Brendan Rodgers shrugs off coronavirus scare to issue battle cry to his Leicester stars
In mid-April, when he was recuperating from the coronavirus and suffering headaches and bouts of breathlessness, Brendan Rodgers began watching The Last Dance, the documentary about the relentlessness of Michael Jordan and how he drove the Chicago Bulls basketball team of the Nineties to their last NBA Championship.
For the previous couple of weeks, the Leicester City manager had been focused on getting better and trying to make sure he was fully recovered in time for the return of training, but studying Jordan made him want to get in touch with his players again as they began to contemplate resuming a stellar season that had embedded them in the top four.
Rodgers got off his sick bed and recorded a video message. ‘I don’t know what you’re watching while you’re off,’ he said to them, ‘but if you get the chance, start watching The Last Dance. If you want to know what being elite is and what being at the very top level in terms of preparation is, and focus and improvement and being better and winning, this is what you should be watching.’
Rodgers was transfixed by the series. He had read books by Phil Jackson, the Bulls coach, and was fascinated by the way Jackson engaged emotionally with all the Bulls players, not just Jordan; with the way Jackson knew how to get the best out of each one, with the way he accepted that leadership means recognising that different characters will need different treatment.
As much as any Premier League coach, Rodgers is a student of human moves, a motivator who is as good a man-manager as there is in the English game.
It is a paradox of his success that his detractors identify in him a lack of sincerity, yet it is his care for his players, his desire to help and improve them, that those who have worked for him say lies at his core.
‘Jordan was blessed with talent,’ says Rodgers as he sits in his office at the Leicester training ground, ‘but he absolutely maximised his talent. His whole mentality around being the best and being elite, every player should follow that. It was about the work he put in and how much he was prepared to suffer and his mentality.
‘Some people had a problem with the way Jordan behaved towards his team-mates but we judge people on today’s standards when that was more than 20 years ago and the world was different. He wanted to win and he wanted others to win. It was like that in football as well. Times have changed but at the very highest level, sometimes you have to be harsh to be clear.’
There are other reasons why the documentary resonated with Rodgers and why he hoped it would affect his players.
Leicester reached for the stars four years ago when they shocked the football world by winning the Premier League and now, clear in third place, they are attempting to rejoin the elite by using their last nine games to cement a place in next season’s Champions League.
Their 4-0 victory over Aston Villa at the King Power on March 9 was the last game before the Premier League was suspended and moved them eight points clear of fifth-placed Manchester United.
They are through to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup where they will play Chelsea. But things have changed since they put themselves in that position. Football has changed.
There will be no crowd at Vicarage Road on June 20 when Leicester take on Watford in the first game of the first Saturday of the resumed season. There will be no away fans cheering them on.
Maybe some of the players will be nervous about grappling with opponents. Maybe they will be unnerved by the sound of their yells echoing around the empty stadium.
Rodgers knows too that different qualities will be required of his man-management.
He must find new ways of motivating some of the players. The adrenaline and the inspiration that comes with the noise of the crowd will be gone. The hostility, and the love, will be gone.
‘You have to find a cause,’ he says. ‘It’s about emotionally activating the players as if there were supporters there, to play with intensity and purpose in our game. It is within our grasp to have an absolutely brilliant season. It is finding that leadership to ensure we’re ready for every game.’
To provide that leadership, Rodgers will need all his man-management skills and all his empathy. Like all the best coaches, he has the ability to make his players feel special, to make them feel 10 feet tall when they run on to the pitch. He is more of an analyst than a rabble-rouser but he can get to his players just the same.
Like many in the higher echelons of the game, Rodgers has done his best to help during lockdown. It emerged last week he had donated a quarter of a million pounds to the Northern Ireland Hospice organisation to try to replace funds lost through the temporary closure of their charity shops and help them to save jobs and services.
The idea that he is all about smooth and slick is still peddled by some but the more Rodgers has brought success to Liverpool, Celtic and Leicester, the less it fits. Naked ambition only gets you so far before the players see you have no clothes.
They work a manager out like kids work out a teacher. They have a keen sense of who is looking out for them and who is not. They see through empty words and gestures and stop responding.
‘You don’t have success with players and teams unless you can be sincere and they believe you,’ says Rodgers. ‘That has always been my way in how I have worked. I have always tried to be clear in my communication with players and cared for them when they have shown that they care.
‘That’s the difference. If there is someone who doesn’t care, it’s OK, I will respect them. But in the main, I have always worked with players who wanted to get better and my life in coaching has been about developing the player and the person. You have to be able to emotionally activate players and when you can do that, you can only do that if you speak sincerely to them.
‘I treat players as I would treat my own son. It’s about the advice I’d give them. What I would say to James Maddison or Ben Chilwell or James Justin or any of these guys, I wouldn’t call it any differently to what I would with my own son.
‘I have a duty of care. That’s my background. That’s how I was brought up: to care for people. That doesn’t mean I can’t be ruthless or can’t make decisions but my genuine feeling is to develop the player and no matter what your age is, I feel you can develop. For me, the biggest factor that gets players playing is emotion and you have to be able to speak sincerely to them and be genuine with them.
‘I’ve never hidden ambition or that my communication is open, and I really feel that our club will be stronger when we come out of this because of how open we have been from the board downwards.
‘You will hear enough players speak about me when I work with them or afterwards that I genuinely wanted to make them better. It is always about the players.’
Having contracted coronavirus himself, Rodgers was particularly aware of the concerns of players about returning to training in the midst of the pandemic. He wanted the season to resume, rather than for it to be decided on a method like points per game, but only when he was satisfied that conditions were right and the players felt confident in their surroundings.
In the managers’ Zoom meetings, it has been reported that some were gung-ho about the resumption of the season. Rodgers will not say anything about what was discussed but he was cautious about football’s return to work.
‘Football’s my life and I love it, and it’s my profession,’ he says, ‘but it doesn’t go above health and family. I wanted to return but only when it was safe. We cannot afford in life to have any sort of mistakes with this type of thing when we see the tens of thousands of families who have been affected so badly.
‘At this club, I’ve always felt we were going along with those measures and protocols and looking to create as safe an environment as we possibly could. That’s what most clubs would be looking to do. Then when I came into the training ground and saw the work that was going on, that gave me confidence.
‘I didn’t feel there was any need to take risks earlier. Football in the main has dealt well with it. There has been a lot of spotlight on it and focus. I feel they have given it the time and now, stage by stage, we will look to see if we can get back.
‘Football is a caring industry. It is ruthless but at these moments, a lot of football people have stepped up because that is their nature. They want to help and support and at the right times they have done that. There was some criticism around footballers, which was unjust. Football will come out of this well.’
Rodgers, 47, is only the second Premier League manager — after Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta — known to have had coronavirus. He felt so sapped of strength he found it hard to walk. It reminded him of the way he felt when altitude sickness started to grab at him on a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro nine years ago.
‘Walking 10 yards felt very, very different,’ he says. ‘I went for a run the first time, and I just couldn’t do it. I could hardly go 10 yards. I felt really weak, had no real appetite, and had a weird sensation of having no taste.
‘I never felt I’d have to go to the hospital so it was nowhere near the level of what some poor families have been through.
‘It was like a flu initially. You lose your strength. The headache you get, it is so specific, you find it on one side of your head. And it was the breathlessness of it. I can see why it would affect people with respiratory issues so badly.’
Rodgers says it is ‘amazing’ to be back on the training pitch with the players, especially now they are stepping things up, and that all the competitive instincts are returning in full contact sessions. There is, though, one regret he will admit to relating to his weeks away from the game.
‘I failed in one of the goals I set myself for the lockdown, which was to learn to cook,’ he says. ‘I had a few ideas of dishes I might be able to master but never got further than an omelette. I’ve had to take a long hard look at myself and admit that my attitude wasn’t good.’