the whole of December and was in impressive form himself, scoring 9 league goals, and his return triggered the change of formation. Rodgers opted to play a 4-4-2 diamond with Sturridge and Suarez spearheading the attack and Steven Gerrard playing deeper than usual at the base of the diamond.

The result was spectacular. Teams couldn’t handle facing both Sturridge and Suarez and were often overwhelmed. Sturridge stretched defences, leaving space for Suarez to cause mayhem. Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho worked effectively in quickly turning defence into attack. Jordan Henderson emerged as a leader, pickpocketing midfielders and recovering possession with his frantic pressing and chasing while Gerrard, reborn in his new role, ran the show from deep by spraying passes across the field.

Rivals Everton were the first team to be humiliated on an extraordinary night at Anfield as Liverpool won 4-0. Arsenal, who turned up to Anfield less than two weeks later as league leaders, suffered the same fate as Rodger’s Liverpool went 4-0 up inside 20 minutes, eventually winning 5-1, leaving the Gunners and the rest of the league stunned.

That result started a run of 11 straight victories. In their next match Steven Gerrard scored a last minute penalty to beat Fulham 3-2, he celebrated by taking off his shirt and whirling it around his head as he ran to the corner to celebrate with the Liverpool fans. The captain believed, the manager believed, the fans believed. We all dared to dream.

By April, Liverpool were top. On a sunny April afternoon, full of emotion because the match took place two days before the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, Manchester City arrived at Anfield. It was dubbed as a crunch match because the title would be in the hands of the victor. It was also dubbed as Liverpool’s most important league match in 25 years. I was 16 at the time.

I was perched upon a wall and we heard the coach before we saw it. We heard it because of the noise. Of several songs being sung at once. ‘We are Liverpool’ ‘We’re going to win the league’ ‘Liverpoool, Liverpooool’. The colour of the flares. The heat. The smell. I’d never seen anything like it. Then we saw the coach, and we saw the immense tide of people following. As the coach got closer the noise got louder. I looked to my right and smiled as I realised I’d never seen my Dad look so emotional. He’d seen the 70s and 80s, but now he was back. Liverpool were back. As the coach crawled past where we stood I gazed up at the windows. I couldn’t see through the glass but I imagined that the players were looking out at me. Could that have been Sturridge? Or Gerrard? Or Suarez?! I sang and I cheered. I wanted them to know how much this meant to me. And as the coach drove on I joined the swarm of people who followed. It looked biblical. It felt like something bigger than just a football match. But whatever it was, I was part of it. I may have lived hundreds of miles away from Liverpool, I may have been a lot younger than everyone else but I was part of this. And I realised that Liverpool was a part of me. This was the happiest I had ever been.

Liverpool won the match 3-2, but they didn’t win the league. Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea and Liverpool’s collapse against Crystal Palace will haunt supporters for years and will undoubtedly become iconic Premier League moments.

I don’t blame Rodgers for how the 2013/14 season ended, nor for what happened during the subsequent and disastrous 14/15 season. Admittedly, there were some odd moments such as playing a weakened team against Real Madrid, his handling of Mario Balotelli’s ill fated time at the club and the end of the season where he began to doubt himself and ended up playing three formations per game.

He will be undoubtedly be disappointed that he never won a trophy during his time and that he has nothing to show for his efforts, but he gave the fans something bigger than that – Liverpool’s title challenge of 13/14 is far more memorable than Liverpool’s 2012 League Cup win, for instance.

Rodgers reunited a fan base, he brought together young and old, he rejuvenated a city and he made us dream. He fought hard for that dream and I can’t respect him more for trying.

All the best Brendan, all the best.


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