Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has endured a strained relationship ever since taking over the club in the summer with midfielder Stewart Downing, but after the player’s recent confession that he’s been told that he can look elsewhere for a new club in January is simply latest example in a whole line of bundled communicative measures which could prove the last straw in extending his time on Merseyside.
Back in September, the 39-year-old boss challenged both Downing and Jose Enrique to up their game otherwise the exit door loomed large for them at Anfield, explaining: “What is important is that you have good communication. I don’t waste time waiting until January to tell both players what I know now. We will give them everything to help them to be better, but if they don’t want to show that self-motivation – and if they haven’t got that desire and hunger to succeed – then it can be very difficult. Stewart is a good guy but it hasn’t quite worked out for him as he would want it. The big challenge for him now is that commitment to the cause – to fight – because he has the qualities. Talent alone is not enough. You have to work hard; you have to fight for the shirt. I will keep private the discussions Stewart and I have had but he is under no illusion that he has to fight.”
Quite aside from the fact that this wasn’t keeping the conversations between the pair private by any stretch, openly calling out a player in public and slamming him for his past form is a bold move to take as it leaves little wriggle room if things don’t improve, while also souring relations to an alarming extent, creating needless tension for the media to thrive on.
This prompted Downing to, sadly again, publicly lash out at Rodgers’ confrontational style and respond to claims that some of the players were ‘lazy’ during their 3-2 defeat at home to Udinese in the Europa League: “I was obviously upset. I always try to give my best. You’ll have to ask the manager what he meant by his quotes. I would have preferred it obviously if it was private. Bravery is a lot of things, if you want tackling, running around bustling, that obviously is not my game. But bravery is also taking the ball when you are losing a game and creating things, which I try to do. We’ve had a few conversations. You can sit in offices for hours and talk about my game, but the only way I can prove it is out on the field. When I’m given that chance I have to take it. I thought I did OK against Udinese. I’ve three years left on my contract so I’m going nowhere. I will fight.”
All is clearly not well between the pair, and while Rodgers praised Downing’s display and winning goal during the 1-0 win over Anzhi Makhachkala at home in his post-match press conference, his actions in walking onto the pitch and pointing to Downing for the applause of the crowd, while well-intentioned, only served to come across as deeply patronising.
The latest step comes after Downing revealed in a frank interview with Liverpool’s match-day programme before their game against Aston Villa last weekend: “The manager has said I can leave if I want to. But then all of a sudden I’ve come back into the team, it’s a strange situation. I’ve played for a long time and there are spells when you can be in and out of the side. At the minute I’m trying to play as many games as possible. If that doesn’t happen I’m at an age where I can’t be sat around. I need to play and the manager understands that. That’s how the situation is and we’ll have to see what happens in January or the summer.”
Putting aside quite how the club can ever hope to receive any sort of return on their £20m investment on such a clear flop, one who has frequently been played out of position at left-back and is known to have a fractious relationship with his manager, why the club deemed it intelligent to place that in the programme truly beggars belief. The club used to be known as one which kept matters such as this in-house; they were private and sorted between the two parties amicably, but this soap opera is being played out in the public arena and neither side is helping as they air their dirty linen in public.
You can hardly blame Downing for feeling marginalised, after all, he is the club’s fourth-most expensive player ever, yet he has been routinely humiliated and made to feel small by a manager who appears to think that getting right up in someone’s face is the correct approach for every single player, but each player responds differently; some prefer the arm around the shoulder, others being barked orders at.
It’s bizarre to say the least and this whole situation has been created by Rodgers ostracising of Downing in public, leading the player to try and get his own version of events across. You could comfortably attribute blame to both, but the conditions for this situation were first created by the manager back in September.
The 28-year-old has never played to the best of his somewhat limited ability during his time at the club and they would be well within their rights to try and move him on as he’s been granted numerous opportunities to impress. The truth of the matter is that Liverpool grossly overpaid for a one-dimensional winger with very little pace, so his failure should come as no surprise, for he’s been a divisive figure for years and was purchased off the back of his first truly exceptional season at club level which has proven to be the exception rather than the rule.
Despite all of this, though, Rodgers desire to create news where none exists and keep the media in the loop with his brutal honesty has only served to backfire and will surely only weaken the club’s negotiating position when they do come to sell. There’s nothing that has been said in public by either Rodgers or Downing that would not have had the same impact in private and by making this falling-out visible to everyone, while it may be honesty, in this case it has certainly proved not to be the best policy for the reaction it has caused, the tense environment it has created and the needless attention it has attracted.