Steven Gerrard, without hesitation, leans forward and circles back to that “unacceptable” Saturday afternoon in early August; to those 45 minutes that turned his stomach to be “second best all over the park.”
He is selecting his defining moment as Liverpool Under-18s manager, and speeds past the successes of the last five months, pinpointing the 4-2 pre-season defeat to Leicester City as the stimulant behind his league leaders being perched above both Manchester clubs and Everton.
“That was the making of us as a group,” the 37-year-old says in the Lecture Theatre at the Academy’s base in Kirkby, a room in which he usually details his tactical thinking.
“Although we got beat 4-2 - well beat, comfortably beat - it could have been worse. I actually felt I needed that - and the group needed that - to connect and to come together at the start of the season.
“The timing of it was perfect. I think if that didn’t happen and we beat Leicester, that Leicester performance would have happened a couple of weeks later and we wouldn’t be sitting where we are now. The timing was very, very lucky. The players probably think that was one of the worst days we had as a group but for me it was probably the best.
“We had a meeting about 45 minutes to an hour after it to talk about where we were. It was with the players. That was the meeting where we could all open up and say, ‘Look this is where we are, we’ve done pre-season, we are at this level and I want you up here so how are we going to get there?’”
The ‘everyone is responsible for everything’ ideology, as evidenced in the collective action described above, is a core tenet under Jurgen Klopp at Melwood and flows through Gerrard’s reflection of his tenure thus far.
Having initially assumed a floating role at the Academy in February, his own sense of accountability has been heavily amplified since succeeding Neil Critchley at the helm of the U18s. Not unexpectedly so, either, as before returning to Liverpool, the club legend sought Klopp’s counsel on making the switch from a man who defined a generation to one determined to shape the future generation.
The German spelt out that the only way to truly understand, appreciate and feel the full function of management was to have ownership of a team.
“I’m definitely feeling it,” he laughs while recounting the advice. “I’ve aged about two years in six months! He said to me, ‘I only want you to shadow for a short period of time because you need to have a couple of years of making mistakes, of picking your own team, you need to decide tactics, you need to find your philosophy, a way of playing, you need to deal with individual problems, you need to praise individuals, you need to try to help individuals, you need to feel disappointment and set backs and then after a couple of years, you’ll know if this gig is for you’.
“He was painting a real picture of how it really is and you don’t get that when you shadow because someone else feels all that but the last four or five months I’m feeling all the highs and lows, and I’m experiencing all the daily stuff that managers do deal with. Albeit it is at a youth team level but I am learning from it all now.”
Typically self-critical, Gerrard has never been reticent about owning his errors and growing from them. This has fostered a culture of excellence amongst the group, where from the top all the way through, there is no creation of a comfort zone. It partly explains how, beyond being the pacesetters in the division, they have progressed to the knockout phase of the UEFA Youth League as group winners - registering the highest goal difference (15) in that stage of the tournament - and are in the Last 32 of the FA Youth Cup.
“I have learnt loads – I have shouted things I shouldn’t have shouted on, I have said things to officials I shouldn’t have said, I have said things to players I shouldn’t have said,” Gerrard, who has only dealt with defeat once in all competitions this season, admits. “I have made mistakes, I have made loads of them, I made one [in the final game against Wolves before the break], but that is why I am here and you don’t know about them until I tell you because of the job I am doing.
“I have to look at myself and my staff. Did we give out the wrong information or tactics? These players try. Sometimes they get it wrong but they are trying their best. No-one makes mistakes on purpose. The days of trying to kill players, of trying to break them and throwing tea-cups is not something you are looking to do, certainly not with 16 and 17 year-olds.”
On this subject, Gerrard subscribes to a firm rather than ferocious approach with his squad. “My age group is probably the first age group where you have to treat them like young men,” he explains. “They leave school, play football and jump up a level from U16s to U18s and turn full-time.
“Do I roar at someone in front of the whole group and try to belittle them? No I don’t. Am I strong with the team at half-time if they haven’t played well in the first half? Yes. Am I honest with a player in a one-on-one meeting about his game if it has not been good enough, or if there is parts of his game he needs to lift, or his attitude? Yes, I am straight and honest. But I’m not in this to belittle anyone or embarrass anyone.”
“Credit to the lads, they have created an atmosphere and a spirit in the group where they are hard to beat.”
Steven Gerrard paid tribute to his players after they moved top of the U18s Premier League: https://t.co/XPcH47pVMk pic.twitter.com/HMnZabbo3O — Liverpool FC (@LFC) December 20, 2017
Gerrard is also opposed to the notion that the development of players and the desire to win are incompatible elements. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to win,” he powerfully offers. “I’m not one of those Academy people who say it is all about development and results don’t matter. Of course it is about getting players through to the first team, but you’ve got to teach these players about winning, about what you’ve got to do to win and create that attitude and that mentality that surrounds the club.
“The earlier they get those values, the better they are going to be further down the line. You can’t all of a sudden say to a player at 18 years of age: ‘It’s all about winning now, it wasn’t from 7 to 17.’ That will only confuse the player. Of course it is about winning. I’m here to win. We are top of the league and there to be shot at, but of course I want to win it. But if you asked me whether I wanted to win the league or get two players through to the first team I’d say getting the players into the first team. Really, though, I want both.”
Gerrard confesses “a lot” has surprised him about management, but that none of it is “scaring or putting me off.”
On the main difference, he says: “The hours you have to put in – as a player I could switch off because on the day off, when the game was done, I could do things to take my mind off the game. That is very, very difficult as a coach. When you are the manager of the youth team, the day after a game you are thinking: What went well? What didn’t go well? What individuals do I need to work on this week? Who do I need to praise? Who do I need to speak to? Who has been naughty at school?
“So there is a lot more to it than you actually think when you are a player. I have more respect for coaches and managers now even though as a player I always respected the ones that I worked with. But I didn’t realise how much was involved in their roles until I have tried it myself.
“The next couple of years will definitely prepare me for wherever I end up. I know that the further that I go up there is more scrutiny, more attention, more opinions, more criticism, more praise. I get all that.
“But for me it was important to get a taste of it and experience it away from the cameras and away from the spotlight and first and foremost experience all these things before you go into the madness.”
Gerrard divulges he’s had to “hide my emotions at times in front of the players and you have to pretend to your players from time to time. But I don’t want my emotional side to go missing either. I think that’s part of the reason why I became a leader in a team as a captain. I think that’s part of my strength as a coach.
“It is a completely different game managing 25 players, 25 egos,” he adds. “They all want to play, they all want to be the next Coutinho, Firmino, Mane, Salah. And that’s one thing, being a player if you want to go into coaching, you’ve got to realise very, very quickly.”
Liverpool’s former captain has zero proclivity to measure his roster against his career for club and country. “I suppose some players that go into management do expect players to do what they did, but that’s not going to be the case,” he says.
“Everyone’s different. I can’t be expecting players, at this age [of] 16, 17, to do stuff that a Premier League or international player can do. I sort of try and take my playing career out of it and not judge the players like that. I judge the players for what they are and what they’re trying to achieve for their careers. That’s the most important thing, not my career. My career as a player is gone. It’s about me now trying to help, shape and guide them to give them the best chance for their careers. That’s what it’s about. And I think that’s what you’ve got to realise.
“I just don’t think it’s right to be saying: ‘Look what I done and look what what we did. It’s about what’s happening tomorrow, not yesterday.”
And how does the future shape up for the man who first walked through Liverpool’s Academy doors as an eight-year-old in 1987?
“I want to improve and I want to coach at the top level,” Gerrard says. “But I suppose certain experiences in your journey will decide on how long you want to stay in it for. I suppose how successful you are will make them decisions for you.
“For example, I could get a job, a first-team job in this country, and get sacked after four or five games. It might put me off for the rest of my life. I might take my first job and win a league and that might set me up for my next journey of 10 or 20 years. I can’t predict the future. All I can try and do is make myself as prepared as I can to do the best I can in whatever roles I take down the line.
“I want this to be the start of the journey. Nothing is putting me off or scaring me about being available for jobs in the near future. I know I’m not going to be U18s coach for years and years - that’s for sure. I do want to progress, but there’s certainly no time on that progression.
“I’m not itching for the next role already.”
What if the path to advancement is not at Liverpool?
“It will be what’s right for me and what opportunities are out there,” Gerrard responds. “In a year’s time, I might have three opportunities and three of them might not be here. Then it will be time to think.
“I can’t sit here and say to you, ‘Oh no, I only want to work for Liverpool Football Club blah, blah, blah.’
“In an ideal, perfect world everyone knows what I want, but right now it’s not worth thinking about that.”
Especially not when Liverpool’s U18s and their manager are intent on following their stellar first half of the season with silverware at the end of it.
*Photos courtesy of Liverpool FC. Getty Images/Nick Taylor