Leicester, manager Rodgers make big statement with FA Cup glory
- In the highly commercialised world of football in the 21st century, stories like Vardy’s are increasingly rare. That is why Leicester’s 1-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup final on Saturday went down well with neutrals and football romantics.
On Saturday, Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy became the first footballer in England to play in all 13 rounds of the FA Cup, in a fairytale career. From playing the preliminary qualifying round with non-league side Stocksbridge Park Steels in 2007 to winning the trophy with Leicester, Vardy’s career has come a long way. Sandwiched between those two events is the Premier League title won with Leicester in 2016.
In the highly commercialised world of football in the 21st century, stories like Vardy’s are increasingly rare. That is why Leicester’s 1-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup final on Saturday—sealed by a long-range stunner in the 63rd minute by midfielder Youri Tielemans—went down well with neutrals and football romantics. Sure, Leicester do have rich owners. But the Foxes’ success has been built over years of work—strong scouting networks, shrewd recruitment, prudent spending, etc—rather than throwing money at their problems.
The victory at Wembley is also a glowing endorsement of manager Brendan Rodgers, 48, so far mocked as the nearly man in English football. The Northern Irishman became the first manager since Alex Ferguson to win both the English and Scottish FA Cup titles. Rodgers had won all seven of a possible seven domestic trophies available to him in his time in charge of Celtic.
His conquests in Glasgow though were viewed with a caveat that Rangers, Celtic’s main rivals, were going through a weak phase. Last season’s poor form towards the end of the season saw Leicester surrender a top four spot on the final day of the campaign, leading to jibes of Rodgers being a “bottler” (choker).
There could be a repeat this season with third-placed Leicester still having work to do to seal their Champions League spot for next season with two games to go. One of them is against Chelsea that will be keen to avenge the Cup defeat.
But winning a major trophy will help dispel doubts about Rodgers’ coaching abilities. It also reaffirms Leicester’s place among the football elite in England. If the 2015-16 Premier League triumph was a one-off Cinderella story, the FA Cup triumph and league performances in the last two seasons are signs that Leicester are here to stay. And Rodgers deserves credit for helping his side hold their own on territory dominated by the so-called “Big 6” clubs—Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea.
It has been a demanding season for most clubs in England’s top tier, especially those in European competitions. Leicester, the only club outside the “Big 6” to play in Europe this season, do not have a squad as large as the elite six. And injuries to key players this season haven’t helped; which is why Rodgers has had to tweak his system even in the season run-in.
Against Chelsea on Saturday, Leicester’s football was unremarkable; it seemed to be aimed at stifling Chelsea’s attack rather than asserting themselves. The strategy worked well—Leicester managed one shot on goal but confined Chelsea to just three. A couple of brilliant saves from Kasper Schmeichel—he emulated father Peter as an FA Cup winner— and an offside call on an 89th minute “own goal” helped.
“The success of this team and club is getting to positions like this and competing,” Rodgers said. “The so-called bigger clubs are expected to win but our success is competing and if we can perform like today, we can go and win. What a day for everyone involved with Leicester!”
Facts speak for themselves. Rodgers took over Swansea (2010-2012) and guided them to the top-flight for the first time in the Premier League era. He improved Liverpool after taking charge in 2012. Rodgers has long been mocked for the late season collapse in 2013-14 that saw Liverpool miss the Premier League title by a whisker after being on the driver’s seat with three games to go; it was the closest the Reds came to the title during their three-decade barren run between 1990 and 2020.
At Liverpool, Raheem Sterling became a regular under Rodgers. He may have bungled a few transfers during his time in Merseyside but he also brought to the club Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, James Milner and Joe Gomez, among others. Rodgers also handed the Liverpool captaincy to Jordan Henderson in 2015 after the departure of Steven Gerrard, a move that was questioned by many then but vindicated in recent years.
He seems to have learnt from his mistakes at Anfield. After the 2-0 loss to Chelsea that derailed Liverpool’s title challenge in 2013-14, Rodgers had infamously claimed that defending with 11 men like Chelsea was an easy job. He was criticised for being inflexible at the time.
At Leicester, Rodgers has shown tactical maturity and pragmatism, as was evident against Chelsea and in many games through this season. He has also been crucial in the development of young players like Harvey Barnes, Wesley Fofana, Hamza Choudhury and James Justin. Since he left Celtic, the Glasgow giants have regressed with bitter rivals Rangers regaining the league this season.
Rodgers is among a breed of coaches who did not have an illustrious playing career. Having begun his coaching career in his 20s, and developed his trade at Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the mid 2000s, he has handled successes and setbacks well over the years. He may perhaps never shake off the ghost of the 2013-14 Liverpool season but his work at Leicester can only help his stature keep growing.