Brendan Rodgers lost his job at Liverpool after a couple disastrous months to start the 2015–16 season. Yesterday, the Northern Irish manager announced his return to the Premier League as the new manager of Leicester City. And while more than three years and a couple interim seasons of outrageous managerial success separate the old Rodgers from the new one, it’s not entirely clear if anything has really changed.
Rodgers’s firing at Liverpool, and the seesaw tenure it brought to a halt, left his career in an odd place. He still had a reputation as one of the more promising coaches in Europe, thanks mostly to the shock title race he and Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling almost won before Steven Gerrard’s agonizing slip right as the Reds entered the final stretch. But his rep also lost a lot of its sheen during the dismal campaigns following that near miracle. Overqualified for the midtable Premier League positions he could’ve waltzed into the day after getting fired, and underqualified for the elite jobs like the one he’d just gotten canned from, the limbo in which Rodgers found himself made his next choice of employment fascinating.
Rodgers made the curious decision to flee the EPL and indeed the major European leagues entirely by signing on with Scotland’s Celtic. It was a strange and risky choice, but not one completely devoid of reason. In Scotland Rodgers could in theory build upon his possession-dominant, attack-minded playing philosophy at a club whose player talent wildly exceeded all their domestic competition—something that would be much more difficult to do at, say, a Newcastle—while also piling up trophy after trophy, bolstering his reputation as an actual winner of things. This thinking says it is better preparation for a big job in a big league to take a “big” job in a small league rather than the opposite. It’s risky, seeing as big European clubs could easily disregard a coach’s success in charge of the one club in a one-club nation like Scotland, but it’s not crazy.
Rodgers’s time in Scotland went just about as well as he had hoped. Celtic have absolutely dominated their Scottish competition, and done so with the flair and mastery Rodgers was specifically brought in to impose. In each of Rodgers’s two full seasons in charge, the Bhoys have won the domestic treble, winning the Premiership, the Scottish Cup, and the League Cup. This season Rodgers had the club on track to coast to a treble of trebles, as they are locks to win the league again and have already hoisted this season’s League Cup. Besides not doing much of anything of note in the Champions and Europa Leagues—a legitimate disappointment, since one of the allures of coaching Celtic was the chance to prove himself in European play, but a measured one since Celtic can’t realistically be expected to hang with that exponentially better competition—Rodgers has accomplished almost everything he set out to do when he selected Scotland as the destination for his career rebuild.
But did any of it make a real difference? It’s hard to say. In many ways, the Leicester job Rodgers has just taken looks an awful lot like the kind of job he could’ve gotten straight after getting tossed out at Liverpool. With the Foxes’ proven commitment to investment after their literally unbelievable title win in 2016, Leicester are now in that pack of solidly upper-midtable clubs that should never have to worry about a real relegation scrap but also can only dream about challenging for the European places. The most plausible title Leicester can aspire to win any given season is that of The Best Of The Rest. It’s a great job, to be sure, and in this still nascent era of Premier League megariches conferred to all the league’s clubs via the massive TV rights deal, you could argue that Leicester have what it takes to build a team that talent-wise is even better than most of the ones Rodgers had at his disposal at Liverpool.
But is it really the jump of the sort Rodgers must’ve hoped for when he joined Celtic? And was it worth leaving his fiefdom in Scotland for the sort of job he always could’ve gotten and presumably would’ve still been available to him a year or two down the line? The timing of his Celtic exit makes all of this even stranger. Rodgers was rightfully beloved by much of Celtic’s fan base who recognized he was to an extent slumming it in their league but were happy to have him anyway. The caliber of player Rodgers could attract with his track record of taking young players and improving them, his impressive tactical and strategic acumen, his star power, the trophies all those things guaranteed—all of it made Rodgers an idolized figure in Glasgow, even though everyone was aware he only saw the gig as a stepping stone.
How and when he left will probably eat into some of that goodwill and will likely prevent him from ever being considered a true Celtic legend. Rodgers was on the cusp of the kind of iconic dominance that indelibly stamps a coach’s image onto the club’s collective history forever. The treble treble itself probably would’ve been enough to do it. And had Rodgers stayed on a couple more years after that and managed to maintain his streak of league titles to the 2020–21 season, he could’ve been the man who oversaw Celtic’s 10th consecutive league title, which would be the longest streak in Scottish soccer history. Instead of achieving either of those feats and solidifying himself as the greatest manager in Scottish history, he decided to jump ship midway through this season to take a job at a club whose recent success he will never match.
Rodgers’s explanation for why he left Celtic for Leicester was that he believed he’d “taken the club maybe at Celtic as far as I could at this moment.” The sentiment feels almost right, but in the opposite direction.
Rodgers came to Scotland to win everything in such stunning fashion that his work would catch the eye of the game’s bigger clubs and persuade them that he was ready for another shot at in the big leagues. Rodgers delivered on the winning, but from the the way his name was never bandied about in the rumor mill as a possible option for the recent managerial vacancies at places like Arsenal and Chelsea or even Everton and West Ham, Europe either didn’t notice or didn’t value that work all that highly.
Because of that, Rodgers probably realized he couldn’t make a direct step from Celtic to the elite, and would need yet another intermediary stop before getting himself back in consideration for top jobs. In that case, Rodgers probably figured that when an ambitious and upwardly mobile club like Leicester came calling, it was probably as good a time as any to call it a day in Scotland. But in this case, it’s because Celtic had taken Rodgers as far as they could, and not the other way around.