On my way into the gym yesterday evening, I was halted mid-stairs by a lumbering and corpulent gent who greeted me with the kind of easy affection that one reserves for one's closest friends. I was perturbed and vaguely irritated, as after a day of interminable meetings, I craved the headspace and release of my daily training session. For what seemed a long while, I stared at the rotund fellow who was smiling benignly at me, before I recognised him as a close friend from my school days.
Brendan, for it was he (and no, not that Brendan), rambled apologetically about his much-changed appearance for a sentence or two, and then briefly feigned interest in my life, before trying to recruit me into some kind of New Age cult. Nirvana, promised Brendan, was near at hand. I considered his fleshy frame and the countless calories it must require to maintain, and I eased sheepishly past his ample girth, entering the gym and foolishly turning my back on the Utopian land of carbohydrates that my old friend seemed to promise.
As one kilometre of treadmill blended into the next, I thought about the notion of cults and those charismatic folk who can inspire such devotion. Nowhere have these types of almost messianic figures been more prevalent than in English football. Fans have long been in thrall to the cult of the manager. From Herbert Chapman to Matt Busby, Jock Stein to Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley to Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson to Jose Mourinho; the English game has celebrated and indeed, almost deified, these larger-than-life men who dominate their clubs by dint of their personalities.
Not all those figures were the belligerent, blustering types that have been in vogue in recent years. Paisley was a truly iconic manager, winner of an unsurpassed three European Cups in only seven years, but he was a softly-spoken, reserved and polite man whose interests were his players and his club and not the execrable 'mind games' beloved of others. Stein and Busby too, were gentlemen, albeit with a fierce will to succeed.
Shankly was perhaps the most iconic of them all, a tightly wound bundle of enthusiasm, charm and guarded wariness, he created an empire at Liverpool Football Club and should have ruled over it far longer than he did. His premature departure in 1974 robbed the club and the game of one of it's greatest characters. Even in reluctant retirement, Shankly was incapable of simply relaxing. Initially, he went every day to train alone on the pitches he'd laid, until his presence was too disconcerting for the players who still called him 'boss' and he was asked to stay away.
In his excellent piece on the legendary Scot for The Mail On Sunday, Patrick Collins recalls how he used to phone Shankly in order to converse with him for a column he was ghost-writing. Often, the great man would not be at home and his devoted wife Nessie, would inform Collins that Bill, then in his seventh decade, was out playing football against the local kids and he wouldn't be back until he'd won. Shankly would dutifully return the call later, still breathless and ebullient as he described the winning strike he'd hit past a twelve year old goalkeeper.
In recent times, Alex Ferguson has set the agenda as regards what is acceptable and expected from the modern manager. His team's dominance has entitled him to sit atop the lofty perch he once set out to knock Liverpool off. How complete his job has been, alas. It would be a recalcitrant and benighted individual who did not acknowledge Ferguson's unparalleled achievement. The collection of trophies he has amassed will likely never be equalled, and for this scribbler, the driven Scot's sheer force of will has been the deciding factor in United's last three titles, at least.
Yet for those not loyal to the Mancunian giants, there has been a dark side to Ferguson's imperious reign. His manner is often curt and belligerent and most journalists have, at some point, felt his ire. He has been masterful in his cynical manipulation of the media and has rallied his many cronies whenever any viable threat to his kingdom needed to be bullied into submission -- the relentless slander of Rafa Benitez is an example of the more malevolent and petty side of Ferguson's character.
Jose Mourinho is a man after Ferguson's own heart. He is never simply relaxed and open. With Mourinho, every interview, every camera, every snippet of information is grist to the mill -- all of it used in the pursuit of victory. Mourinho, although he will pay them lip-service, is unconcerned with niceties like sportsmanship and fair-play. He is an eye-gouging, crowd-shushing, narcissist, in love with the cult of Jose and facilitated in that passion by a fawning and sycophantic media. Sky's hysterical coverage of the Portuguese coach's return to English football was the most shameless example of toadying I've ever endured.
However, Mourinho is only as powerful as he has become because of his simply magnificent success and skill as a coach. Opposing fans can whine all they like, and they will, but Jose Mourinho is a winner and that is the most valuable currency of all in professional sport.
Into this milieu, steps Brendan Rodgers, beginning only his third campaign as a top flight coach and his second at Liverpool Football Club. Rodgers has had a very difficult introduction to life as the leader of a football giant. The expectation weighed heavily upon him in his first campaign, as misfortune followed misfortune and his attempts to embody the role of totemic messiah-figure faltered on a wave of verbosity and unfounded bullishness. Adversity, however, has taught him well. Although far from reticent in front of a camera, Rodgers now speaks with a new gravitas -- more guarded and cagey and less like the wide-eyed ingenue of last season.
He is a figure that still divides the ludicrously disparate fan-base and he probably always will be. Recent months have made one thing abundantly clear -- whilst Liverpool Football Club is not yet returned to the elite of Europe, its fans are world-class when it comes to negativity, gloom and in-fighting. This spiral of fractious interaction bores your correspondent rigid and belongs only to the demented wasteland of Twitter. Surely it is preferable to assess Rodgers honestly and acknowledge the good with the bad? Shouldn't we, in other words, at least attempt some dispassionate analysis?
If he is to join the aforementioned greats of the game in the pantheon of legends, Brendan Rodgers will have to do the most difficult thing of all -- win football matches; lots and lots of football matches. In his handling of the irksome Luis Suarez affair and the tensions of this fraught conclusion to the transfer window, Rodgers has displayed a new assuredness. His playful joy at being 'top of the league' after the Premier League's opening match was disarmingly amusing and he seems less burdened by the idea of having to become some kind of nouveau Shankly. After a delightfully positive beginning to this campaign, let us hope his many critics afford him the luxury of further adaptation before they vilify him further. It's not easy to become a legend.