On the day of his appointment as Celtic manager earlier this year, one of the first congratulatory messages received by Brendan Rodgers came all the way from Los Angeles.
His relationship with Steven Gerrard has endured beyond his own departure from Liverpool and the former Anfield captain’s move to Major League Soccer. It is a bond which was forged on Rodgers’ first day at work on Merseyside in 2012 and one which he still cherishes.
But while the speculation that Celtic could be the next step in Gerrard’s career following his departure from LA Galaxy, which was confirmed this week, has been inevitable, it was given little substance by Rodgers as he addressed it for the first time.
“I would never say anything about what we would be doing business wise anyway but I think there is probably a natural focus on Stevie because he is leaving LA and there is a period now where he can go to another club,” said Rodgers.
“We worked well together in our time at Liverpool and I have already brought players to Celtic that I worked with before, so people see it as a natural progression. But there is nothing in it.”
Gerrard will be 37 in May and Rodgers admits he is uncertain how much longer the former England captain could continue to play at a high level.
“I am not sure because we haven’t worked together for the last two years so I don’t know where he is at physically,” he added.
“But he is brilliant, an incredible man. As a young manager going into Liverpool we worked closely together and for my first two years there he was right up there with the best players in the country. Time moves on and he has gone over to the MLS and then decided to come home now. I am sure he will have a number of options in terms of what he wants to do and it may be that he wants to go down the coaching route.
“I know that he and Kolo [Toure] started their coaching badges when I was there – Kolo has just passed his B licence so he is pretty happy – and I don’t know where Stevie is at in terms of his. It is a route I think he will eventually want to go down but he may decide he wants to play on for another six months or a year, so I am sure he has a bit of thinking to do.”
Rodgers admits the forthcoming January transfer window will have far greater relevance to him as Celtic manager than it ever did during his time in England, given the importance of allowing new players to settle in ahead of the Champions League qualifiers in early July. But it remains doubtful that a player of Gerrard’s age would fit into the model Rodgers is seeking to instil at the Scottish champions.
“I’m trying to build something here that’s based around the team – a dynamic team, an aggressive team,” he said. “So, yeah, we will be looking at some targets for January. I have huge respect for Stevie. We’ve kept in touch. Obviously, with the time difference recently, it’s been a bit less. There have been text messages. He was one of the first ones to send me a message when I got the job at Celtic. Whenever I have a good result here, he sends a message.
“When I went into Liverpool at the age of 39, he came back from his holiday early to welcome me to the club. He knocked on my door and said as the captain of Liverpool he would be 100 per cent behind me. He was 150 per cent behind me, he was incredible in my time there. So I have huge respect for him as a person and for the player he was for me there and throughout his career. He was old school that way. He was brought up in the history of Liverpool, where the manager is the manager. On that first day, he offered his support. He and Jamie Carragher, who were Liverpool guys and always will be, they wanted what was best for the club and the manager. Both of them were brilliant for me. They were icons of not only Liverpool, but the Premier League. They gave me great support and it meant a lot. Stevie was instrumental in what I was trying to do for the identity of the team.”
Rodgers is keenly aware of the pitfalls that can lie in wait in the transfer market, where the capture of a marquee name offers no guarantee of success. His signing of controversial Italian striker Mario Balotelli, who yesterday described his relationship with Rodgers as “a disaster”, was a factor in his ultimate departure from the Anfield club.
“I don’t mind the big personalities,” insisted Rodgers. “But what you are trying to do is field a team that is honest and is going to work. That’s what you are trying to put on the field. I always look at that. Mistakes will be made. I made one mistake [at Liverpool]. I probably made many, but in terms of the dynamic of the group, I made a mistake that cost me, really. So you have to learn from that as a manager. So you are always looking to put a team out that will be honest on the field, that is going to run and work. That is a certain profile of player.”
One obvious reason why Rodgers might see no value in signing Gerrard is the rejuvenated form of Celtic captain Scott Brown in the same position under his management.
“When I came in here, people were talking about Scott not being able to run any more, that he was struggling fitness-wise,” said Rodgers. “I probably sensed it a wee bit from him when I spoke to him in the summer, he maybe felt he was getting towards that. But he has changed little things about his game and his diet.
“Changing a little can change a lot for you, in your mindset. I tend to work closely with players to give them the best opportunity to be the best they can be. Sometimes that’s telling them what they don’t want to hear.
“But if they are prepared to be open, I will always do what is best for them and the club. I’ve always tried to help players that way and if they can take it on board, they will improve. If they don’t, then okay – that’s their choice.”