Following the appointment of Brendan Rodgers as manager of Liverpool FC, Stephen Kernohan writes ...
IF Brendan Rodgers succeeds in his new job, it is guaranteed he will never walk alone. Not just in Liverpool, but also in his native Carnlough.
Villagers already enthralled with the 39-year-old’s exploits with Swansea City are now bursting with pride since he took on one of the biggest jobs in football.
Some soccer sceptics might question the Glensman’s credentials to succeed a lineage of Anfield legends that began with the late, great Bill Shankly, but ask the folk he grew up with and they have no doubt he is up to the gargantuan task.
On Friday, Brendan Rodgers was confirmed as manager of five-times European champions Liverpool. To underline the scale of the challenge he has taken on, he succeeds Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish, a man who won every honour as a Liverpool player, was a Double-winning manager and who in February managed the club to its first trophy in six years, the League Cup. Yet he was sacked because his players failed to finish in the Premier League’s top four.
Rodgers probably had a job for life at Swansea, having got them into the Premiership for the first time and keeping them there against all the odds last season.
But he knows it counts for little at Anfield, where the famous Kop’s dearest wish is to win the league title for the first time since 1990.
The former assistant to Jose Mourinho will have to live up to his new nickname on the East Coast as the “Special Wan” if he is to fulfil those expectations, but he made the best of starts at his first press conference when he revealed he was steeped in the lore of Anfield at the feet of his late father Malachy and a grand-dad who were both Liverpool supporters.
He has sidestepped any attempt by the media to even mention him in the same sentence as his trophy-winning predecessors Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and of course Dalglish, preferring to concentrate on his own plans to bring back the glory days by playing “offensive, attacking football”.
If ever he needs a break from the unceasing spotlight that is unerringly focused on Anfield, Brendan knows he can always turn to his family and friends in Carnlough. And they know in turn that even Anfield – where heroes are deified rather than merely lauded – will not change their local boy made good.
“The job won’t change him,” said publican John McAuley. “Any time he comes home, he’s the same Brendan,” added the landlord at McAuley’s Hotel who, in common with Brendan Rodgers, sponsors the Carnlough Swifts football team.
“Who would have thought 20 years ago that a young boy from Carnlough would take over from Kenny Dalglish?” asked John, who is already looking forward to Liverpool’s first televised game of the new season.”
“There are a few Liverpool supporters,” he said, musing that there may soon be many more, with plans already being made for a Carnlough contingent to travel to Liverpool to lead the Kop in praise of the new boss.
Brendan’s 18-year-old cousin, Liam Mitchell, told the BBC that as a Liverpool fan he “couldn’t ask for any more”.
He added: “For Brendan to be walking out at Anfield, it’s an absolute dream. The history that Liverpool have, it’s just going to be amazing.”
Hugh McKendry – another Liverpool supporter – has known Brendan Rodgers for about 40 years and counts him as one of his best friends.
Mr McKendry’s 13-year-old son has already had contact with Liverpool and hopes to play for the club in the near future.
“To be honest, it’s unreal to think that Brendan, whose been a best friend of mine all these years and has ran about these streets playing soccer, has now taken over as Liverpool manager,” he said.
Local football coach Shay Hamill, who worked with the young Rodgers at the Northern Ireland Milk Cup in 1987, has maintained contact with him over the years.
“He is a wonderful fella and he deserves all the success he has achieved.
“He was home a few months back and I had a great chat with him about the technical side of the game.
“He was always very focused. Even back in the Milk Cup days, when other young fellas were asking if they could go out or go up the town, Brendan just concentrated on his football.
“Liverpool Football Club is a worldwide brand and for Brendan to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Bill Shankly and Kenny Dalglish is amazing,” added Shay.
Brendan began his playing career with Star United under the tutelage of Arthur McClean, the manager of that Milk Cup team.
Arthur recalled: “He was very dedicated – most of the other boys in the Star team would have been from in and around Ballymena, but Brendan’s father Malachy would bring him up from Carnlough each week.
“He was a good player and he could well have had a very good career in the game, had he not suffered from injury.
“He was confident in his own ability without ever being arrogant – he was a nice lad to work with.
Brendan’s progress as a player in his teenage years was all the more remarkable as all his football was played outside school, as St Patrick’s College in Ballymena did not play football on a competitive level at that time.
“He was a great sporting all-rounder,” recalls St Patrick’s teacher Paul McKee. “He played Gaelic football and hurling and he was an excellent point guard in basketball. He was back at the school a couple of years ago as guest speaker at our prize day and he spoke very fondly about his time at St Patrick’s.
“I have always kept an eye on his career. After I would have watched the English Premier League results on a Saturday, the next one I would look for would have been Reading, Watford or Swansea when he was at those clubs.”