Three steps to heaven: Step two – Stephen Gerrard to Villa Park

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.

Rangers close one gap and create another

RANGERS are enjoying a tremendous start to the 2020-21 season, opening up an 11-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership and pushing well ahead of old-firm rivals Celtic. They have won 13 of their 15 league games and have yielded just three goals, keeping eight clean sheets in a row at Ibrox Park. After a grim period in their history during which Rangers stared into the abyss and have been completely overshadowed by Celtic, the Gers could be on the brink of winning serious silverware once more.

Financially, Rangers are closing the gap on Celtic, largely thanks to a successful UEFA Europa League run in 2019-20. They are going well in this season’s Europa League, so there’s every chance they could reap further rewards from this competition. No wonder the club’s Chairman said in their annual financial report, “we are getting ever closer to success.”

Rangers managed to increase revenues in 2019-20, up 11% to £ 59 million. Their neighbours Celtic’s revenues totalled £ 70 million, so the gap between the two clubs in terms of income has narrowed from £ 32 million to £ 11 million. 

If the pandemic hadn’t closed stadiums to fans, Rangers’ momentum in 2020-21 would have resulted in a further increase in commercial and matchday income, not to mention a rise in supporter passion across Glasgow. 

Revenues from matchdays actually increased in 2020-21 to £ 35.7 million (£ 31.9m 2019) and media also went up from £ 10.9 million to £ 13.5 million. Only the commercial stream went down from £ 10.3 million to £ 9.8 million. Nevertheless, the club made a pre-tax loss of £ 17.8 million, some £ 6.5 million higher than 2018-19. Given the impact of the pandemic (Rangers officials believe the crisis will cost the bigger Scottish clubs around £ 10 million each), the damage could have been worse.

However, Rangers’ operating expenses increased by 17% to £ 76.9 million, attributable to an increase in staff costs of 25% to £ 43 million, including £ 29.7 million for first team wages (+29%).

Although Rangers have admitted it needs in excess of £ 20 million in fresh investment, chairman Douglas Park and director John Bennett have confirmed they will continue to provide loans to cover the club’s shortfalls. At the same time, this suggests Rangers’ finances continue to be fragile, although a title win and subsequent Champions League participation in 2021-22 would provide a greater cushion over the coming seasons.

The club could also do better in player trading. Their profit in 2019-20 was just £ 0.7 million, but they do have a number of players who could make Rangers some serious money in the near future. These include: Croatian defender Borna Barisic, who cost the club £ 2.2 million from Osijek; Glen Kamara, the 25 year-old Finnish midfielder (ex-Dundee £ 50,000); former Liverpool midfielder Ryan Kent, who cost £ 6.5 million; and Colombian striker Alfredo Morelos (£ 1 million from HJK Helsinki). Some fans believe most of these players will be sold next summer to help balance the books at Ibrox.

Kent is one player that fans want to see tied-down ahead of the next transfer window. He first joined the club on loan from Liverpool in 2018, but he’s now a Rangers player and a popular one at that. The club is being urged to renew his personal terms in a bid to keep him happy. He currently earns under £ 20,000 per week but a new contract will arguably make him Rangers’ highest-paid player. At 24, Kent’s time is now, so whether he stays in Glasgow depends on how attractive any potential move will be. Rangers also need to bring down their wage bill, so there’s the dilemma – can they afford to keep Kent?

Rangers’ performances on the pitch can help improve the club’s financial position. Rangers’ statistics this season are really quite phenomenal – a goal difference of plus 38 after 15 games. Rangers haven’t won the Scottish league since 2011 and Celtic are currently on a nine-year run as champions. If Rangers end that sequence, they will avoid equalling their worst-ever run without a title, an 11-year spell between 1964 and 1975. At present, it looks good, but there’s a long way to go. The green side of Glasgow is hoping their experience of winning titles (they have two games in hand) will eventually overcome a Rangers team unaccustomed to being Scottish champions. For once, the battle at the top will not be a foregone conclusion.

Photos: PA Images