I remember the best manager I ever had. He picked me in central midfield, bestowed the captain's armband upon me with great solemnity and insisted I take the spot-kicks because he deemed me to have character. Throughout the game he would mercilessly berate my hapless teammates and lionize me with ever more extravagant praise. We lost most matches. He wasn't very good, you see, and neither were we.
You can see where I'm going with this, dear reader. The assessments of managers by their players are always tricky and utterly subjective. Players want to play and despite their best efforts to be magnamimous they will nearly always betray their irritation if not selected. Similarly, a footballer of objectively questionable standard will effusively extol the virtues of a coach that belligerently selects them when all good sense suggests they'd be better occupied cutting the half-time oranges.
Last season, as Jamie Carragher wound down his Anfield career, we had a rare example of a man who was not featuring in the first team, speaking in support of the manager who was not selecting him. Brendan Rodgers had gone out of his way to stress the importance of Carragher's presence around the club but he continued to choose others ahead of the Bootle man, who had a lucrative and high-profile media career ahead of him and therefore had no reason to be circumspect. As we know, the club legend eventually got back in the team and finished out the season, but his support of the comparatively young and inexperienced Northern Irishman spoke volumes for Rodgers' impact on the veteran.
There can be little doubt that Brendan Rodgers is a coach of some class. His insistence on bravery in possession and tactical adaptability have marked him out as a star on the rise and he is ever-willing to expound on the intricacies of the game in garrulous fashion. However, it is his famous "open communication" which seems to have made a serious impact on the players he's worked with.
The idea of man-management is a much misunderstood concept. Kevin Keegan, was apparently great at it, whereas Rafa Benitez is not. This is because in this part of the world, a good man-manager is the coach who knows when to cajole and when to censure. Like much still associated with the British game, this is an utterly out-moded concept and Rodgers seems to be simply consistent. He is approachable yet authoritative; friendly yet foreboding.
This is as it should be. Modern players will sneer at a man who throws tea-cups and pity a sap who wants only to be their friend. Rodgers understands this and carries himself with a lot of calm self-assuredness. There have been many occasions on which his enthusiasm and comparative inexperience at the top level have left him vulnerable to criticism and harsh ridicule, but from the first moment this scribbler was impressed with the mixture of confidence and humility in the man. He seemed, in that regard at least, to just fit the club.
Glen Johnson, a man who has worked with Rodgers at both Chelsea and Liverpool is well placed to offer an assessment of the Antrim man's methodologies, character and evolution. The England man, still Roy Hodgson's first choice despite a wretched season with injury and poor form, has a similar status at Anfield. There seems no doubt that if he is passably fit, Johnson will start. Rodgers, like all managers, has trusted lieutenants and Glen Johnson is certainly one. This is where the picture gets a little murky. The full back's admiration is apparent but he has been flattered by his manager's faith. The coach was "aware of the injuries" the player was carrying but asked him to "do a job for the team."
In a deliberately provocative comparison, Johnson insisted that his previous manager Jose Mourinho, whilst clearly a winner and a coach of undeniable talent, was less trustworthy and honest in his dealings with players than Brendan Rodgers. He suggests a certain duplicitousness in the character of the Portuguese and lauds the honesty and directness of the Northern Irishman. The irony will not be lost on any of you that Rodgers has continually selected the right back in his time at the club.
"It was difficult for me under Jose at Chelsea because there was a moment when he said I deserved to play on merit," he recalls. "He said if I played well in the next game I would play the week after. I got man of the match so he couldn’t drop me. Then in the next game he said the same thing and I got man of the match again. Then we had another game and after that Barcelona.
"I remember speaking to my agent and saying, 'He won’t play me in this game because if I play well then he has to play me against Barcelona', and I knew that wasn’t going to happen. He didn’t play me in that game and from that moment I just lost it and thought, 'Well, how am I meant to respect you now? It’s just finished.' Brendan wouldn’t do that. He’s shown that if you’re good enough you’re old enough and you’ll play in the big games if you deserve to. So in terms of man-management, Brendan is definitely better."
Johnson does insist that Rodgers deserves great respect for having the courage of his convictions. Only the most surly of naysayers could deny that the impact the Carnlough man has had on the club has been remarkable. At this point last year Liverpool, despite the beginning of a renaissance, were 29 points off the top of the table. Today they stand only four from the summit whilst playing the most beguiling attacking football in the division. The defence may be a work in progress, but the overall improvement reflects great credit on the manager and no amount of bias can detract from the accuracy of Johnson's take on the club's debt to the manager.
"Mourinho is one of the best in the world and I would never say he’s not because of what happened between us," the defender averred. "But Brendan is different to Jose, he has his own mentality and is definitely one of the best. Some managers like the thought of playing the way Brendan does but haven’t got the confidence or knowhow to pull it off. Others would probably have panicked and changed their philosophy just to try and win. But Brendan was mentally strong enough and knew what he was trying to implement was right and that once we grabbed hold of it we would be a success."
The form that "success" will take, if it is to come, is as yet unknown, but even the most begrudging and lugubrious of observers must surely admit that in Brendan Rodgers Liverpool have a manager that is proving himself to be up to the task. A managerial favourite he may be, but Johnson's words have a ring of veracity.