BRendan Rodgers has an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. As Gareth Southgate thinks and the Football Association plans, Rodgers is the most viable option. Southgate acolytes won’t like the feeling, but he would be an upgrade.
In May 2016, seven months after being sacked by Liverpool, Rodgers was the ideal man to restart Celtic after the stagnation overseen by Ronny Deila. Thousands greeted Rodgers when he arrived. Rodgers ticked off the ‘Celtic thing’ – not everyone gets that chance – with rose petals thrown at his feet as he rediscovered his managerial mojo away from Premier League competition. Many will shrug off his achievements in Scotland, but the undeniable fact is that Rodgers raised the bar and positively changed the careers of many players. Rodgers was great for Celtic and Celtic was great for Rodgers.
The Rodgers plan always involved a return to England’s top flight. Again things fell into place when Leicester called. Rodgers had become frustrated at Celtic – the feeling of discomfort was mutual – and the appeal of a free-spending club was obvious. The battle for a Champions League place and the historic claim to the FA Cup justified Rodgers’ switch. Leicester’s prominence – Tottenham and Arsenal finished the 2020-21 season behind them – further underlined the sense of a managerial career reborn after a rocky end to his Anfield tenure.
There was trauma in the early stages of this campaign after being informed of necessary and drastic cost cuts over the summer. Rodgers saw a certainty of the sack with a 10 league game win. But when a once-happy marriage seemed headed for grim divorce, Rodgers rallied. Leicester went into the World Cup break with four wins from five and in the relative comfort of 13th place.
However, this is not the film the Northern Irishman signed up for. He sees himself as a top coach. His ambitions are at the top of his game. Leicester can no longer meet their needs. Should Southgate decide that six years is long enough in the England oven, football destiny as well as expertise points straight at Rodgers. In an admittedly thin field, there is one outstanding candidate. Right place, right time, once again for Rodgers.
He could be the perfect politician. This is a training ground manager who has controlled big clubs and bigger egos. His man management and understanding of the game are top class. International football is now the most tactical domain in sport.
Skeptics will argue the evidence of Liverpool, Celtic and Leicester suggests players are growing weary of Rodgers’ message, but that need not be entirely relevant for a team that meets a handful of times in a given year. A more relevant criticism relates to routinely poor performances in European competition. That, Rodgers could insist, came without anything like the range of talent an England manager can call upon. Rodgers has a level of confidence that will flow through the team and could prove their missing ingredient.
Perhaps the most compelling point is that Rodgers could see this as his best chance to climb the mountain again. Leicester appear to be out of sorts in mid-table. He has managed Liverpool, which rules out a future at Old Trafford. Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham don’t look like an option at the moment, and while Arsenal once were, Mikel Arteta is confident at the Emirates. Rodgers could move abroad and invite the associated risk or manage England under the perfectly salient theory that he could outperform Southgate. Lost in the World Cup melee is that England moved down from the top tier of the Nations League after being reduced to a quivering mess by Hungary.
There is an absurd, parochial obsession in some circles with the appointment of an Englishman. But this is a football manager, not the manager of a St. George’s Day gala. The successful candidate must simply understand the environment; something anyone with long experience in the Premier League would like to do. Winning trumps everything else when you’re in charge of an international team, including in terms of positive impact further down the chain. In any case, it is a simple reality that there are not nearly enough English coaches at elite level.
Southgate is able to decide his own future, which is fair enough given the esteem in which he is held at FA board level. Unlike previous incumbents, Southgate has never given his paymasters cause for tabloid front-page concern. He is the safest of safe hands, a perfectly decent man in a fevered world.
This is something of a conundrum for everyone involved. Although Southgate has lifted England – semi-finals, finals, quarter-finals – this is a country that has chronically underperformed for decades. Southgate has not managed anything exceptional. At £5m a year, this is a job that rewards achieving sensible targets. The 52-year-old must also be aware of a growing feeling that he is wasting a unique resource.
England have disappeared down the golden generation rabbit hole before. The hype is just that – it arrogantly ignores excellent players available to other countries – but will lead to increased pressure if England don’t crush everyone before them. Their Euro 2024 qualifying section, which includes Italy, Ukraine and North Macedonia, is negotiable but not a given. A split looks useful, even for those of us intrigued by the level at which Southgate will reappear. He has thrown doubt into the debate about his own future, which is telling.
When Rodgers next appears in public, he will inevitably be singing Southgate’s praises and the shift in contention will benefit England’s set-up. He may even consider international management a non-viable option at the age of 49. But it may well be an imminent scenario that serves great purposes for Rodgers and the FA; neither of them should reject it.