Brendan Rodgers, Steven Gerrard And The Wisdom Of The Next Move

Football is a lot like chess, and not just on the pitch
11:01, 19 Jun 2023

Football is often characterised as a game of chess, but the machinations that take place off the pitch are arguably more like the grand old game than the matches themselves. Managers certainly have to plot their moves carefully with perception colouring their profession even more than it does for players. While a waning star is only ever one wonder-goal away from the back pages, it is easy for even the most successful managers to slope off into the wilderness after taking the wrong job.

Summer is the time you will find the manager market at its most saturated. Recently dismissed coaches jostle with longer-term holdouts to take over a desirable club ahead of the new campaign. The idea of starting a season at your new team is always preferable to a last-minute parachute job when the story of a team’s year is already written. Just ask Sam Allardyce who, despite becoming synonymous with such rescues, found four games far too little time to keep Leeds United in the Premier League.


Managers like Allardyce will never struggle for a next move though. Like Neil Warnock or Roy Hodgson, he is a hard-fought veteran of the game who can be relied upon to revive a flagging side. Hodgson and Warnock proved that this season with their exploits at Crystal Palace and Huddersfield Town respectively. Each man had managed the clubs previously and were called upon with relegation looming to steer them to safety. For these established firefighters, there will always be a way back.

But what of the managers who, without being unfair to our elder statesmen, are a little younger and hold longer-term ambitions? Those who are either looking to establish or reestablish their credentials? A fair few such coaches are seeking work this summer. Some are selecting that work in a more discerning manner than others.

Brendan Rodgers suffered a dreadful season with Leicester City. The Irishman led the Foxes to an FA Cup win, the cusp of Champions League football and a Europa Conference League semi-final during his spell. But the wheels came off last term leading to his sacking and the club’s eventual relegation. Suddenly a manager who had once been linked with Chelsea and Manchester United wasn’t getting the sort of phone calls he was used to.

Step in, Celtic. Rodgers has previous with the Scottish giants, having led them to consecutive domestic trebles between 2016 and 2018. The ex-Liverpool boss also oversaw an unbeaten season to clinch one of those trebles, with his side dubbed ‘Invincibles’. There was bitterness at the way he left, with Celtic diehards feeling him too hasty and uncaring when Premier League interest arrived. But time heals all wounds and it feels like the club and manager need each other, with a deal reportedly close. 

It’s a smart move for both. Celtic have just parted ways with another treble winner, as Ange Postecoglou has joined Tottenham Hotspur. Reinstalling arguably their best recent coach is a great way to clear the slate. But for Rodgers it’s an even better move. Close enough to English football that the power brokers will know what he’s doing. A league and club he has thrived in before. He’s also outside the Premier League and avoids the ignominy of taking a club lower down the table or indeed the pyramid. Say what you will about Scottish football, but Glasgow’s green-and-white clad giants are a big club.


Steven Gerrard is a manager who knows Scottish football well. But his own outlook has changed significantly since he led Rangers to their first Scottish Premiership title in a decade. The one-time Liverpool heir apparent left Ibrox for Villa Park. While at Aston Villa he flattered to deceive, eventually being sacked after winning just two of 12 Premier League games last season. The fact his replacement, Unai Emery, took the Villans into Europe did not help Gerrard’s case.

Even so, the fact he is now reported to be in negotiations over a job in the Saudi Pro League is a surprise. His first half-season at Villa was hardly a disaster while there was no questioning the job he did in Glasgow. But Al Ettifaq is unlikely to be a conducive platform for his rebuild. While the traditional “big four” clubs in Saudi Arabia have been brought under the control of the Public Investment Fund, Al Ettifaq are a far more middling proposition.

What is there to gain in joining a club that has traditionally not done well and that will now be competing against the likes of Al-Ittihad’s Karim Benzema and N’golo Kante or Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo? Saudi Arabia is making concerted efforts to become a footballing stronghold and Gerrard could figure into that, but is it worth testing the waters? The Chinese Super League tried this in the last decade and it was a passing fad that blew up quickly. 

It’ll be a long road back for Gerrard from the Saudi Pro League. Even if he does well, how many high-profile European clubs will take the success seriously? It’ll take time and more than a few icons of the game reaching their Autumn years to turn it into a formidable division. Does Gerrard have time to wait? The winds of change blow quickly where managers are concerned. Spend too long in a lightly regarded league and his chances at bigger jobs could pass him by.


Gerrard’s erstwhile England midfield partner could teach him a thing or two about exercising caution when making your next move. Frank Lampard was sacked by Everton earlier this season after his “great escape” exploits the year before had kept the Toffees in the division. With the magic wearing off and Championship football at Goodison Park looming, he was let go. Few would have had a return to Chelsea on their bingo card at that point, least of all Lampard.

Perhaps that’s why, when the club where he remains record scorer came knocking, he agreed to be their interim head coach until the end of the season. A Stamford Bridge icon, albeit more for what he did as a player rather than his uneven first stint as manager, it was impossible for Lampard to say no. But he really should have done. In a season where the mess at board level had claimed Thomas Tuchel and his ill-fitting replacement Graham Potter, as well as caretaker Bruno Saltor, the former midfielder was sipping from the most poisoned chalice in English football.

What now for Lampard? His record of one win, two draws and nine defeats hasn’t exactly got potential suitors beating the door down. The Everton job in isolation may have just been put down to circumstances. But why put yourself in arguably even more turbulent circumstances? The idea of Lampard walking into a Premier League job now feels faintly laughable and even some Championship clubs may sneer. Sadly, the 44-year-old has become a prime example of what happens when you get that next move wrong.

The itchy feeling of being jobless in football can play tricks. Right now, hundreds of managers are looking to elbow their way back to the front of the queue. Some, like Rodgers, are taking the sorts of jobs that will get them there. Others, like Gerrard, are eyeing up brave gambles that could damage their long-term hireability. Football really is a game of chess, even when you’re not the one playing it. The next move is always crucial.

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