January 30, 2023

BRendan Rodgers has an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. As Gareth Southgate ponders and the Football Association intends, Rodgers is the most viable alternative. Southgate’s acolytes won’t like the sentiment, but he’d actually be an upgrade.

In May 2016, seven months after being thrown out by Liverpool, Rodgers was the ideal man to restart Celtic after the stagnation overseen by Ronny Deila. Thousands greeted Rodgers upon his arrival. Rodgers tapped off “the Celtic thing” – not everyone gets that chance – with rose petals thrown at his feet as he rediscovered his managerial mojo away from the competitive brutality of the Premier League. Many will shrug at achievements in Scotland, but the undeniable fact is that Rodgers raised the bar and positively changed the career paths of countless players. Rodgers was great for Celtic and Celtic was great for Rodgers.

The Rodgers plan always included a return to England’s top flight. Once again things fell into place when Leicester City called. Rodgers had grown frustrated at Celtic – the feeling of unease was mutual – and the appeal of a club that spent nothing was evident. The joust for a Champions League berth and historic FA Cup claim justified Rodgers’ switch. Leicester’s prominence – Tottenham and Arsenal finished the 2020-21 season behind them – further emphasized the sense of a managerial career being reborn after a pulse-pounding conclusion to his tenure at Anfield.

There was further trauma in the early stages of this campaign, after being made aware of the necessary and drastic cost cuts over the course of the summer. Rodgers looked a certainty for dismissal amid a run of one win in 10 league games. But when a once-happy marriage seemed to be heading for a stark divorce, Rodgers bounced back. Leicester entered the World Cup break with four wins out of five and with the relative comfort of 13th.

However, this is not the film the Northern Irishman signed up for. He considers himself a top-shelf coach. His ambitions are on top of the game. Leicester can no longer fulfill its need. Should Southgate decide that six years is long enough in England’s oven, then both football fate and expertise point squarely in Rodgers’ direction. In admittedly a thin field, there is one outstanding candidate. Right place, right time, again for Brendan.

Rodgers can be the consummate politician. This is a training ground manager who has checked big clubs and bigger egos. His man management and game understanding are top notch. International football is now the most tactical domain in the sport.

Skeptics will argue that the evidence from Liverpool, Celtic and Leicester suggests players are getting tired of the Rodgers message, but that may not be entirely relevant to a team that meets a handful of times in any given year. A more pertinent criticism relates to routinely poor performances in European competition. That, Rodgers could insist, came without anything like the arsenal of talent an England manager can call upon. Rodgers has a level of confidence that would flow through the England team and prove their missing ingredient.

Brendan Rodgers being tossed in the air by his Leicester players after winning the FA Cup in 2021.
Brendan Rodgers being tossed in the air by his Leicester players after winning the FA Cup in 2021. Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA

Perhaps the most compelling point is that Rodgers could see this as his best shot at climbing the mountain again. Leicester seem to be heading for mid-table obscurity. 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 although Arsenal once were, Mikel Arteta is safe with the Emirates. Rodgers could move abroad and take the associated risk, or lead England with the perfectly glaring theory that he could outperform Southgate. Lost in the World Cup fight is that England were relegated from the top of the Nations League in the summer after being reduced to a quivering mess by Hungary.

There is an absurd, petty obsession in some quarters with the appointment of an Englishman. But this is a football manager, not the leader of a St George’s Day gala. The successful candidate simply needs to understand the environment; something anyone with extensive experience in the Premier League will be happy to do. Winning is more important than anything else when you are in charge of an international team, also through a positive impact further down the chain. In any case, it is a blunt reality that there are not nearly enough elite status English coaches.

Southgate is able to shape his own future, which is fair enough given the esteem people at FA board level have for him. Unlike previous incumbents, Southgate has never given its paymasters cause for concern on the tabloid front pages. He is the safest of safe hands, a thoroughly decent man in a feverish world.

This is a conundrum for everyone involved. While Southgate has taken England to the next level – semi-final, final, quarter-final – this is a country that has been chronically underperforming for decades. Southgate has presided over nothing exceptional. At £5 million a year, this is a job that rewards the achievement of reasonable goals. The 52-year-old must also be aware of an increasing sense that he is wasting excellent resources.

England has previously gone down the rabbit hole of the golden generation. The hype is just that – it arrogantly ignores excellent players available for other countries – but will lead to increased pressure if England doesn’t crush everything for them. Their qualifying section for Euro 2024, which includes Italy, Ukraine and North Macedonia, is negotiable, but not a given. A split seems useful, including for those of us intrigued by the level at which Southgate would reappear. Southgate has called into question the debate over his own future, which is telling.

When Rodgers next appears in public he will inevitably sing Southgate’s praises and change in the dispute would be in the best interests of England’s position. He may even consider international management an unfeasible option at the tender age of 49. Still, there could be a looming scenario that serves a huge purpose for both Rodgers and the FA; nor would reject it.

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