Sentimentality the enemy for Steven Gerrard as Liverpool legend returns to Anfield

The Aston Villa manager returns to Anfield on Saturday as an opponent for the first time knowing sentimentality is the enemy of his ambitions

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent
Friday 10 December 2021 12:26
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Steven Gerrard's Legendary Liverpool Career

The question hadn’t reached its tail end yet but in the absence of hesitation, Steven Gerrard interrupted with the answer.

“Hiding my emotions at times,” he offered, citing his primary personal challenge in the early months of transitioning from player to manager at Liverpool’s academy.

In four years, that initial poser has evolved into a proud strength. He has mastered the art of using his fervour to electrify and gain full buy-in from his players.

Gerrard owns his media appearances too, which is an element that drew applause from Sir Alex Ferguson – a craftsmen in bending a briefing his way.

“A press interview can lose you your job in management, but Steven’s press conferences are fantastic,” he told the Guardian. “He’s cool, he’s composed, he gives the right answers. He’s really top because it’s an art.”

And so last weekend, when Gerrard was probed over his return to Anfield for the first time as an opponent in any guise, there was no surprise at his ice-cold response – especially so on Merseyside.

Would there be “any sentimental thoughts in his head?” There was a slight smirk from the Aston Villa manager at a line he was sure Sky Sports would throw at him, before he bluntly responded: “None. Not at all.”

Almost immediately, a text pinged through from a former colleague at Liverpool’s youth set-up: “Stevie always knew sentimentality was the enemy of his coaching ambitions.”

To understand that in its entirety is to start at the top. As these pages have detailed, Gerrard was crystalline about his management path, only accepting a role at Kirkby when it was clear that his presence wasn’t on account of his status as a player.

He wanted to develop and contribute as a coach, not operate as a symbolic figure. After two months, Alex Inglethorpe, the head of the academy, had remarked that it would be some achievement if they held on to Gerrard for more than a year.

That was partly because offers for first-team jobs were already streaming in before the former midfielder had retired, but also due to a steely determination to avoid short cuts while seriously targeting the top of the field.

“He is a natural leader,” Inglethorpe said when Gerrard exited in the summer of 2018, plumping for the onerous task of reconstructing Rangers. “He’s incredibly dedicated towards achieving what he wants. He’s not a man who looks to cut any corners. He’s not someone who wants to be fast-tracked.”

Gerrard left Liverpool in 2016

There were several voices against the switch, arguing that Gerrard would fade from view in Scottish football while compeers like Frank Lampard were up in lights. Why not work in the Championship?

Another counter was that he should remain at Liverpool, progressing to inherit the U23s before joining Jurgen Klopp’s coaching staff and prepping to one day step into the main job. It was sold as a romantic notion: a modern slant on the historic Boot Room.

That idea – managing Liverpool without ever being at the real deep end before, minus a pool of crucial external experience, and devoid of a concrete sense of self in the dugout – sickened Gerrard.

Staying at the club was an absolute non-option because, as one close confidant says he’d repeat, “comfort doesn’t build a manager or a man.”

Klopp would advocate this too: nothing can be gained from never having to scale obstacles, playing safe, or assuming you are automatically owed something.

In their regular conversations, the German had also preached patience and being “in tune to feeling the right opportunity”.

Gerrard fit Rangers like a glove, delivered the type of success that had started to feel like a long-lost fantasy – going unbeaten in the process – and enhanced on-pitch identity as well as off-pitch structures.

Departing mid-season with more silverware in waiting was thankless, but… sentimentality is the enemy.

Villa presented the perfect shot at a Premier League job: storied club, a big support base to galvanise, a squad stocked with talent that had been well-coached by Dean Smith, and a hierarchy – Christian Purslow in particular fully subscribed to his methodology.

Gerrard has enjoyed a good start at Aston Villa

The timing wasn’t ideal, but that wasn’t under Gerrard’s control.

The 41-year-old has already made a powerful impression at Villa, with three victories from four, forcing Manchester City into some unsettling moments during the anomaly.

Their defensive numbers have instantly improved, reducing the opponents’ shots against them, leading to just four goals conceded – half of those coming against the defending champions. In the same number of games preceding his arrival, Villa had been pierced 11 times and were too easy to play through.

Offensively, they have greater variety and threat from set-pieces. This positive run puts them only four points adrift of Arsenal and five from Manchester United.

Liverpool, in unreal form and embarking on the evolution that Covid and an injury crisis delayed, are the worst team to face to try and make further dents into those gaps.

It is this fact rather than any emotional conundrum that plagues Gerrard.

There is no space to focus on emotions when there are fires to fight all over the pitch, including obstructing the current best player in the world.

Gerrard’s overriding sentiment will be for Villa to compete, to cause problems, and ultimately to puncture Liverpool’s title tilt.

Klopp is expecting nothing less and the club have found much of the coverage on the Kop icon being torn, swayed, or knocked off his game at Anfield laughable.

The focus on Gerrard is a sideshow as his axis will solely revolve around Villa being nightmare opposition.

Sentimentality is the enemy. Making a statement against Liverpool at Anfield is the reverse.

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