“YOU TRADED IMMORTALITY FOR MEDIOCRITY…”
Celtic fans made their views on Brendan Rodgers crystal clear during an SPL away match with Hearts back in February 2019. It was just days after their manager had departed Glasgow to fill the vacancy at Leicester City, a decision which left Celtic followers numb and in shock.
The banner they unfurled in giant black font that night, was a direct reference to their former manager turning his back on a historic Treble Treble with the Scottish giants, something he was well on the way to achieving.
His decision to walk out on Celtic and join a club languishing in the bottom half of the Premier League and searching for a fourth permanent manager in 23 months certainly looked, on the surface, to be a step down from the glory of winning titles and trophies with a football institution.
Leicester was a club reeling from terrible tragedy and a dressing room gone sour under a calcified coach. Claude Puel had just overseen the club’s worst spell in the top flight since 1999/00. The Frenchman had also drawn severe criticism for fielding a weakened team against Manchester City during a muted Carabao Cup quarter-final exit, been dumped out of the FA Cup by fourth-tier Newport County and had plunged a talented squad of players to 12th in the table.
This was the very definition of mediocrity that the Celtic fans raged about. And Brendan Rodgers was walking head-on into it. You can understand that banner framed in this miserable context. To be honest, mediocre looked generous.
However the 46-year-old, in his first Premier League job since his acrimonious departure from Liverpool in 2015 has exceeded all expectations during his 37 matches in charge of the East Midlands club. A year – or so – is an eternity in this game and the transformation in the Foxes’ fortunes under Rodgers has been truly remarkable.
They sit proudly in second place in the Premier League and are still very much alive in both domestic cup competitions. The attacking brand of football he has instilled in his players has seen his side notch 46 goals in the league from 21 games; second only to Liverpool and Manchester City.
The players have taken to the Ulsterman’s methods with real gusto. Jamie Vardy, so stagnant and ineffective under Puel, ended 2019 on a whopping 28 goals. The 32-year-old has been re-born under the guidance of Rodgers and his coaching staff. A calculated decision to leave Vardy, almost in a free role, pressing only in key areas of the final third, has yielded those crucial extra miles in the veteran’s legs.
He looks sharper, hungrier and more lethal than ever on current form. Credit must go to the manager for engineering this second wind in Vardy’s excellent career.
The likes of James Maddison, Harvey Barnes, Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi have all dovetailed perfectly into Rodgers high octane, all energy midfield unit and have all contributed valiantly to the cause, often out-running and over-whelming opponents with their work rate and ball retention. Again, Rodgers has shown his pedigree and ease at working with such talented stock and knitting them so seamlessly into his football designs.
Of course, anybody who has watched Leicester this season could tell you all of this. Rodgers is doing well, there is nothing profound in saying that. What makes all of this such a fascinating sub-plot of the season is the enforced act of resurrection that Rodgers is forging with the Foxes.
He appears so much more at ease in the Premier League this time round. Gone, of course, is the heavy burden of managing a behemoth like Liverpool and he appears to be flourishing in his new environment. Perhaps in the immense turnaround he has orchestrated at the King Power, we are now finally seeing the true qualities of the young coach that showed so much promise when he traded the Liberty Stadium for Anfield in 2012.
The Ulsterman suffered from some ridicule during his tenure on Merseyside. His gaffes with sealed envelopes and behind the scenes cameras rather set the wrong kind of tone for the then 39-year-old who was learning on the job. Having left under a cloud following over a year of poor results at Liverpool in 2015 it did feel as though, young as he still was, this was a manager who perhaps was not quite cut out for the top jobs in English football.
Yet the work he has done at Leicester City shows his staggering managerial ability, sound judgement and a real hunger to reverse the harm done to his reputation during those final weeks and months on Merseyside.
If the former Watford and Swansea manager can continue his impressive form for the rest of this season, he will have succeeded in bringing back Champions League football to the East Midlands. He also stands a very good chance of making it to a major final.
Returning Leicester to Europe’s top table ahead of the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United would be up there with the very best work on Rodgers CV. They may be some way off challenging Manchester City or Liverpool as it currently stands but there is money and big ambition behind the scenes at Leicester. It would not be wide of the mark to say that he is in the perfect place right now to fully mend his reputation as one of the best managers in the division.
That decision back in February 2019 to move south of the border is increasingly looking like the shrewdest of shrewd moves for Rodgers. In going for the so-called mediocre option, he may well have reinvigorated his own Premier League career and be back on the right path that leads to the upper echelon of elite managerial roles in English football.