Brendan Rodgers has delivered a fair share of gems over the past decade and a half. There was the time he referred to himself as his own mentor. The day he wound up the city of Sunderland when in charge of Swansea by claiming they were “wonderful” and those on Wearside should feel privileged to have been in their presence, despite his team losing 2-0. Not to forget the curious tale, told to Michael Calvin in Living on the Volcano, of gaining an understanding of the people of Liverpool from afternoon jogs in the city “when the doors are open and the dinners are on, and you can smell the mince cooking.”
At Chelsea two other lines stand out from the Canon of Brendan; both explaining why the Leicester City manager is far from unanimously loved at a club he spent four formative years as an academy and reserve team coach.
In 2012 the hype around Rodgers was growing thanks to his slick Swansea City team. Chelsea had just sacked Andre Villas-Boas and, naturally, he was being linked with the vacancy. Most managers would have rattled off a deflective answer, saying something but really nothing. Not Rodgers.
“There is so much going for Chelsea – it’s a terrific club,” he said in a press conference before swiftly laying out what he considered a significant cultural defect at Stamford Bridge. “But you can’t continue doing what they do and have success. It does not work. The next manager who goes in there will have the same problems and issues … If any of our fans are wondering about me and Chelsea, they need not panic. I am trying to build my career and not destroy it.”
Such claims of structural inadequacy did not go down well, especially as the comment seemed premeditated. It was even harder to escape the feeling that Rodgers knew what he was doing two years later when, speaking to the Liverpool Echo about Victor Moses’ loan move to Anfield, the Northern Irishman made his own objective size comparison between Liverpool and Chelsea.
“It’s not easy when you come to a big club,” he said. “You come from a really good club like Chelsea to a massive club like Liverpool where there is expectancy every day. For any player to go into a big club is a huge difference in terms of mentality.”
It is, however, easy to see why bridges were burnt following those comments and given the opportunity again, having experienced what he has in the intervening years, perhaps Rodgers’ answers would be markedly different.
Asked yesterday about his time at Cobham ahead of tomorrow’s FA Cup final at Wembley, he was nothing but effusive when describing how the club shaped him.
“It was a huge part of my story,” he said. “I had an incredible experience at Chelsea. As a young coach, developing at Reading for more than 10 years, it was brilliant for me starting but going to Chelsea took me to another level. Working with young players and then first-team players. Just seeing how a truly world-class club and players operate, naturally that experience means I’ll be eternally grateful for my time at Chelsea. It’s an amazing club and I had experiences that really set me up as a coach and in management.”
Rodgers has faced no opposition club more in his time as a manager and the record is a bleak one: 16 games and the only win was their most recent meeting, a 2-0 victory at the King Power Stadium that knocked Frank Lampard to the canvas.
With that in mind it was interesting to hear him happily place the favourites’ tag around Chelsea’s neck. “In the eyes of most people in the game or supporters, they will look at Chelsea, Champions League finalists, the depth of their squad. People will naturally look at them as favourites but it’s not something I think about myself.” (Of course not.)
“We’ve earned the right to be in the final. We’ll arrive there with an opportunity to make our own history and deliver the trophy for Leicester. We’re in with a chance. If we play to our level we’ll have a great chance.”
Heading into their first FA Cup final since 1969, it is impossible to ignore the wider theme of Leicester’s ascendancy. The 2015-16 title win may well be framed as a fluke by outsiders who factor in the concurrent travails of the top sides. And in many ways, Rodgers’ team is even more impressive on account of their gradual growth and improvement following a period of instability after winning the league, while Manchester City and, yes, Chelsea have spent enormous sums to maintain their own levels.
It is understandable why so many in the East Midlands feel the club deserves to be considered as part of a ‘big seven’ and Arsenal’s decline strengthens the claim that they deserve a seat at the elite table. That they appear to be doing it the right way on and off the pitch helps: building but not overspending at a time when the greed of the ‘big six’ has been made to look more grotesque than ever.
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A major trophy and Champions League qualification, which would be secured with a win at Stamford Bridge next Tuesday, will ignite those aspirations further. Rodgers is calling on his squad to “embrace the occasion and expectation” and is promising to have a motivational story on hand for them before they step out of the dressing room.
But among all the talk about Cup final suits (a blue-grey ensemble), what it will mean to a city that has been hit harder than most by the pandemic and dedicating it to the memory of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the significance of a win on Saturday for one of the country’s finest coaches should not be underplayed.
“This is a game where we can create an incredible legacy,” he said. “You write your own story in these games.”