Brendan Rodgers has an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. As Gareth Southgate ponders and the Football Association plans, Rodgers is the most viable alternative. Southgate acolytes will not like the sentiment, but he would be an upgrade.
In May 2016, seven months after being jettisoned by Liverpool, Rodgers was the ideal man to reboot Celtic after the stagnation overseen by Ronny Deila. Thousands greeted Rodgers upon his arrival. Rodgers ticked off “the Celtic thing” – not everybody gets that chance – with rose petals tossed at his feet while rediscovering his managerial mojo away from the competitive ferocity of the Premier League. Plenty will shrug at achievements in Scotland but the undeniable fact is Rodgers raised standards and positively altered the careers of umpteen 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 slotted into place as Leicester came calling. Rodgers had grown frustrated at Celtic – the feeling of unease was mutual – and the appeal of a free-spending club was obvious. Jousting for a Champions League berth and the historic claiming of the FA Cup justified Rodgers’ switch. Leicester’s prominence – Tottenham and Arsenal finished the 2020-21 season behind them – further emphasised the sense of a managerial career reborn after a bruising conclusion to his Anfield tenure.
There was trauma in the early stages of this campaign having been informed of necessary and drastic cost-cutting over the summer. Rodgers looked a certainty for the sack with a run of one win in 10 league matches. But, as a once blissful marriage looked to be hurtling towards grim divorce, Rodgers rallied. Leicester entered the World Cup break with four wins out of five and in the relative comfort of 13th place.
This, however, is not the movie the Northern Irishman signed up for. He regards himself as a top-bracket coach. His aspirations are at the summit of the game. Leicester can no longer fulfil his needs. Should Southgate decide six years is long enough in the England furnace, football fate as well as expertise point squarely towards Rodgers. In admittedly a thin field, there is one outstanding candidate. Right place, right time, once more for Rodgers.
He can be the consummate politician. This is a training-ground manager who has controlled big clubs and bigger egos. His man-management and game understanding are top class. International football is now the most tactical domain in the sport.
Sceptics will argue the evidence of Liverpool, Celtic and Leicester implies players grow tired of the Rodgers message but that need not be entirely relevant for a squad that meets a handful of times in any given year. A more pertinent criticism relates to routinely poor performance in European competition. That, Rodgers could insist, came without anything like the array of talent an England manager can call upon. Rodgers has a level of self-belief that would cascade 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 scale the mountain again. Leicester look bound for mid-table obscurity. He has managed Liverpool, which rules out a future at Old Trafford. Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham do not look like option at present and although Arsenal once were, Mikel Arteta is safe at the Emirates. Rodgers could move abroad and invite the associated risk or manage England under the perfectly salient theory that he could perform better than Southgate. Lost in the World Cup melee is that England were relegated 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 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 must simply comprehend the environment; something anybody who has extensive experience in the Premier League will readily do. Winning trumps all else when in charge of an international team, including by way of positive impact further down the chain. In any case, it is a blunt reality there are not nearly enough English coaches of elite standing.
Southgate is able to determine his own future, which is fair enough given the esteem those at FA board level hold him. Unlike previous incumbents, Southgate has never given his paymasters cause for tabloid front page concern. He is the safest of safe hands, a thoroughly decent man in a febrile world.
This is something of a conundrum for all involved. Although Southgate has elevated England – semi-final, final, quarter-final – this is a country that has chronically underperformed for decades. Southgate has not presided over anything exceptional. At £5m per year, this is a job that handsomely rewards the meeting of reasonable targets. The 52-year-old must also be aware of a rising sense that he is squandering outstanding resource.
England have vanished 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 should England not crush all before them. Their Euro 2024 qualifying section, which includes Italy, Ukraine and North Macedonia, is negotiable but not a given. A split looks useful, including for those of us intrigued by the level Southgate would reappear at. He has injected doubt into debate about his own future, which is telling.
When Rodgers next appears in public he will inevitably sing Southgate’s praises and dispute change would be in the best interests of the England setup. He may even regard international management as a non-viable option at the tender age of 49. But there could well be an imminent scenario which serves huge purpose to Rodgers and the FA; neither should spurn it.