BRENDAN Rodgers feels that now is the perfect time to “shine a torch” on Scottish football’s ills and has offered to help transform the nation’s football culture in whatever way he can.
At the very moment when Gordon Strachan’s four-year reign as national team manager was being brought to an end, it was somehow fitting that the Celtic manager – upon whose players he increasingly came to rely, at least until things came crashing to earth during that demoralising second half in Slovenia – should be receiving the Ladbrokes Premiership manager of the month award for September.
His native Northern Ireland may have booked a World Cup play-off place, but frustration was the 44-year-old from Carnlough’s dominant emotion as he screamed at the telly on Sunday night.
His next impulse was to gaze above the frustration and negativity over the national team’s ongoing 20-year exile from major finals and resolve to help SFA performance director Malky Mackay make the changes which he feels the men’s game in Scottish football need if we are ever to regain relevance as a major footballing nation.
While Rodgers feels the group of native players which the national team currently has at their disposal is good enough to qualify for Euro 2020, what he is really driving at here is root and branch reform of the coaching culture, to rid Scottish football of what he sees as an identity crisis, even compared to its cousins over the Irish Sea.
This isn’t a problem of genetics, of players not being good enough or of poor facilities. Instead, what this former Chelsea youth coach really rails against is too many coaches in this country advocating a safety-first style of play which sees even the nation’s most talented young ball players resorting to “smashing the ball up the park”.
Perhaps just one expression of this was the Scotland national team abandoning its most effective shape and style of play for years and reverting to two up front while two members of his Celtic side, Callum McGregor and James Forrest, remained on the bench. Scotland consequently surrendered the ball to Slovenia and with it their chance of reaching Russia.
“Now is a great time to look at it, shine a torch on it,” said Rodgers, who left Northern Ireland at the age of 16 and has undergone coaching qualifications in both Scotland and England. “How can we be better? Normally this is how you get great gains. There is a great opportunity now to take the country forward.
“There has been something over a period of time here that is not necessarily Gordon’s problem,” he added. “There is an approach here that needs to change. I touched on it last season when I watched Celtic v Rangers at Under-17s. You had the most talented players smashing the ball up the pitch.
“It comes from coach education which has always been very good here in Scotland. People come from all over the world to get their badges here but it is what you do after that. Is there a way – what is your identity of playing? Is there a clear identity?”
Strachan’s barb about genetics may not have helped his case when it came to keeping his job, but Rodgers is more concerned that Scottish players are technically and tactically short, rather than physically lacking in inches.
“I know where Gordon was coming from with that,” said Rodgers. “But at Swansea I had one player over 6ft 3ins and the rest were 6ft or below, but we were very good technically and tactically, very good in the game. We said we had to make sure we didn’t conceded corners. So you have to find a way but I can understand the frustration of Gordon at the end.
“Who are the best players in the world?” the Northern Irishman added. “[Lionel] Messi, [Luis] Suarez, [Eden] Hazard, [Andres] Iniesta, Neymar, [Marco] Verrati. Verrati’s 5ft 6ins but he’s not in conflict with the ball. He keeps it. Scotland need to find a systematic approach to work in, to play in, so that if there are players missing, the next ones can come in. You need to have a profile and a clear identity – because that’s what it’s going to take, a collective effort.”
Somewhere between the coaching set-up at Largs and the senior game, results become all important. Too important, says Rodgers. It also wouldn’t hurt if chairmen and directors were more patient and forgiving. “It is not about you being in the charge of the Under-13s and Under -14s then going into the pub afterwards and saying you beat a team 2-0,” the Northern Irishman said. “That is not what it is about. Don’t worry about the result, that comes later on. But get them to play without fear. If someone tells you later in your career to smash it up the pitch you can always do that but you can’t have a player coming to you at 13, 14 when you’re trying to play in a certain way then someone says ‘listen we can’t really build from the back because he’s not really comfortable with the ball’. Then you’ve got a problem.
“Listen I don’t want to come up here and people say he’s only been here for 15 odd months but from a position looking in, you’ve got players,” he added. “There are a lot of good players up here, in my short time here I’m really enthused by the level of players because, I can clearly look at them and go how we play, how we work; Mikey Johnston, Tony Ralston will go in there, Mark Hill can come in here, Calvin Miller can come in.
“So it’s not the players that’s the problem. The boy Lewis Morgan at St Mirren is quick, dynamic, can press, can run, can get at people. Stuart Armstrong here, boys that are quick and can play. So you’ve got the players, it’s about how they are coached and how they are asked to play. Get that at international level and have an identity. Northern Ireland lost against Norway but you could clearly see good organisation, what they were trying to do. Bigger countries than Scotland have done it too. Germany had to do it back in the 2000s, define a way of working here that will lead to putting young players in and eventually go on and win the World Cup.
“People will always come up and say there’s not the pitches here, there’s not this and that. No. For me you can teach the kids to develop and play football, from a high, technical level and tactical level and that’s courage of the coaches.
“It is the responsibility of everyone. You have to go to the federation to get your badge but it is what comes after that. Where does the guy who is working at Airdrie get his inspiration from? He does his pro-licence but where is his exposure to elite level? There will be guys at Alloa who are good coaches but it is about the next level.”
After 10 months in post as SFA performance director, a period which has largely been spent wrestling with Project Brave, Mackay now finds himself joint favourite to inherit Strachan’s position. It says something for the dysfunction in Scottish football that these two men have been able to get together only infrequently. “That’s what Malky’s trying to do,” said Rodgers. “I’d always help. I haven’t spoken a lot to him since he’s been up because he’s so busy. It’s being serious about this as well, you can’t play at it. If you’re not going to invest in it as a country, there’s enough evidence over a number of years that we’re not going to be better from what you’ve had in the past.”