The Players Who Define Rodgers’ Tenure: No.1

The Players Who Define Rodgers’ Tenure: No.1
February 20, 2014 Chris Rowland

By Anthony Stanley (TTT Subscriber Dannyluke10).

“…one of the biggest things that has come out is his ability to learn.  If he continues in that vein, he will have a terrific career.” – Brendan Rodgers, September 2012.

No.1 – Raheem Sterling 

Being: Liverpool was – with the possible exception of Liverpool and Swansea fans anyway – the football world’s introduction to Brendan Rodgers.  Replete with the melodramatic narration of Clive Owen, it was a PR exercise aimed at an American audience but, to those watching in Britain, it viewed like the unholy offspring of a reality TV programme and The Office.  The ghastly (at least on these shores) documentary that would herald the beginning of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure gave the watching media some gleefully accepted snippets of often cringe-inducing moments.  From the now infamous ‘three names in an envelope’ to the head-scratching musings of Brendan himself, it was, to genuine Liverpool supporters who were  behind the new boss, a slightly surreal disaster with very few redemptive qualities.  Rodgers, still coming to grips with this giant goldfish bowl he’d found himself in, was castigated in the tabloid media as the new David Brent.  This moniker would persist until this season when even the Ulsterman’s most ardent critics had to accept that he may actually know what he is doing.  The proof, after all, was in the thrilling and potent (if slightly baseless) pudding.  But for all the stick this programme enabled Rodgers to receive from rivals’ slavering fans, one moment that was caught in the documentary would show the Reds manager in a far different light – one that was in his field of excellence.  Not only working with talented young men on the training ground, but managing them effectively.

Raheem Sterling may have been forgiven for thinking that the coming season would not be one where his massive potential was finally delivered upon.  After all, a very public dressing down from his new manager in front of the Fox cameras would not, one would have thought, be typically conducive to the first stirrings of a season to remember.  To put it bluntly, Rodgers laid into the eighteen-year-old Sterling and didn’t pull any punches: “You need to improve your attitude.  If you say ‘steady’ to me again when I say something to you, you’ll be on the first flight home”.  Here was a young manager completely secure in his role and ready to tell a prodigious talent – even before his career had properly started – what was expected of him.  This would be our first glimpse of a manager to be respected; a far cry from the Brent caricature with which the media wished to paint him.  This was Brendan Rodgers in his natural habitat – not cast upon the grim and dubious mercies of a network camera, but doing in many ways what actually got him the job in the first place; his expertise in dealing with young talent.  And over the next year and a half, Raheem Sterling would reap the benefits of this.

During lean times, the expectation levels on the next potential saviour that is due to step up from the reserves often go through the roof, typically rising exponentially the more miserable the first team’s form.  The trauma of the Souness years was tempered in the eyes of Kop veterans by the fact that there was a kid kicking his heels in the reserves who may be ready to step up.  This kid was rumoured to be very, very special and so it proved when one Robbie Fowler entered the fray.  As Souness gave way to Roy Evans and the latter – after a very promising few seasons – started to encounter problems, the whisperings around the terraces were of Michael Owen, the latest boy wonder who would propel the Reds to league glory.  The indifferent form that categorised much of Gerard Houllier’s early reign was made easier to bear as Steven Gerrard strode towards the first team and legendary status.

Raheem Sterling was of similar ilk, carved from the same dreams and hopes of many Kopites.  Of course, having the twin cash cow colossi of City and Chelsea (not to mention Manchester United and Arsenal), with all their financial muscle, merely added to the need to have a superstar in waiting ready to come through.  We needed him to succeed and so, like Owen and Fowler – and before most Liverpool fans had witnessed him actually playing – this skinny, diminutive seventeen-year-old found himself encountering feverish levels of expectations.  The fact that he’d yet to make a first team appearance didn’t appear to damper our hopes.

Despite Liverpool’s league form fizzling out from January 2012, Sterling, save for a few substitute cameos, would not get a chance in the first team until Brendan Rodgers took over.  The not inconsiderable challenge of the Premier League champions would be Sterling’s baptism of fire. Here, in his second league game in charge of Liverpool, Rodgers showed his courage; the underperforming and frustrating Downing was left on the bench in place of this exciting but largely untried youngster.  And Sterling responded with a display of moral courage, pace and skill.  Overall, the team’s performance was a vastly encouraging one but it was Sterling who sparkled, shimmied and shimmered, showing an irrepressible resolve that belied his tender years, to get hold of the ball and take defenders on.

The selection of Sterling against the reigning champions of England was one that, to me at least, was a seminal moment in Rodgers’ embryonic tenure.  Here we had a manager not afraid to take risks, to ‘go for it’ and this was as refreshing as the performance of his young charge in the game itself.  Stewart Downing had frustrated fans to a massive degree but he would have been the safe option for this match.  In the previous game – Brendan’s first Premier League game in charge – Liverpool had been humbled by West Bromwich Albion. Now, eight days later, Rodgers was prepared to defy convention and unleash Sterling on City. It was one of those moments that will live with me for a long time; my fear and trepidation at what was to come as we faced the City behemoth allayed hugely by this growing sense of hope and a strange, eerily alien sensation, optimism.

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