The Brian Viner Interview: The Northern Irishman learnt his management skills under Mourinho. Now he aims to apply them with Swansea in the Premier League
A tiny office, scarcely larger than a broom cupboard, in the Glamorgan Health & Racquets Club just outside Neath would not be Jose Mourinho's idea of a command centre, and yet this is where his protégé Brendan Rodgers, once Chelsea's reserve team coach, is plotting to take Swansea City back to the big time. "I had three and a half years with Jose," says Rodgers. "It was like being at Harvard University."
If this intense, 38-year-old Northern Irishman does lead Swansea back into the top tier, which they last graced in 1982-83 only for one of the most precipitous climbs in the history of English football to be followed by one of the more disastrous plunges, almost into extinction, then he will add a further dimension to his own Harvard analogy, finally graduating from Professor Mourinho's class magna cum laude. But the prospect of automatic promotion to the Premier League has been undermined by a disastrous run of four consecutive away defeats. A fifth, at Portsmouth tomorrow, would make even the play-offs less than a dead cert.
This office is too small to fill with negativity, however, so let's contemplate promotion. They say there's such a thing as not being ready for the Premier League; does Rodgers think the Swans are ready to stick their necks out in such august company?
The ghost of a smile. "I'd say we're similar to Blackpool last year, or Burnley before that. You can't wait until you're ready because you might never be ready. Obviously there are still plenty of things to be done, in terms of infrastructure, and the training ground. We must be the only Championship club that showers with its supporters. So the Premier League and the money that comes with it would help secure this club for years to come. Are we ready? No. But we would jump at the chance to play at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. The aim this season was to finish in or around the top six. Promotion would be a dream."
Rodgers is keenly aware of Swansea's halcyon period three decades ago, not least because his first-team coach is Alan Curtis, one of the goal-scoring heroes of those years. He knows, too, all about the tumultuous times on the brink of bankruptcy, and indeed the brink of non-League football, averted on the final day of the 2002-03 season. Since then, though, a consortium of local businessmen has restored financial stability, backed up by two notably astute choices of manager. One was Roberto Martinez, now at Wigan. The other is Rodgers, who was appointed last July and has got Swansea playing, in the opinion of some, the most attractive football in the Championship. "My philosophy is to play creative attacking football with tactical discipline, but you have to validate that with success," he says.
Hard work is the other bulwark of his philosophy. The work ethic was forged in the working-class, mostly Catholic village of Carnlough on the Antrim coast, where he grew up the eldest of five brothers, watching his father, a painter-decorator, graft relentlessly to give the family every affordable comfort. "He and my mother set in place the values and morals that are with us to this day," says Rodgers. "They were the best role models we could have had."
At St Patrick's College in Ballymena, his skills as a footballer were spotted by Manchester United scout Eddie Coulter, who more recently unearthed Jonny Evans. It was early in the Alex Ferguson era and Rodgers used to travel to Manchester to represent United at schoolboy level with a lad called Adrian Doherty, a tricky left-winger considered an Ulster discovery almost in the George Best class.
"They called him 'the Doc', and Ryan Giggs, the Nevilles, they will all tell you he was the best player they ever played with at that level. I remember being at Reading with Jim Leighton, who was on loan from United at the time, and he waxed lyrical about 'the Doc'. He was an incredible player, but he got badly injured in a reserve game, which set his career on a downward path, and a few years ago, very sadly, he drowned in a canal, in Holland."
Doherty was just 26 when he died in 2000, all that youthful promise already just fodder for anecdotes. Rodgers' own youthful promise, though far more limited, had much happier consequences. United let him go to Reading, where he captained the youth team and later hovered on the fringes of the first team, but a series of injuries, compounded by the realisation that even at peak fitness he would never cut it at the level he aspired to, made him resolve to become a coach, starting with the Reading youth team.
"From that moment I set off on a journey to be the very best I could be," he says. "Someone told me that if I could speak another language it would help me at a higher level of the game, so I studied Spanish twice a week with a guy called Julio Delgado, whose son was a British tennis player, Jamie Delgado." Rodgers' self-improvement campaign began with football, however, and his reputation as an innovative young coach soon extended beyond the Thames Valley. In 2004 the recently-appointed manager of Chelsea invited him for an interview.
"Jose played 4-3-3, or a 4-4-2 diamond, and he wanted a coach to implement his methodology. As you can imagine I was nervous meeting him, a guy I'd read a book about. But he was brilliant, and made me his first external appointment. He took me under his wing a wee bit, maybe because he saw something different in me, or maybe there was a bit of empathy because, like him, I hadn't had the big playing career. Anyway, that started one of the best times of my life. Jose had learnt from his mentor, Louis van Gaal, and I learnt from him, that there must never be a lazy day in training, and that preparation is vital."
At this point Rodgers takes two strides to the other side of his office and picks up a bundle of diagrams, detailing his forthcoming training exercises. Multi-coloured and minutely detailed, they could just as easily be infantry plans for the Battle of the Bulge. "This is what Jose taught me," he says. "And when the players see them, they are energised. They think 'he's put some thought into this'."
He also took careful note of Mourinho's celebrated man-management skills. "Jose struck a perfect balance between putting them on edge, and supporting them. He'd let them feel the pressure to win, but then be able to take that pressure off them. He could be their friend, or their worst enemy. I'd already worked with Steve Coppell, a fantastic man, very respectful of his players, but here was a guy who took it to a different level, that integration of coaching and management. The day Jose left Chelsea, it felt like someone had died."
Rodgers then worked with Mourinho's successors Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari before deciding that he was ready to become a manager in his own right. "I'd had a great apprenticeship. I'd gone from the park to the peak. So I spoke to Milan Mandaric about the Leicester job, but he decided to go for experience and appointed Gary Megson." The disappointment intensified his desire to get onto the managerial merry-go-round, and in November 2008 he did so, at Watford. Seven months later, he seized the chance to succeed Coppell at Reading. And barely six months after that, the merry-go-round threw him off. It was the first serious bruising of his career, the first stumble downwards in what had been a steady upward trajectory. And it came at the hands of John Madejski, the chairman who had known him since he was a teenager.
"I was at a club I loved, working for people I wanted to do well for, trying to implement things I knew would take time, and I felt I would be given that time. The season hadn't been great, but we were picking up." On 15 December 2009 Rodgers enjoyed himself at the club Christmas party. The next day he was asked to see Madejski at the stadium, without the slightest idea that he was about to be fired.
"But I knew as soon as I walked in. He's a good man, and I know it wasn't easy for him, but it was a lonely drive home. Then, in early February last year, my mother passed away suddenly. She was only 53, a sudden heart attack. I used to speak to her every day, so with losing her, and no football, there were two massive voids in my life. It took a few months and a lot of self-evaluation before I thought about finding another club. I like to win in a certain style, I like my teams to control and dominate games, so I knew it couldn't be any club."
Swansea seemed like a good fit, and on being appointed last summer Rodgers promptly moved his family from Reading, where he had lived since moving from Northern Ireland. South Wales reminds him of home, he says. "It's very working-class, and the people are fantastic. I say to every player I bring here, the likes of Scotty Sinclair, 'don't just come for the football, come and enjoy the life down here'."
It could yet be, of course, that South Wales has a pair of Premier League clubs next season. Does he relish the idea, or has he bought into the fans' notion that nothing except fire and brimstone is to be wished upon Cardiff City? He smiles. "I understand that mentality. A lot of people think Wales finishes at Cardiff. They've put a multi-billion pound investment into the train track from London, and cut it off at Cardiff. But the Premier League will be a better place if it has two Welsh teams, with all that passionate support."
His chances of guiding Swansea to promotion, he adds, have been substantially improved by what happened at Reading. "It made me a better manager, better in every way, and not only for myself but for others. Now, when other managers are removed from their jobs, I'm straight onto them, because you understand what that loneliness is like. I'll never forget what Neil Warnock said to me early on in the season. He shook my hand, and said 'it's brilliant you're back, you can be a top manager, but now you've got to bloody stay in'. That's right. I've been outside looking in, and my aim now is to stay in. Of course I have my goals. I've had a smell of the Champions League with Chelsea, and I want to manage at that level. But I'm looking no further than Swansea as a place to achieve my ambitions."
He might need a slightly bigger office.