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Shots Fired

You may find the whole concept of psychological jousting tiresome and recoil at the very mention of 'mind games,' but gaining the advantage is a serious matter and Brendan Rodgers, a straight shooter, is not above dropping a little verbal grenade or two.

During the match, Brendan asked Zaf to repeatedly prank call Louis Van Gaal. Stevie loved this stuff...
During the match, Brendan asked Zaf to repeatedly prank call Louis Van Gaal. Stevie loved this stuff...
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Incessant chatter is the permanent backdrop to the life of a football supporter. It really never ends. From the vapid television news that forms the inane soundtrack to your morning ablutions to the radio phone-in that dangerously elevates your blood pressure on the commute home, football talk is omnipresent. The various outlets, like needy, ravenous chicks in a nest, await the sickly deposit of regurgitated sustenance that will keep them ticking over. They don't need much -- a quote, a partial quote even. It's not like it really matters. Just keep saying stuff and say it before those other guys is essentially the mantra.

The need for content is so pressing that the great sources of verbal nourishment, the managers of the Premier League, get prodded on a daily basis in the hope that one of them will oblige with a libellous, foul-mouthed tirade. Of course, wily old campaigners that they are, most of these chaps are far too media savvy to ever let their guard down. Instead, it is often the more Machiavellian amongst the division's gaffers who manipulate the press conference or the post-match interview in such a way as to create an advantage for them. To the wildly unimaginative majority, this activity has become exasperatingly known as mind games.

Like football itself, mind games were invented by Alex Ferguson in 1992. The former Dark Lord of Mancunia, elevated to the status of infallible guru by his cabal of fawning broadsheet chums, is credited with being the first man to think about the game off the pitch. When his spiritual son, Jose Mourinho, started to perfect his louche arrogance and spout measured barbs about his direct opposition, his behaviour was traced back to the puce-faced Scot as though he were the very source and origin of clever thought and cunning utterance.

These kingmakers and myth-peddlers seem to forget that the game existed before Ferguson finally managed to attain some success at Manchester United, but a perfect storm of an unparalleled period of success for United allied to a stunning growth in the game's popularity and an attendant media expansion, has meant that the victors have written the history books. The likes of Matt Busby, Brian Clough, Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley -- all greater managers in the humble opinion of this scribbler -- are forgotten. This, of course, is plainly nonsense.

In the 70s and 80s, Bob Paisley, an apparently shy man with an enviable line in cardigans, was at the hub of the most successful Liverpool team in history. When the gents of the press corps would trouble Paisley for a few words on the forthcoming opposition, the avuncular Geordie would invariably express a humble confidence in his own charges before praising Liverpool's opponents very generously. This seemingly courteous gesture had the effect of flattering rather than 'winding up' the recipients of the praise and drew the sting from them. As a result, teams often arrived at Anfield as if they'd won a competition to have a nice day out being beaten by the lads in Red and shaking hands with the lovely gent in the knitwear and overcoat. Paisley called it "giving them toffee." Now that was mind games, folks. Still, let's not allow the facts to interfere with a lazy narrative. It would be confusing for screeching melodrama-mongers like Sky television's Jim White.

Nowadays, the new guv'nor at Old Trafford is Louis Van Gaal, a man who could have been working in tandem with Brendan Rodgers at Anfield had the quietly confident Antrim man not vetoed the idea. He wanted to be The Man and now, as he is firmly establishing himself as a worthy aspirant to the mantle of Paisley, he must instead face the Dutchman as an opponent. The first crossing of swords occurred on Monday night, with Van Gaal's men taking the honours. In the wake of that match, Rodgers was asked countless questions about his opposite number and it was interesting to notice that he was rather inventive in the way he approached his answers, with a telling emphasis on how the Premier League can be a great leveller. It was at once a reminder to the new United supremo of his side's current status and a rallying call to the other teams in the league.

"I think what he’ll find is the competition in this league will be different from any other league that he’s worked in," Rodgers averred. "In a lot of the other leagues there are one or two teams and those are the teams that are expected to win. This is a league where the top team plays the bottom team and on any given day you can lose. You don’t get that a lot in the other leagues. I think the competition will probably take him by surprise and that’s from foreign managers I have spoken to over the years. I’ve worked closely with foreign players who have come in and that real physical competitive nature will be different from anywhere else he’s worked before.

"I think it’s going to be really as competitive. Last season was great and right the way through there were four or five teams right up there, and then in the closing months it narrowed down a wee bit. The Premier League historically shows that it’s a very competitive league. Man United will want to bounce back, Chelsea will be strong, Manchester City are the champions so they’ll be the favourites. The likes of Tottenham have been up there the last couple of seasons. When Harry Redknapp was there they were a Champions League team. So the numbers are there to make it really competitive again and difficult to forecast."

Lest it sound as though he was being arrogant, Rodgers was keen to address the success of Manchester United and the comparatively emergent status of his own team. The Liverpool boss has often strayed towards the hubristic but to be fair to the man, his boundless ambition is always framed in humility. One is left in no doubt as to his pride in the task of managing Liverpool Football Club but he will not succumb to the onanistic self regard favoured by a certain Portuguese gent.

"Domestically for the last 20 years they’ve been champions 13 times," Rodgers reminded us. "So they have already been in place. When I came to Liverpool we were eighth at the time and the club was nearly going out of business, so it’s totally different. The players there will want to do better for themselves. They will be disappointed with where they finished last year, of course. With the quality they have, they will want to push on.

"We’re still a work in progress really. We made great strides last year and the expectancy for us is to improve again. Our task is to make sure we’re in the Champions League again next year. Our first target is fourth and then we’ll look to push on from there."

So,  there you have it. The first prattle in the endless noise yet to come. Brendan Rodgers has proven, up to this point at least, to be circumspect in his utterances and his self-possession in front of the cameras was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the coverage of the run-in to last season, as frantic television hacks tried to elicit a controversial soundbite from the sanguine Liverpool boss. This is some comfort to those of us wearied by the media's inanity because if one must engage in wretched mind games, it's far preferable to win.

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