“You traded immortality for mediocrity,” read one devastatingly blunt sign from the Tynecastle away end on a tumultuous Wednesday night in February of this year. “Never a Celt. Always a fraud,” another.
Brendan Rodgers may have won everything on offer to him during his near-three full seasons as Celtic manager, but in one fell swoop, the message here was palpable. His sudden departure to replace Claude Puel at Leicester City had forever lost him the support of the thousands who, in the space of a few days, had turned from his most evangelical admirers to his fiercest adversaries.
Patience is a virtue. With about three months’ worth more of it, Rodgers could have had the best of both worlds. A treble-treble-winner in waiting at Parkhead, the Northern Irishman could have ensured his place alongside the likes of Jock Stein and Willie Maley among the pantheon of truly great Celtic managers by seeing this road out to its triumphant (and, let’s face it, inevitable) end, before parading off gloriously into the Glasgow sunset.
"You traded immortality for mediocrity. Never a Celt. Always a fraud."— BBC Sport Scotland (@BBCSportScot) February 27, 2019
Celtic fans had a strong message for Brendan Rodgers after he left the club to join Leicester City pic.twitter.com/6weLme7L25
This, the green and white party line tells us, would have been understood and accepted all too readily; after all, the best bosses want to test themselves against the best teams which, with all due respect, is not Airdrieonians, Hibernian or even Rangers. But not in February. And certainly not for a club like Leicester, smaller even than Celtic’s reserves in the world according to Chris Sutton, then situated in the no-man’s land of 12th in the Premier League, destined to eternally be the top-flight’s donkey-cart after the Lord Mayor’s show of their 5000 to 1 miracle of 2016.
And yet, nine months on from his appointment at the King Power Stadium, with the slew of snake emojis and death threats from his jilted lovers having finally subsided, Rodgers should rightly feel a sense of vindication now. It would have been easy for Leicester to have appointed an interim boss, or even soldier on with the much-maligned Puel and his methodical, at times slumberous football, until last season’s conclusion. Without Rodgers then, Leicester would still have finished near enough to where they were in May - ninth.
But by the same token, without Rodgers then, Leicester would probably be nowhere near where they are now - second in the table, unbeaten at home, the meanest defence and the second-highest scorers in the league, with no individual having netted more than Jamie Vardy’s 13. Their points tally after 14 games of 32 is three superior to that at the same stage of their title-winning campaign, and equals their haul last term by the time Rodgers arrived double the amount of matches later.
In Rodgers’ transformation of Leicester lies an invaluable lesson for Farhad Moshiri, or Marcel Brands, or Denise Barrett-Baxendale, or Bill Kenwright, or whoever else among the Everton hierarchy will likely soon be faced with the unenviable task of putting Marco Silva out of his misery as the Blues’ manager before recruiting his replacement. Those final ten games under Rodgers’ watch last term, however inconsequential and throwaway they may have seemed to Celtic fans, afforded him time to adequately assess the squad he inherited ahead of the summer transfer window, while re-energizing and imprinting his own fresh approach on a side sleepwalking aimlessly under Puel.
Too often since Moshiri’s arrival at Goodison Park, which will reach its four-year anniversary in February, Everton have felt like a club in stasis, waiting until they can hit the reset button without simultaneously stepping on anyone’s toes, rather than being as proactive and ruthless as Leicester and Rodgers were. Roberto Martínez was sacked with one game of the 2015-16 season, so David Unsworth took temporary charge. Ronald Koeman was expensively recruited to replace Martínez, but did not take his first training session until just six weeks before the first ball of 2016-17 was kicked.
Then Unsworth became interim boss again - this time, for a staggering five weeks - after Koeman was jettisoned in October 2017, before perennial firefighter Sam Allardyce was sent packing the following May having alleviated any fleeting relegation worries. The club seemed to have finally landed on the stability they craved in Silva’s appointment, but now look set to jack that in with Everton again punching well below their weight. Indeed, Sunday’s heartbreaking 2-1 defeat at Leicester left them one place and two points above the drop zone which they will enter if, as is highly plausible, they lose at Liverpool and Southampton beat Norwich on Wednesday.
There will be no second coming of Allardyce, but a similarly short-term, short-sighted and short-changed appointment could conceivably be on the cards if Silva makes his expected departure following defeat at Anfield. David Moyes has been mooted, with Kenwright supposedly keen. So too, albeit in fewer circles, has Mark Hughes. But if Rodgers has proved anything to Everton, not least in his side’s victory over them at the weekend, it’s that appointing a permanent, long-term successor to Silva would buy them an extra six months, rather than sitting on their hands in footballing purgatory until June praying their Premier League status remains intact by then.
Barrett-Baxendale and Kenwright were both at the King Power Stadium on Sunday to witness first-hand the fruits of Rodgers’ labour. For one thing, heads never dropped after Richarlison’s opener, and they came from behind to win a Premier League fixture; the third time in his 24 matches in charge they have done so, whereas Silva’s Everton have never managed this in his 52 games at the Goodison helm. The list of polar opposites between the two sides extends far further than Leicester’s superior mental fortitude, though; defensively sound, clinical in attack and tireless in midfield, there’s almost a choreography about them in just how well-oiled they have become. In many ways, they embody all that Everton want to be and certainly could be with their financial muscle but are entirely not, and have not been for the bulk of Silva’s tenure.
It is impossible to escape the feeling, though, that Rodgers laid the essential ground work for this success as he was only getting his feet under the table. No two clubs are identical, and there could be no guarantee that a similar mantra from Everton would pay dividends quite as much and as quickly as it has at Leicester, but there are evidently worse strategies to try to emulate than this.
Allardyce’s stop-gap appointment at Everton, aside from securing safety at a canter, was an unmitigated disaster. It caused only further aggravation to an already disillusioned fan base who, understandably, are becoming increasingly restless to reap the rewards of Moshiri’s unparalleled riches. However dismal life under Silva has been for Evertonians, to sack him and then make another impetuous, desperate appointment would be a firm smack in the face from a club who, patently, would not have learnt the harsh lessons of that brief yet pitch-dark chapter.
Whoever Everton consider their long-term leader - which seems certain not to be Silva, anyway - they should move heaven and earth to appoint him immediately. Leicester did so with Rodgers, and though they have incurred the wrath of a fair few Glaswegians on the way, both parties are in an altogether better place just nine months on, as they showed Everton on Sunday. That, far more than appointing another placeholder ever will, feels like something to aspire to.