IF YOU believe the tea leaves, Steven Gerrard is destined to become Liverpool’s next manager, replacing Jürgen Klopp when the charismatic German decides to move back to continental Europe. The immediate test, though, will be Aston Villa and whether Gerrard can achieve success in the career-defining Premier League. His appointment at Villa Park will surely be scrutinised by his old pals at Anfield but one thing is certain, Liverpool won’t take a chance on an unfinished item – those days are gone.
Nobody should disrespect Rangers or Villa, though, and dismiss them as stepping stone clubs, for they’re both huge footballing institutions. Gerrard’s first managerial appointment was ultimately successful at one of the top 20 clubs in Britain, but he doesn’t do things alone, he was – and will be – well supported by his coaching staff and other key individuals.
Admittedly, Scottish domestic football is at a relative low ebb, but his record – 26 defeats in 193 games, a win rate of 65% – deserves the plaudits. Taking Rangers to the league title in 2021 was no mean feat, especially as they went through the campaign unbeaten with 92 goals and 102 points. Celtic may have come to the end of a nine-year cycle, but it’s hard not to be impressed.
Given Gerrard’s position in modern football folklore, it was inevitable that after winning silverware with Rangers he would be linked with every job that became vacant in the Premier League. With timing and availability in mind, that might explain why he left Rangers in mid-season, never a well-received decision, but it may have been a question of being the right fit at the right time.
Success at Villa will not look like success at Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal, and there was no way he would land a role so early at one of the elite clubs. He may have looked at how Frank Lampard fared at Chelsea as a warning sign. Villa are a top name, one with the undoubted potential to achieve, but they are, at the moment, from the second tranche of Premier clubs.
There’s also the big gulf between the Scottish and English top level football to consider. The Premier League is, rightly or wrongly, in a different universe and the days of England’s top sides being sprinkled with the top Scottish talent are long gone. British football needs a strong Scottish league and if English clubs are ever going to be weaned off filling their teams with overseas players, the overall strength of United Kingdom FC has to be improved. Of the current Rangers squad, only eight are Scots and there are no less than 13 nationalities represented.
It would be naïve to believe the difference isn’t substantial. Rangers and Celtic may be mighty clubs, but their local landscape is relatively weak and financially, they are way behind Europe’s big clubs. European football isn’t just about clubs nurturing a group of players with a top coach and creating a unique situation (a la Jock Stein, Don Revie, Brian Clough), it is sporting commerce, and Scottish clubs represent a relatively small nation with limited resources. The story of clubs like Celtic and Rangers, not to mention a lot of old names from industrial age English football, has been built on chapters long since yellowed – just ask Newcastle United.
There was a time when Scottish clubs could reasonably compete with their English neighbours. In those far-off days, romantics would look at the possibility of a British league or even the transplant of Celtic and Rangers into the Football League. The assumption was, at the time, the Glasgow twins would flourish, thanks to their massive support, heritage and stately home stadiums. Indeed, in 1969-70, Leeds United, arguably the best time of their time, were beaten twice by Jock Stein’s Celtic in the semi-final of the European Cup. Stein’s team was a sublime outfit and there was no disgrace in being second best to them, but generally, English clubs were considered to be much stronger. In 1992-93, Rangers repeated the trick against Leeds in the Champions League. Today, even the likes of Celtic and Rangers would be challenged to trouble the Premier sides.
Gerrard moving to Villa is arguably an acknowledgement he doesn’t see the Scottish Premiership as the true measure of his skill as a manager. It could be a very intelligent choice on his part as he will not have the advantages he had at Ibrox and he will be tested. But if it goes wrong, the Anfield dream could be over, or at the very least, delayed.
But is this really a prelude to a move to Anfield? Liverpool will bear in mind there are pitfalls in appointing old boys. Gerrard is a grandson of the Boot Room culture, one of Liverpool’s own in a number of ways. But being a scouser is not a qualification to become a Liverpool legend anymore, just ask Dalglish, Rush, Mané, Salah and Henderson. The moment he left the club, fans were talking about “the return”. They should be careful, though, quite often those heaven-made marriages are a let-down.
In the meantime, Gerrard has to prove himself all over again with Aston Villa – he might like to call his old England team-mate John Terry for some advice (!). The first phase of his managerial career is over and he passed with flying colours. He has left Rangers with a sound team and they are already four points ahead of Celtic, although their Europa League record is a little disappointing.
Rangers fans will be upset he’s left them in mid-season, especially as he recently told the media he was happy and settled at the club, but Gerrard should not grieve too much about that, Rangers would not have hesitated to dispense with his services mid-stream if it suited them. Besides, Rangers are a huge club, they will not have trouble attracting a worthy successor, but equally important is how they take the next step in their evolution. The same really applies to their former boss.