It took Steven Gerrard five months to accept the end of his time at LA Galaxy was also the conclusion of his 19-year career as a professional footballer. The void will never be filled completely but the addiction continues and must be satisfied. That is why, despite feeling he has aged considerably during six months in charge of Liverpool Under-18s, nothing has doused his ambition to descend into “the madness” of top-level management.
The cravings clearly remain in the 37-year-old as he laments the absence of training from his Christmas Day routine. “I actually miss it,” he says, sipping an orange juice on a miserable December day at Liverpool’s academy in Kirkby. “It only used to be an hour and I only like Christmas Eve anyway. The rest is too long. I’d hate it if there was no football now for a few weeks.” What is also clear is that Gerrard’s appointment as under-18s manager came without privileges. The job is not about Liverpool indulging their illustrious former captain but, with Jürgen Klopp’s instruction, ensuring he has the best possible grounding before returning to the spotlight as a manager, wherever that may be. It has been a challenging, rewarding introduction.
“I’m definitely feeling it,” Gerrard says. “I’ve aged about two years in six months. Jürgen’s advice when I came back was: ‘I only want you to shadow for a short time because you need to have a couple of years of making mistakes, of picking your own team, of deciding tactics. You need to find your philosophy, a way of playing, you need to deal with individual problems, you need to praise individuals, help individuals, you need to feel disappointment and setbacks and then after a couple of years you’ll know if this gig is for you.’ He painted a real picture of how it is.
“For the last five months I’ve felt all the highs and lows and experienced all the daily stuff that managers deal with, albeit at youth-team level. It will definitely prepare me for wherever I end up. It is not scaring me or putting me off. I know the further I go there is more scrutiny, more attention, more opinions, more criticism, more praise. I get all that. For me it was important to get a taste of it away from the cameras and experience all these things before you go into the madness.”
The latest chapter in Gerrard’s Liverpool career consumes him, just like the one before. He works six days a week at the academy – “I had to show the players my work ethic was right and get their trust,” he explains – and the demands have been an eye-opening experience. Top of that list is, he says: “The hours you have to put in.”
Gerrard explains: “As a player I could switch off when the game was done. That is very difficult as a coach. That has been the main difference. Now after a game I’m 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’s been naughty at school? Having to handle that side of it has been very different for me, not that I was an angel at school, but we have a guy here, Phil Roscoe, who works on the education and welfare side of things and he is brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I would be lost if I didn’t have Phil’s help and support. The staff have been a huge help.
“There is a lot more to it than you think when you’re a player. I have more respect for coaches and managers now even though as a player I always respected the ones I worked with. I didn’t realize how much was involved in their roles until I tried it myself.”
Gerrard also manages the under-19s in the Uefa Youth League where, in both matches against Spartak Moscow this season, he had to deal with Liverpool players being racially abused; Bobby Adekanye in Moscow, Rhian Brewster in the return at Prenton Park. “I’ve had experience in my playing career of team-mates being subjected to that abuse,” he says, “but when it is your player and you are leading the team it is a real eye-opener and a learning experience. I care for these kids, they are playing for my club, they are playing for my team. I need to show them support and I will do.”
What Liverpool’s former midfielder does not show players is footage of himself in action. Gerrard is acutely aware of the pitfalls that can await top players who turn to management and discover, to their detriment, that the next generation are not up to their own exalted standards. He therefore made a conscious decision to separate Gerrard the Champions League-winning captain from Gerrard the fledgling coach.
“I never bring up my playing days and I never bring up footage of when I was involved,” he says. “If I want to show them something tactically I’ll always use Liverpool’s first team now or someone else’s first team now. I don’t think it’s right to say: ‘Look at this’ and I’m running around. Don’t get me wrong, if there’s something blatantly obvious that happened to me – good or bad – and I thought it’d benefit them, then I’m not going to hide it from them. But I just don’t think it’s right to be saying: ‘Look at what I done and look what we did’. My career as a player is gone. It’s about what’s happening tomorrow, not yesterday.”
The approach has paid dividends though Gerrard is wary of premature praise. As he points out: “You get nothing at Christmas apart from a pat on the back.” At least a pat is deserved. Liverpool sit top of the Premier League under-18s table having maintained their unbeaten campaign with a 2-1 win at Wolves. They trailed 1-0 with five minutes to go before staging a Gerrard-like recovery. “I made a mistake in that game that nearly cost us points,” he admits. What was it? “I can’t tell you. One of the reasons I decided to take this job was that I could make mistakes without getting judged in every newspaper and social media site.” Gerrard’s under-19s topped their Uefa Youth League group with five wins from six games, cruising into the last 16 with a seven-point advantage over Spartak in second.
Gerrard says: “I’m not one of those academy people who say it is all about development and results don’t matter. You’ve got to teach players about winning, about what you’ve got to do to win and create that attitude and that mentality that surround the club. You can’t say to a player at 18 years of age: ‘It’s all about winning now, it wasn’t from seven to 17.’ Of course it is about winning. 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 I want both.”
Liverpool’s decorated academy graduate believes it is harder for today’s generation to succeed as Premier League players. “Clubs are a lot richer so can go out and buy players for big money,” he says. “Ten or 15 years ago you could get through if you were a decent footballer. Now you’ve got to be sensational to get in and stay in. I look at the players on the fringes like Brewster, [Manchester City’s Phil] Foden and [Dominic] Solanke. They are good but can they go to the next level so that when they get in, they stay in? The standards are higher than they were all those years back.”
As for his next step, Gerrard will explore options with Klopp, academy director Alex Inglethorpe and others at the end of the season. “I’m not sitting here thinking I’ve done it for five months so bring the job interviews on,” he says. “In six months or a year or two years’ time there might be an opportunity where I think I’m much better prepared than I was five months ago. The MK Dons job, for example, which came up just after I had finished playing, was like a smack in the face. There was no way I was ready to lead a club or a team. Am I closer to that now? Of course, but I am happy where I am right now.
“I could get a first-team job and get sacked after four or five games. It might put me off for life. I might take my first job and win a league and that might set me up for the next 10 or 20 years. I can’t predict the future. All I can do is make myself as prepared as I can be for whatever roles I take down the line. In a year’s time I might have three opportunities and three of them might not be here. I can’t sit here and say ‘Oh no, I only want to work for Liverpool Football Club’. In an ideal, perfect world everyone knows what I want but right now it’s not worth thinking about.”
The Guardian Sport