Only Leicester's Brendan Rodgers Can Derail the Pep Express
Dreams: we all have them; the hopes, ambitions, delusions and fantasies that guide our lives along paths that at times can seem effortlessly pre-ordained, at others unreasonably dark and arduous. Most dreams, especially our wildest and most deeply desired ones, die; they die and they never come back, like a party balloon slipping the grasp of a child and floating away over the rooftops to wherever it is that all of those lost balloons, like our dreams, go to die.
There could never be enough room on Earth to bury all the dreams that we have allowed to wither to naught. However, in the late 1960s, a Viennese philosopher named Tobias Krankl, inspired by Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith” concept, theorised that somewhere beyond the physical plane there must exist a kind of astral cemetery full of the versions of us that were never able to manifest themselves. The impulses and vanities that have held sway over the last 100 years or so of pop culture would dictate that, if we were to visit today, we would find Krankl’s cemetery chock full of thwarted rock idols, unelected politicians, hot-dog eating competition losers and models who’ve been waiting decades for a call back. We would discover frustrated bedroom rave DJs, beauty school drop-outs, erstwhile wannabe train drivers, loads of those fat-arsed lads from Essex who grew up wanting to be cocaine lords but ended up "in recruitment” and mass graves piled high with the innumerable dreamers who once longed to be Fred Durst’s teenage wife – all, mercifully, at rest.
But sometimes, while our dreams don’t get to live, they don’t necessarily die, either; they are simply delayed or distracted, set aside in dream purgatory until the time is right for them to emerge again. Sometimes dreams live on inside other dreams, like a champagne bubble trapped in a bricklayer’s spirit level.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, after eight and a half long months, the Premier League dreams of the two remaining challengers have come to reside in the hands of one man. Hands that are Piz Buin font orange and gravlax smooth. Hands wreathed in boutique moisturiser and traces of the kind of aftershave a teenage millionaire wears to prom. These hands had their own dream once, of delivering unto a rabid and adoring fanbase the kind of glory many of them had only ever experienced through historical newsreel footage, gleaned from tribal elders, visited in fantasies of their own. And now those hands are back, back, back, rubbing themselves into a frenzy at the thought of deferred vengeance and a ceremonial invite aboard the victory bus. Shut down the floodlights. The teeth will take it from here. Wake up, Brendan; the cameras are rolling again.
After the latest set of midweek games, all that’s left standing between Manchester City and a second successive league win is Brighton and Hove Albion, Burnley and Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City.
Of all these opponents, it’s the former Liverpool manager’s side who surely have the best chance of derailing Pep Guardiola’s title train. The meeting between the two clubs – set to take place in the penultimate round of fixtures on Monday the 6th of May – already looked suspiciously portentous when Rodgers returned to the Premier League back in late February. Two months on, and with the chances of Liverpool breaking their 29-year hoodoo rapidly receding, it looks absolutely pivotal, almost too well set up for Rodgers, a triumph of cosmic and karmic scripting.
It’s been five years since the phrase “We don’t let this slip” entered the English footballing lexicon, part of a fervent rallying cry issued by Steven Gerrard after the Liverpool side he captained beat Man City 3-2 at Anfield, pulling seven points clear of their opponents and two beyond second-placed Chelsea in the process. It was mid-April in 2014 and Liverpool only had four matches left to play. City had two games in hand but all that Rodgers and his exhilarating, cavalier charges had to do was win all four, and Liverpool would be champions for the first time since 1991.
Two weeks later, those words came back to haunt Gerrard and Liverpool in the crudest and most brutally direct way imaginable; Gerrard physically slipping over on the Anfield turf to allow Demba Ba through to score the first goal of two in a Chelsea victory that announced the start of a fatal Scouse wobble. The defeat was followed by a maniacal collapse away at Crystal Palace, when Liverpool – 3-0 up but still streaming forward in an attempt to win 9-0 and so bridge the goal difference gap to City – conceded three times in the last 11 minutes. They drew, Luis Suárez wept in front of the Sky cameras and the title was basically gone. But it’s that slip at Anfield exactly five years ago tomorrow that has loitered longest in the collective memory, a rare sight of destiny caught red-handed with a big, blunt, blood-stained instrument, of fate at its most thuggish.
The ace faces of that Liverpool era have parted ways in the years since, some for better, some for worse. Gerrard left at the end of the following season for America before going into management. Suárez is now Barcelona’s fifth highest goalscorer of all time. Raheem Sterling, whose wild-eyed teenage mush was part of Gerrard’s emotional on-pitch huddle back in spring 2014, switched allegiances and has found another gear at City, their best and most charismatic attacking force this season. Daniel Sturridge is still at Anfield, forlornly doing the robot somewhere out back. Rodgers’ Liverpool career never really recovered; he left 18 mostly haunted months later before eventually pitching up at Celtic to lick his wounds and recuperate in the Scottish backwaters.
But just as fate intervened to thwart Brendan half a decade ago, so it returns now to offer a shot at redemption. Rodgers’ dream of winning the league for Liverpool has reanimated itself and lives on now within Jurgen Klopp’s relentless title push, the champagne bubble begging to be smashed free at last from its spirit level prison, a tombstone rolling back in Krankl’s cemetery. This is his chance to finally play a part in delivering Liverpool fans the glory he came so close to giving them five years ago.
He has, it’s worth remembering, always been a man who’s seemed urgently preoccupied with grabbing a share of that glory for himself. Of all the British managers who’ve found themselves operating at the game’s top level over the last ten years, it’s Brendan who’s been Mr Showbiz, Mr Star Wattage, the cruise ship singer with the Buddy Holly teeth and the Hollywood quotes and the Hollyoaks personal life, the man with the tan and the talent to smash through the glass ceiling that home-grown bosses seem always, these days, to eventually butt up against.
There is destiny here for Leicester, too, the team responsible for the most famous act of regicide in English football history asked to turn kingmakers. The title race isn’t all they can affect, either; their other remaining fixtures are against Arsenal this Sunday and Chelsea on the season’s final day. Their performances will go a long way to deciding the Champions League spots and which of the Big Six end up happy come the 12th of May.
But it’s their manager and his chance to change the flight of the ultimate prize that is the real narrative draw in all of this, and if you think this scenario wasn’t lurking somewhere in his mind when he decided to return to the Premier League in February, you should probably reacquaint yourself with the manner in which he left Celtic. On course to pull off an unprecedented heist with the Scottish champions, Rodgers set his alarm early and snuck off before anyone had the chance to stop him, a man who always believed deep down he was meant for better things leaving behind a dust cloud of anger and betrayal as he chose life and headed for the brighter lights down south, crossing a bridge over a river in an English city with a sports bag full of dirty money and the crashing chords of “Born Slippy” ringing in his ears, devilish smile working its way across his lips, clearing gutters, getting by, looking ahead, the day you die.