It feels as if Brendan Rodgers can’t escape a Liverpool echo in this Champions League. The Celtic manager will find his team pitted against Manchester City’s rejuvenated Raheem Sterling, whom Rodgers nurtured in his three-year spell at Anfield. The then teenager was one of two totemic players from Rodgers’ time on Merseyside that was brought to an end by the owners a year ago next week. The other was “beautiful man” Luis Suarez, who helped dish out an ugly defeat to Celtic in the Nou Camp a fortnight ago.
In typically engaging and expansive fashion, the Irishman revealed the affection he holds for a winger who struggled with life away from Rodgers when he moved to City for £49 million last summer. That his career trajectory is once more exponential is reflected by the fact that current Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said this week that the fee his club received for the player was between £25m and £30m short.
These figures boggle but they must also betray to Rodgers how he has gone from operating in football’s equivalent of Hollywood to carefully pulling together the finances for a quirky independent film company.
City was a club that Rodgers held talks about joining as No 2 to a then struggling Roberto Mancini when he was out of work after his short-lived spell at Reading in 2010. He is an “admirer of the work and plan” of the “people there” doing the bidding of the Abu Dhabi United Group. Yet, it would be understandable if he was also envious.
It was put to Rodgers the other day that little summed up the financial disparities between the opposing sides at Celtic Park on Wednesday more than the fact his Sterling at Celtic is effectively former City wide man Scott Sinclair. A man signed for £3.5m in the summer. The comparison gave way to one of the few occasions that Rodgers has expressed any sort of frustrations at having dropped right down the divisions in football’s monetary league.
“We are where we are with a net spend of about £2m-odd since we have come in, so yes Scott is an example of that. It is where the game is at,” the 43-year-old said.
“Raheem at the stage when Manchester City bought him was one of the top talents in the world for me. It might have seemed over the top at the time the money but he really is that. I think people are now starting to see what he was a few years ago.
“You can’t compare the money and the financial clout. It is in a different stratosphere really but we have to find a way to compete. I think nearly 16 years ago Celtic were paying £6 million [for a player] so you can’t regress.”
Er, yes you can, would demur Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell and largest shareholder Dermot Desmond – the club unlikely ever again to sanction something similar to the 12-month £18m net transfer spend that greeted the arrival of Martin O’Neill. “Ha ha,” Rodgers grinned. “There are factors within it but we have to try and find ways to not regress.”
Not so very long ago, English media, typically with their knives sharpened, perceived Sterling as a spoiled-brat of a young talent, and were finding all manner of ways to take glee, it seemed, in the regression of the winger at City. As much as any individual, he appears to have revelled in the pushing, pressing, pacy approach instilled by Pep Guardiola. Rodgers never lost faith, or contact with the youngster, despite the messy nature of his departure from Liverpool.
“He is back to where he was at with me,” Rodgers said. “I am not saying that in any other way than his level. He’s drifted for the last wee bit of time since he left Liverpool. He’s back now playing as the player that he is. You can see he’s being coached and he’s playing to what his strengths are. When I saw him last season, I sent him messages on it and what not; it’s just making sure he plays to what he is.
“I sent him a message at the start of this season as well about getting back: ‘Don’t forget who you are, don’t try to be something that you’re not. You’re a dynamic player’. He’s a one v one winger that works from the outside in. He’s dynamic. He’s fast. He’s aggressive in one v one. He can play on the sides, he can play as a No.10 but he needs to be clear in the role but very clearly you now see him in a position and with a focus where the game is simple, he’s a top young player.”
Kenny Dalglish gave Sterling his Liverpool debut at the age of 17-and-a-third in March 2012 – two months before Rodgers took charge. The Irishman then looked to guide the winger without holding him back. “When we put him in we had to rely on the coaching environment to get the maximum out of players. For two years he was up there with the best young players in the world. He was sensational in every aspect.
“We played him in different positions – left side, right side, No.10. We played him through the middle. He was brilliant and what people don’t realise is that he’s a real good boy as well. This kid gets a lot of stick when he travels around the country but he’s one of the nicest you’ll ever come across.
“He loves football, rarely misses training, wants to be a winner, wants to improve and made a step up as a kid out of London to come up to Liverpool. He gave his all for Liverpool and he got a £49m move. Then he sort of drifted really and maybe lost his identity of what he was as a player.
“When you go into a club with all those superstars who surround him, it’s difficult as young guy. He’s only 21 – 22 in December – so he was a very, very young boy and all he needed was a bit of coaching time and direction and then you see the benefits of it.
“We had a really close relationship. A lot of things said when he left were naughty really. Here were things being instigated trying to get him to move. Lots of things that were not right and the final straw was that he had fallen out with the manager but that was never the case.
“The kid had been round at my house having a meal or playing with his daughter and my family, you know? There were people trying to create the move. The kid is a good boy, a really coachable boy, wonderful young man. Difficult for him towards the end at Liverpool, but I’m so happy for him that he’s now back working and doing really well.”