Brendan Rodgers, manager of Liverpool FC, rustles around his office after the most recent defeat. A 4-1 drubbing by in-form Arsenal has the gaffer feeling lost, without hope or will to go on. He battles this sort of self-pity by busying his mind with other things. By keeping the pain inside, no one else has to know he’s troubled by the loss.
Instead, Brendan looks for his Carmex. “I know I’ve left it ‘round here somewhere.” His chap stick is typically what he searches for when he feels down, knowing full well he’ll never find it. He’s never purchased any, but always needs it.
Just then, a knock at the door.
Brendan was a bit taken back. He’d thought all the players had gone home by now, having dropped their kits off at Melwood and left with their belongings. He typically stayed behind to feel the leather of his office chair against his bare back, thinking he’d finally made it. He’d take his shirt off and lay all the way back, arms behind his head and feet propped on the desk. Breathing in the smell of success and ‘making it’ was what he called it.
Thankfully, that step in the grieving process came after the Carmex-searching and denture-filing, so he was clothed for his visitor. “Yes? Come on in, then.”
The knob turned, and the door slowly creaked open. Brendan was expecting Jordan Henderson, his to-be captain that enjoyed talking tactics. Perhaps Enrique wants a picture together, Brendan thought to himself in the brief moments before his guest was visible.
But it was neither.
Instead, the tall, broad-shouldered Mario Balotelli walked through the doorway, staring directly at Brendan.
The gaffer held his gaze to give the pretense of confidence, but his sigh of discontent was audible. What’s this lad want now, he mused, annoyed that his sole visitor would be his least favorite on the squad. “Ah, Mario. Right then, what’s wrong?”
The Italian held his stare for a few moments before making his move towards the chairs. Mario walked slowly, as if trying not to spook Rodgers with any sudden movements. Never once did their eyes tear away from each other’s.
As he sat, Mario took a deep breath and looked down at his knees. Is this it? Brendan could hardly believe his eyes. Here sat Mario Balotelli, right in his office, ready to quit the team. He knew that must have been what was happening. Has my plan really worked?
When Mario finally lifted his head, his glare had turned softer. Confusion and hurt took anger’s place on his face. “Brendan, why do the papers say I’m injured? I never have any injury this time recently.”
With a small sigh, Brendan knew this conversation was going to come at some point. Mario Balotelli, personality extraordinaire, pulls himself out of a matchday squad due to slight injury? Preposterous, Brendan said to himself, letting out a small chuckle involuntarily. He knew there would be little doubt why the Italian was left out. He was just glad this was a private conversation rather than a media debacle.
He faced his forward. Or, rather, a forward that happened to be in the squad. Brendan had never claimed the man as his. “It was…necessary. I needed to get some other players on the pitch, and you weren’t one of them.”
Mario’s eyes widened with a mixture of anger and disbelief. “But why? You have two right-backs on bench today, and you use neither!” His last words were spoken with a raised voice.
“I planned to, but the situation didn’t arise. Javi isn’t ready, and Johnson—“ Brendan was cut off this time.
“No! You have Fabio on the bench, but no Mario. Young Brannagan, but no Mario! Why no Mario?” His eyes were starting to water, surprising Brendan immensely.
The manager looked at his player with sternness, looking to end the conversation as quickly as he could. “Listen, son. There’s just not a fit here for you. You don’t fit in my squad, you don’t partner well with Danny, you—“
“This was my last chance. Only chance.”
The Italian’s head dropped, but Brendan noticed his lower lip quiver just before. The striker’s eyes were directed at his knees, head hung in defeat. Brendan was speechless for a moment before he tried to regain his composure. This is not going as expected.
“Mario,” Brendan began. But he didn’t know how to finish his sentence. What does he mean last chance? “Mario,” he repeated, softer this time.
With a violent shake, Mario screamed. Brendan jumped, clearly not expecting the noise. He remained silent.
Mario’s head snapped up, the corners of his mouth turned down in a pained grimace. His teeth were bared, top grinding against bottom. There was a line of tears streaked down each side of his face. “I’m sorry for start of the season. I’m sorry for no goals. But Mario is scoring now, and all I needed was a chance.” Another shake, with a tremble in his arms. He was gripping the chair’s hand rests with enough energy to bend the metal, it seemed. “And now, chance is gone!” Spit and tears fell onto the floor and Brendan’s desk. Mario had burst with such force that Brendan recoiled from the sound alone.
Until that moment, Brendan had been unaware of Mario’s troubles. He knew when the club had signed him that it could possibly be the player’s “last stop” before he was virtually unsellable. Brendan’s disappointment with Mario’s play at the beginning of the season seemed to have intertwined with his recent brilliance. He thought back momentarily to the penalty at Besiktas, the winner against Tottenham. The striker had begun to emerge from his goalless shell, and yet Brendan had a point to prove. He was not my signing.
Only then did Brendan understand. As Mario’s tear-stained face steadied, holding firm with Rodgers, the lightbulb flicked on.
This wasn’t a case of simple mismanagement.
This wasn’t about playing time, or reputation.
Brendan hadn’t just kept a player out of his lineup.
Brendan had ruined Mario’s career.
Finished, over, the striker was now untouchable. And Brendan looked like a fool for it. The man that tamed Luis Suarez, nurtured Jordan Henderson, and developed Phillipe Coutinho had done so wrong against another player, another person, that no one would want Mario in their side. At 24, the boy was practically done.
Brendan stammered, trying to find something to say. An apology, but none was strong enough. An explanation? Even he knew there hardly was one. “Mario, I…” Again, he fell short of words.
The tears had stopped. Mario closed his eyes and breathed deep before looking at his manager, man to man, one last time. “There is nothing left to say.” Holding his manager’s gaze for another brief moment, Mario stood from his chair and left the room. He didn’t slam the door, stamp violently, or cause any sort of scene. The Mario of Manchester City or A.C. Milan might have done something to that effect. But Brendan’s Mario was broken, defeated.
The manager, now alone in his office, dropped his head idly. A random space on his desk calendar occupied his vision, dead to what he was actually looking at. Brendan was playing the conversation over and over in his head, as many times as he could. Not because he was sad, or angry, or scared.
Because it would be the last meaningful conversation he’d ever have with Mario Balotelli.