Saturday, December 24, 2011

Swanselona! How Rodgers has turned his team into the talk of the Premier League


On Saturday evening, Brendan Rodgers and his Swansea team will be preparing for the match of their lives. Manchester United will be in town, not for a romantic Cup tie or a benign friendly, but as Premier League opponents. 

While it would be incongruous to describe them as equals - Manchester United's turnover last year was £286million, Swansea's just £10m - next weekend they compete as such. Squeezed into his tiny cupboard of an office, provided for him by the health club where Swansea train, Rodgers is relishing the challenge.

'This club and this city have been waiting years to host such a great team, a great club and a genius of a manager,' says the man who took Swansea into the Premier League via last season's play-offs. 'It will be a brilliant occasion and for me there's real excitement.'

Growing reputation: Brendan Rodgers has enjoyed phenomenal success in the past 18 months with Swansea

Excitement and deep regret, too. Rodgers does not say it but he will surely feel it next Saturday evening, as the dusk descends on the Liberty Stadium before kick-off.

For the visit of United is the kind of occasion his mother and father would have relished. But while their son has enjoyed phenomenal success in the past 18 months, forging a reputation as one of the game's brightest young managers, 38-year-old Rodgers has also been a man in mourning, having lost both his parents at relatively young ages and at a time that has been the most successful and fulfilling period of his professional life.

The cruel irony of his loss is an obvious source of pain. 'My mum and dad had worked so hard all their lives,' he says. 'They had arrived at a good moment, seen their son develop his life and could get over to watch games and come and share in what you've done.

'Then, all of a sudden, they're gone. There's a real empty feeling, you know. I spoke to them every day, sometimes you get into the habit to phone, in the car, away to a game…' His words tail off. But there is no self-pity, just grief.

Two months ago, as Swansea struggled to find their feet in the Premier League and were being defeated by Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, their manager was 400 miles away in Carnlough, a picturesque village of just 1,500 inhabitants perched on the County Antrim coast where, on a good, clear day, you can look across the Irish Sea to the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.

In ordinary circumstances, the beaches, the pretty harbour and the glens would have made for a serene location. But in the early hours of that morning, Rodgers's father, Malachy, had died, aged 59. 'To be with him when he took his final breaths, that was important to me,' says Rodgers.

'He died on the day of the Arsenal game. I had been with him as much as I could. I was flying back to Northern Ireland every chance I had to spend time with him. Then, whenever it looked like he wasn't going to pull through, as much as I loved Swansea and as much as I love football, I needed to be with my father.'

Hard times: Swansea endured a tough start to life in the Premier League
The grief was so acute for Rodgers because only a few months before his father had been diagnosed with lung cancer, his mother, Christina, had died of a heart attack. She was aged just 53.

'She went out one morning to get her hair done, eyebrows done, all that stuff that women do,' says Rodgers. 'She came back in at a quarter to 11 and my dad went out.

'He said he was going to get a plug and he was on his way home when this ambulance came flying past him. Unbelievable. He thought, "Where's that going?" 'When he arrived down at our village, and our house is just on the edge, the ambulance was outside our house. My mum had collapsed and died.' 

His was a tight family where his brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles grew up alongside each other, helping each other through tough times in the Seventies and Eighties. 
'They had no fancy jobs,' says Rodgers. In fact, his father was a painter and decorator but his mother raised millions of pounds and ended up travelling the world as a volunteer for the Irish Catholic charity, Trocaire.

Tue faith: Rodgers has rebuilt his career at Swansea

When she died, Rodgers had only recently been sacked by Reading and was yet to be appointed at Swansea.

Now, amid his grief, he has rebuilt his career and is reviving the reputation of the club whose Premier League credentials many might have questioned.

'The time when I think is when I'm on my own in the car,' says Rodgers. 'To be at this level as a football manager, you have to be strong-willed. On my own I'll have my moments, of course, but the focus is very much on the job of turning our good performances into results.'

Swansea were on the verge of financial extinction and bottom of League Two just eight years ago. They were saved by their fans to rise into the Premier League. Even now, though, they hardly bear comparison to the men who will be their opponents on Saturday. While United have at their disposal the huge Carrington training complex, where a small army of security men prevent anyone bothering the players, Swansea's finest must mingle with young mums relaxing in the health club bar after their morning gym sessions.

But with more than a quarter of the season gone, Rodgers's players now sit 10th in the table. Since that Arsenal game they have not only achieved results but in some style. Last weekend they were applauded off the pitch at Anfield by Liverpool's own fans, impressed by the way Swansea had gained a 0-0 draw while, by some observers' reckoning, out-passing their more illustrious opponents.

'I said to the players afterwards, "Write that down in your diary. November 5, 2011: You got a standing ovation from the Anfield crowd. That doesn't happen often. I think iy was a measure of our performance and the respect they had for our game.The figures show that Swansea consistently out-pass their Premier League rivals, have more touches on the ball and pass more accurately. Nor are they a soft touch; Swansea have achieved five clean sheets in 11 games and all from a squad of desperados and rejects culled from the lower leagues.

Their 'Swanselona' nickname is well earned, for Rodgers likes Spain and its football so much that he learned the language in his spare time. 'My biggest influence has been Spanish and Dutch football, that Total Football idea,' he says. 'Barcelona have been doing it for years, since Johan Cruyff was coach.'

Perhaps inevitably, the tale returns to his father. 'He loved Brazilian sides. He loved gifted players and I suppose when you're brought up in that environment, you swing more towards that type. He was always keen for me to be a creator and a technician, so that was the influence for me.

'The British type of football never suited me as a player. It was very much smash it up the pitch and play the percentages. The only percentage I was interested in was possession and I didn't think it was rocket science. If we have the ball, you can't score, no matter how big or strong you are. I've always worked off that.'

At Reading, he had grown up as a youth team player but never made it to the first team. He rose to head the club's academy but they never quite absorbed his ideas. He implemented them so well at junior level, though, that he was poached by Jose Mourinho to join Chelsea. 

When he returned to Reading as manager, he lasted just six months before being sacked.
Swansea, whose chairman, Huw Jenkins, knew and liked his style, gave him a second chance. And the fans, as Rodgers points out, had been well schooled under the management of Roberto Martinez and Paulo Sousa before him.

'They understand what we're trying to achieve,' he said. 'But I could take this group of players to play the same football at other clubs and we wouldn't get the reaction we get from these fans.'

Pass masters: Brendan Rodgers salutes the fans after his side was clapped off the pitch at Anfield

At present, it is a mutual appreciation society. Club and fans have embraced a manager who reciprocates. 'From the age of 16, I was living in Reading, dominated by the city of London, which I loved but when I came here it was like home, really. I was back on the sea again having lived on the coast all my life as a child. What makes it is the people: they're real. It's the real world. There are areas that are deprived, areas that are really modern and improving. But they love life.'

On his desk is a commemorative plaque, made by a fan, which records the date, result and scorers of the club's first ever Premier League win: 3-0 against West Bromwich on September 17. It was a week after the death of his father and came in the week when four miners were killed at the Gleision Colliery in the Swansea Valley.

'That was a sort of monumental game,' says Rodgers. 'The disaster had happened, a young kid had also lost his life here, so it was an emotional time. I was fully aware that football can provide a beacon of hope. And we were very determined to get our season up and running.
'We're in the business of winning, irrespective of style. We understand that we're a million miles away from other people in terms of budget, the size of the club and our resources. But we're here to compete.'

That they are and, with no small thanks to Rodgers, they are doing so in style.


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