As a player, Steven Gerrard was never scared to take a risk – and that adventurous streak is still very much in evidence as he gets set to begin his managerial career.
As first jobs go, the Rangers gig sits at the top end of the ‘daredevil’ scale. A big club, with big history and big support, but one facing a huge challenge: to turn a one-team league into a contest; to end the dominance of Glasgow’s other side; to restore pride to a club which has lost more than just a few trophies over the past few years.
Gerrard’s appointment at Ibrox represents a huge coup for Scottish football, and for Rangers. It’s a show of ambition which the league needs badly, a big name heading north of the border at exactly the right time.
It also, intriguingly, pits Gerrard into direct competition with Brendan Rodgers, his former Liverpool manager. Respect is healthy between the pair, but how long will that last amid the glare of an Old Firm rivalry? Gerrard’s task is to halt the success to which Rodgers has become accustomed and, shorter term, to end Rangers’ shocking recent record in derby matches.
Last weekend’s 5-0 thrashing at Celtic Park laid bare the challenge facing the new manager. Gerrard is no fool. He knows he has a job on his hands. It will require investment, as well as managerial acumen.
Some will question how much of the latter he has, of course. Gerrard arrives as a legend, arguably the greatest player ever to wear a Liverpool shirt and a man with the trophies and international honours to back up his talent. As a manager, though, he’s a rookie. Sixteen months of coaching in Liverpool’s Academy is little preparation for what lies ahead. High risk? Just a bit.
Still those 16 months have, in the main, been a positive experience. Liverpool’s Under-18 side have performed well under Gerrard’s guidance. They competed for the Premier League U18 title and reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Youth League, losing on penalties to a Manchester City side which has enjoyed huge investment.
More pertinently, from a coaching perspective, several of Gerrard’s charges have progressed under his tutelage. Curtis Jones and Rafa Camacho have trained with Jurgen Klopp’s first team in the last couple of months; both were on the substitutes’ bench against Everton recently, and both were in the travelling party for Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final in Rome.
Staff at Liverpool’s Academy, which is based just outside the city in Kirkby, have been impressed at how Gerrard, despite his status, immersed himself in the job after returning to the club in January 2017. His planning was meticulous, his desire to learn and to ask questions was clear. He dealt well with the players and spoke well with the media. He'd made his choice; he was all-in.
One of his first steps was to involve himself in the staff five-a-side games at the Academy. It meant an early kick-off, usually around 7am, but proved a great way to introduce himself to fellow staff members – and to give him the football fix he craves. As Gerrard himself says, “Nothing will ever replace the buzz I got from playing.” Management, though, seems to be having a good go.
His first few months at Kirkby were spent shadowing and learning, talking and listening. He worked with the U18s under Neil Critchley, and with Barry Lewtas and the U16s group. He was guided by Alex Inglethorpe, the Academy director. He got his hands dirty on the training field, and raised the standards.
“The intensity went up a notch as soon as they saw him walk in,” one Academy coach told me shortly after Gerrard’s arrival. “And that was just the staff!”
By the summer, he was ready to step up to the role as U18s coach, with Critchley moving up to the U23s. “It was time,” Gerrard said. He selected his own staff, some of whom will now follow him to Rangers, and got straight down to work.
Results were good, and Gerrard showed an impressive eye for tactics too. Deprived of three full-backs early in the season, for example, he devised a system featuring a three-man defence, two attack-minded wing backs and, in Jones, a roving No.10 around which the team revolved.
Gerrard set high standards – he is not afraid to criticise players, privately or publicly – and used one-on-one talks to tap into his players’ character. He asked them to become winners, to demand perfection. That, he told them, was what drove him as a player. Didn’t they want to do that?
It worked. Players responded - local lads, such as Jones and the talented left-back Adam Lewis - responded to their hero's presence. Liverpool started the season well, and were unbeaten domestically until January. They beat Everton in his first ‘mini-derby’, while in Europe they hammered the likes of Sevilla and Maribor.
The New Year brought new challenges. Gerrard lost players to Critchley’s U23s as Liverpool loaned out a raft of 19 and 20-year-olds to the Football League, and injury to England U17 star Rhian Brewster deprived of him his star goalscorer. Results, naturally, suffered.
Still, it was all part of the development curve for a young manager.
“I have learned loads,” Gerrard said back in December. “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. I’ve made mistakes, I have made loads of them.
“But that’s why I’m here. That was one of the main reasons why I decided to take the job, so I could make mistakes and learn from them without getting judged in every single newspaper and every social media site. The time will come for that when I am ready for it.”
That time, he feels, is now. He’s had other opportunities to move into management – he turned down MK Dons before taking up the role at Liverpool, and clubs like Oxford United and Ipswich Town have asked the question since – but the challenge of Rangers is one which appeals, even if plenty fear he is taking on an impossible job. His ultimate aim is to manage Liverpool; what would a failure in Glasgow to do that ambition?
Gerrard is no fool. He knows that he will need to learn on the job, and fast. He knows that the media pressure will be huge from the word go. He knows that the expectations from supporters will be huge, and that even minor hiccups – a draw at home with Dundee United, for example - will seem disastrous.
Gerrard the player was always an introspective, self-critical character – “this fella couldn’t lose the toss without getting upset!” former team-mate David Thompson wrote on Twitter this week - he will need to thicken his skin at Ibrox. He may also learn that there are times he needs to control his disappointment, to cajole and encourage, rather than to criticise. Experience will bring that.
He has always enjoyed a good relationship with the media in Merseyside – he’s as good an interviewee as you could wish for – and he will need to play the game well in Glasgow from the get-go, if he is to avoid the fate of Mark Warburton, Pedro Caixinha and Graeme Murty, all of whom have been chewed up and spat out in the last few years.
He will need to recruit well too – something he has never experienced yet. His name will carry plenty of weight in that regard – and we can expect a loan or two from Liverpool, surely – but Rangers are pretty much a squad of players away from Celtic, working on a much lesser budget. They need to get a lot of things right off the field if they are to close the gap.
Gerrard’s appointment, they hope is the first step on that journey. For Rangers, it’s a coup. For Gerrard, it’s another example of the competitive streak that burns within him.
A challenge? He’s never shied away from that in his life. Why would he start now?