No matter what he does as Aston Villa manager, Steven Gerrard’s post-playing career will ultimately be determined by whether his path brings him back to Liverpool. Football loves the story of a returning hero and nothing is greater than Gerrard when it comes to returning to the club that has blessed him for more than 15 years, but it is a nostalgia trap that will always threaten to catch him.
Saturday sees Gerrard’s first competitive game at Anfield since playing his last game for the club in May 2015, and he’s back after already making his mark in management by winning the Scottish Premier League title with Rangers last season. Many legendary players go into management with huge expectations for their exploits on the field, but few are able to live up to the hype; But Gerrard has already proven his qualifications as a winning coach, which is why Villa appointed him last month to replace fired Dean Smith.
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This weekend will be seen by many as a prelude to the day Gerrard occupies the dugout of the house and lives the fairy tale of being the local boy, who became the club’s greatest player before reproducing his heroic performance as coach. It’s happened before at Liverpool: Kenny Dalglish, Gerrard’s biggest rival for the title of best player at Anfield, has gone from player to manager and led the club to three league titles and two FA Cups in his first tenure as coach. If Dalglish can do it, why can’t Gerrard?
In terms of setting him up for a successful career in management, Gerrard has prepared himself better than most. He managed the Liverpool Under-18 team for 18 months, learning the ropes as part of Jurgen Klopp’s coaching suite and then moving to Rangers at the same time as completing his UEFA Pro license, the key qualification to enable him to manage at his best.
His three years at Ibrox taught him about managing at the sharp end, at a huge club that demands success, which he provided by halting Celtic’s attempts to win their tenth consecutive Scottish title. So Gerrard took a step towards the Premier League at Villa after giving himself a solid ground in training.
But what happens next is perhaps the biggest question of his career. Klopp’s contract at Liverpool expires at the end of the 2023-24 season, and given that he said in August 2020 that he would “take a year off and ask myself if I miss football”, the possibility of a managerial position vacant in two and a half years is real. If Gerrard does well at Villa, the clamor for him to succeed Klopp will become inevitable.
But is that fair to him or the team he’s managing? A very big Villa side – European champions in 1982 and seven-time champions England – should be a stepping stone and Gerrard must prove himself in the Premier League without constantly judging whether he can succeed Klopp.
Liverpool owners may dismiss their emotions from the decision and choose a coach of Champions League origin as the only way to go for a specific club through their success in European football, but while Gerrard is in charge it will always be when — not if — he returns at Anfield. It will be the topic of conversation among fans and pundits alike before, during and after the weekend’s game.
Few have succeeded in managing at the club as they became legends as players. Zinedine Zidane won three Champions League titles as coach of Real Madrid, while Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola have become icons at Barcelona. But even Cruyff was sacked by the Camp Nou, despite winning the European Cup for the first time.
Alan Shearer, Kevin Keegan (Newcastle United), Glenn Hoddle (Tottenham Hotspur) and Frank Lampard (Chelsea) had the same esteem as Gerrard, but failed to find success as coaches in their old team, while Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the latest example of Shortening as a coach in the place where he made his name.
Even Dalglish, on his second spell with Liverpool, was sacked when things went wrong, so the sentiment that could push the date long ago has evaporated by the time the ax should fall.
Gerrard may be different. If he succeeds at Villa and becomes the obvious candidate to replace Klopp, it could be Zidane or Guardiola of Liverpool instead of Solskjaer or Shearer. One thing is for sure that talk about his management of Liverpool will not go away, whether he likes it or not.