Tommy Martin: But for all his mystic hocus pocus, Brendan Rodgers has substance

While the strange landscape of Covid football has led many to stumble, Brendan Rodgers and his team appear sure-footed and confident
Tommy Martin: But for all his mystic hocus pocus, Brendan Rodgers has substance

Brendan Rodgers: An ideal protagonist for the current, unsettling times, says Tommy Martin

You’ll have heard that Hallowe’en is cancelled, or at least the part where children dress up as serial killers and stalk old people’s houses in search of Haribos.

Alas, Trick or Treating involves too many touch-points and close contacts, Covid-19 not being considered an appropriately fun cause of death, unlike axe-murdering, Zombie apocalypses, and morbid obesity.

That hasn’t stopped the retail industry from already turning its marketing artillery towards all that is ghoulish and ghastly, the supermarkets having colluded with our children to ensure that they will still get the same amount of sugary junk, just without having to subject the neighbourhood to a night of tedious doorbell-answering.

It’s not just talk of Hallowe’en that has contributed to the sense of all not being as it should be, of supernatural weirdness afoot. Something strange is going on, even before the time of year when your mild-mannered neighbour decorates his front garden with fake corpses (at least I think they’re fake…).

I refer, of course, to the early weeks of the Premier League season. The wind blows eerily through abandoned stadiums, interrupted only by the howls of terrified goalkeepers as defenders stumble into each other as if impersonating the armies of the undead.

Goals fly in hither and thither, like vampire bats in the dead of night. Suddenly a hand reaches up from the beyond, its silhouette unnatural of silhouette. Penalty, a man in black declares! The shrieks grow louder…

Fair is foul and foul is fair, as Macbeth’s witches exclaimed. A Pep Guardiola team concedes five goals for the first time, Manchester United’s defence cost £200 million but can’t find the back post and for once the players that Everton have signed are actually quite good.

Elsewhere, whatever magical potion Wolves and Sheffield United imbibed last season appears to be wearing off. Every Chelsea defender has acquired an invisibility cloak. Patrick Bamford cuts a swathe through the top flight, like the raffish hero from a Jane Austen novel returned from the Napoleonic Wars and bent on the deflowerment of swooning debutantes.

Granted, at Anfield a sense of normality persists, but only because they are already managed by their own Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Jurgen Klopp, outwardly kindly and jovial, is often overcome by dark and violent impulses, as evidenced by the bloodthirsty attack on Roy Keane earlier this week.

But what’s this? As much else is skew-whiff and topsy-turvy, who sits atop the table but Leicester City? While the strange landscape of Covid football has led many to stumble, Brendan Rodgers and his team appear sure-footed and confident.

Others have blamed the lack of a proper pre-season, the distractions of the international break and a helter-skelter fixture schedule for their uneven form. At the King Power, however, they have clicked seamlessly back into the fluid, crafty football that saw them in the Champions League places for most of last season, until injuries intervened.

It’s almost as if Leicester exist only to haunt their more celebrated opponents when they are at their most vulnerable.

Back in the 2015-16 season the Foxes thrived in similar turbulence. Jose Mourinho was torching his championship-winning Chelsea team, Manchester City were in a pre-Pep holding pattern, Manchester United had slowed to a torpid shuffle under Louis Van Gaal, Arsenal were deep into the rancorous long goodbye to Arsene Wenger and Liverpool in the very early days under Klopp.

The defining image of that Leicester team was of Jamie Vardy running in behind unsuspecting opposition defences, whose imminent demise, like in all good horror movies, seemed obvious to everyone but the victims themselves.

Vardy, a lurking, menacing Nosferatu, all sharp of teeth and claw, continues to roam. But this team are very different. This is the sequel in the franchise: Leicester City 2: The Brendaning.

Rodgers makes an ideal protagonist for the current, unsettling times: a smooth-talking aesthete who leaves you with the sense that all may not be as it seems, as if we have stumbled upon him in a Transylvanian castle one stormy night. His words are beguiling but there is inescapable feeling of artifice.

Like many coaches who didn’t play at a high level, Rodgers had to concoct his own aura to get ahead. He has played Dr Frankenstein to his own career and crafted his creation in the image of the fancy foreign super-coach. Slick of suit, bronzed of skin, sophisticated of tactics, he even uses the preferred idioms of super-coach speech, like the way he often refers to his team being “in a good moment.”

Suspicion of Rodgers’ self-promotion is well-grounded. His spells at Liverpool and Celtic foundered when his messianic message was replaced by a tendency to speak in forked tongue on transfers which maddened his superiors. Celtic fans still recoil at the mention of the ‘lifelong fan’ who abandoned the club with a league title in the balance.

But for all his mystic hocus pocus, there has been copious on-field substance. His Swansea, Liverpool and Celtic teams all played genuinely exciting football and left their supporters with exhilarating memories once the hot air had lifted. He raised the off-field bar too, pushing for training ground enhancements and leaving a progressive culture when he left.

Leicester feels the right place for Rodgers now. Without the history and mass fanbase that inspired some of his more florid waffle at Liverpool and Celtic, the focus is on the football. They have long had one of the smartest transfer policies around: sell high and buy low, targeting quick, technical, tactically-astute players.

There’s a new £100 million training ground on the way in which Rodgers can cast his spells, all watched over by committed, benevolent owners.

Rodgers still lapses into the occasional post-match hymn of self-praise, something that can irk players over time. But with home games with West Ham and Aston Villa next, followed by Arsenal away and then a meeting with Leeds on October 31, Leicester might still be spooking their big name rivals come Hallowe’en night.

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