BY MARK GODFREY
Smiles, hushed tones, eyes that glint rather than pierce; this weekend, perhaps more than any other this season encapsulated the changing face of football management and the success it brings with it.
As Mourinho castigated and Sherwood scowled, the new breed oozed an understated, professorial arrogance; safe in the self-assured manner with which they carry themselves. They will succeed and they will do it their way – with studious hard work and patience. With Guardiola, rather than Ferguson, as their role model, these two Mersey managers are determined to re-align the coaching roadmap in English football.
Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez long impressed with the style of football their teams played at the relative backwaters of Swansea and Wigan but the questions remained whether their methods and temperaments would stand the acid test; taking charge of two of the Premier League’s biggest and most demanding clubs.
Both had big shoes to fill; Kenny Dalglish still towers over Liverpool – just like his eminent predecessors Shankly and Paisley – but was removed from his post after a fraught second spell in the Anfield hot seat. Rodgers’ succession was viewed with trepidation by the Kop faithful, fearful he had neither the experience nor the constitution for such a difficult, high-profile assignment.
Across Stanley Park, Martinez was the man chosen to replace Manchester United’s ‘Chosen One’ David Moyes – the man who had moulded Everton into his own stoic, belligerent image over an 11-year reign that transformed the Blues from perennial strugglers to consistent top six challengers; all on a net spend barely adequate for a Championship club. Evertonians were equally as sceptical about the FA Cup winners’ selection as their new boss as the Kopites had been a year earlier towards their Ulsterman.
Both endured slow starts to their time in charge – Rodgers in particular – but then he had more fires to fight, not least the prickly issue of Luis Suarez. There was also the Andy Carroll saga and untangling the muddle left behind by the previous regime. Once some kind of stability and structure had been adopted, the fruits began to flourish.
Martinez, on the other hand, was gifted a solid base to build on and was fully aware of the financial constraints he would have to operate under. Subtle, stylish tactical tweaks and spectacular transfer market sorties took time to take effect, but once they did, Everton forged ahead with a confidence and swagger so often missing in the Moyes era.
As Rodgers’ second season at Anfield creeps towards its conclusion, the turnaround in fortunes for the Reds has been nothing short of incredible as they joust with the oil-driven superpowers of Chelsea and Manchester City for the Championship crown. Many neutral observers would even have Liverpool as favourites for the title with just six games remaining and their chief rivals still to tip up at the fortress-home of the 18-times winners.
The brand of devil-may-care attacking football employed by Liverpool this season has whiffs of Kevin Keegan’s mid-90’s Newcastle United about it. However, don’t be fooled by the plethora of goals – for and against – this would not do justice to Rodgers’ reinvention and redeployment of ageing skipper Steven Gerrard in a deeper-lying ‘quarterback’ role, allowing the old warrior to use the miles on his clock more effectively.
The fatherly arm around the shoulder and the whispered words of reinforcement have worked wonders on the likes of young England stars Raheem Sterling, John Flanagan Jordan Henderson and perhaps most crucially, Daniel Sturridge. Should Liverpool end their 24-year title drought this year, this nurturing and guidance could, possibly, be more responsible for that than any formation or tactic Rodgers has laid out in his dressing room team talks.
His Spanish counterpart at Goodison has a similar philosophy. Less stick, more carrot. His role is one of an influential school teacher than that of a scolding parent – and how the Everton players, old and new, have responded. Sylvain Distin, Gareth Barry and Steven Naismith have been masterfully reinvigorated while players like Seamus Coleman, John Stones and Ross Barkley have been given licence to develop and shine. Very few, if anybody, would have predicted, that in this transitional season for the Toffees, Champions League qualification was still a live prospect going into April. For that, Martinez must take all the credit, even if his sincere modesty would never allow it.
There is a lot of faith to be put in the adage that every football team is made in its managers’ own image; streetwise Chelsea, dour Manchester United, combative Crystal Palace. The same most definitely applies to both Merseyside clubs. One can only be impressed by the things they say and the way they say them; no hype, no hyperbole, no fuss, no fallacy. Rodgers and Martinez are the real deal spearheading not only the resurgence of two great football clubs, but the revolution of management in English football.