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29th Mar 2018

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Steven Gerrard – A Manager on the move

Melissa Reddy

It is irrepressible; it layers his face, trickles through his hand movements and colours his language.

Everything about management – the responsibility, challenges, lessons, possibilities – seems to clothe every inch of Steven Gerrard – and he wears it well.

Thirteen months have elapsed since the former captain of Liverpool and England transitioned from a generation-defining player to nascent youth coach; a development that has percolated the way in which he reads and relays football.

“I have a completely different perspective of the game,” the 37-year-old explains to JOE. “I focus on shape, identifying what strategies are in place all over the pitch and how each side tries to ensure it’s their plan that dictates the match. I want to understand the reasons for everything that’s happening – substitutions, positioning, pressing triggers – and I can now appreciate the level of thinking that goes into it all.”

Initially overwhelmed by the extensive variation between being a footballer and being responsible for nurturing a talented, teenage squad of them, the Liverpool Under-18s manager is now a poster of conviction.

His new coating feels right, feels natural, and as his education continues shadowed from the game’s savage glare, there is the unshakeable impression that this is the embryonic stage of a significant career on the touchline.

“I’m enjoying the change so much,” Gerrard says as he reclines on a leather sofa at Icons Bar & Grill at the Hilton, with Wembley’s arch illuminating the view to the right.

“There are so many new experiences, lessons and tests. I’m picking up on stuff continuously, I’m making mistakes, I’m doing things well, I’m working on the things I can do better. It’s been eye-opening and very rewarding. I feel quite blessed to have the environment of support and encouragement that I do at the Academy as I keep growing in the role and using any opportunity I can to progress my knowledge.”

It is a much-welcomed warmer day in London, offering an interlude from the extended arctic plight, and Gerrard is absorbed by the axial decisions some of his industry seniors are contemplating.

The choices Gareth Southgate will be poring over ahead of finalising a 23-man World Cup roster on June 4, in particular, holds his attention. The selection of a first-choice goalkeeper tops a long list of posers for the England manager.

“I think there is a great battle on between the four options Joe Hart, Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland and Nick Pope to make the cut for the final three,” says the man that amassed 114 caps for his country, who enjoyed his “first real taste of excitement” for the tournament – now just 78 days away – while collating messages from supporters on the Budweiser Blessed Beer tanker.

“It’s been encouraging that Gareth has given opportunities to young players. He made it very clear that he wanted to pick players on form and Nick Pope certainly fits into that bracket. I know there’s a lot of people in the media and elsewhere writing off Joe Hart, but I wouldn’t do that – he’s still talented and a very experienced goalkeeper.

“I don’t think the No.1 is nailed down just yet, so it’s an exciting fight for the guys to all try to go for it. To be honest, I think Gareth’s got a lot of tough choices to make – we’re talking about the biggest stage you can be a manager or a player at – there couldn’t be more pressure or responsibility.

“The goalkeeper situation is one of the hard decisions, but then he also has to choose his centre-back pairing – does he go with a two or three at the back? I’m sure the formation will be flexible and change throughout depending on who the opposition are. In every position, I think there’s a big poser and that’s what all the friendlies are for before the tournament – to try things, to give opportunities and settle on combinations.

“There is also still a lot of football to be played domestically and it’s important to get through the end of the season with a fit squad. This is where Gareth earns his coin if you like, making these big calls and of course, being a young manager I’d like to be in a position to make those kind of massive decisions one day, but I don’t envy him having to think about that now!”

Gerrard has spent the afternoon in the capital with a swathe of fans, all representing the participating nations at the showpiece, in the first stop on Budweiser’s Blessed Beer tour.

Having fed off their zeal for the kick off on June 10, he admits there are “mixed emotions” leading into the first World Cup since his retirement.

For three tournaments, spanning 12 games plus a further 23 in qualifying which yielded 11 goals, he was at the epicentre of England’s global campaigns; shouldering expectations, set as the cynosure for column inches, a focal point of long-running debates, sometimes operating in the role of captain, but always in position as a leader.

Now, the former midfielder is stitched into the backdrop. He is an observer, a supporter, a consumer of the game ushering in the countdown in an alien way.

“I used to really love being involved the buzz, the build-up, the preparation and effort for it all, but at the same time, it’s nice to be out of the pressure and to to be able to enjoy the World Cup as a fan,” Gerrard says.

“I’m impatient for the opening game, which I think gives you a flavour of the level and what you can sort of expect from the tournament.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing how England get on, especially off the back of a disappointing campaign last time. I’m hoping they have a very strong start, I’m very confident that they’ll get out of the group and I’m willing them on as far as possible.

“As a fan now, I’m going to relish just being able to have a beer and take all the action in. As much as I loved being a player, the World Cup was endless pressure, responsibility, and was tough in a lot of respects, so it’ll be good to experience it differently.”

Before that, however, Gerrard is feverish over the diet of aggressive, forward-thinking football he’ll be able to dine on with Liverpool and Manchester City colliding in the Champions League quarter-finals on April 4 and 10.

“Those games can’t come quick enough for me to be able to analyse it on BT Sport, because it’s the kind of match you genuinely get enthusiastic about and can learn so much from,” he enthuses.

“It’s top-class footballers looking to go toe-to-toe with each other in a very dominant, attacking style under two hugely respected managers who have very clear philosophies.

“It’s an exciting draw for both teams and both will believe they can progress through to the semis. We’ve seen some amazing games of football between them recently, and from a neutral point of view, I think it’s a 50-50 tie: City have shown their unbelievable quality this season and Liverpool have proven they can better any team in a game – including City.

“Now from a biased point of view, I’ve got every confidence that Jurgen and the team can deliver over both legs because they’ve shown they can do it. The manager’s got a great record in Europe, he knows Pep Guardiola well and the opposition inside out.”

There have been attempts to paint the fixture with the same brush strokes as the Liverpool-Chelsea rivalry of the previous decade, but Gerrard – core to those contests – does not concur with that portrayal.

“It will be completely different,” he argues. “For me, the only similarity is that it will be two domestic teams battling on the Champions League stage. We played Chelsea three times in the semis, once in the quarter-finals and the group stage.

“Their style under Jose Mourinho was disciplined and tactical, which was like Liverpool’s under Rafa Benitez so it was a more cagey affair and the teams would often cancel each other out (there were only three goals scored in six continental meetings while both those managers were in the dugout).

“Under Jurgen and Pep, with attack the emphasis of both teams and both wanting to take the initiative and dominate, it offers more as a spectacle.

“I think it’s a tie full of respect in terms of the players and the managers. They’ve both been on the right and wrong end of results in these fixtures, which have been quite intense. It would be very silly for any individual involved to show disrespect or be complacent heading into a two-legged game of this magnitude.

“They’re the two most attacking teams in the Premier League and the best to watch – I’d put Tottenham in that category as well – and having listened to both managers speak about these games before, the mutual admiration is quite clear.

“The only thing is, everyone in the build-up to this tie is talking about and expecting loads of goals and I’m wondering whether either manager tries something different. That will be quite interesting, and I’m very intrigued by the tactical choices that will be made. Will it be, as previously the case, to just go for it? Or because of the two-legged situation and how important the result is, I wonder whether one or even both choose to come off the gas a bit and offer a bit more caution?”

Sandwiched between the battle of Europe’s entertainers-in-chief this season sit the Merseyside and Manchester derbies. Could such an intense schedule see either team yield in terms of the XI against their neighbours?

“Liverpool and City have big squads filled with talented players. I think four or five years ago, a manager would really have to wrestle with his team selection and potentially sacrifice one of the games by taking a gamble with the line-up,” Gerrard reasons.

“But with the quantity of quality, I think both managers are capable of putting their strongest teams out for both legs as well as the derbies. That’s what I hope for as a football lover anyway.

“I wouldn’t want Liverpool to prioritise City over Everton because of the rivalry as well as wanting the club to finish as high as possible in the league. Jurgen will have all the knowledge and information to make the best decisions over that tough period.

“I think he’s also got every confidence in his squad that if he does make four or five changes, he can still get the result in all three games.”

Gerrard salutes Guardiola for overseeing a juggernaut that “are deservedly going to coast to the title this season,” but believes the gigantic jump between City and the rest of their competitors will narrow considerably in 2018-19. “Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea will all come harder at them next season after fine-tuning their squads this summer,” he predicts. “The competition at the top is only going to get fiercer.”

On a personal note, Gerrard has his own title designs. He can guide Liverpool’s U18s to the domestic glory in his debut campaign at the helm; they are seven points behind leaders United in the North Group, but have two games in hand. Chelsea, the holders, are perched at the top of the South section and the two regional division winners will contest a national final to be overall champions.

His charges suffered close, gutting defeats to Arsenal and Manchester City in the FA Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League respectively – the latter via a penalty shootout – but Gerrard subscribes to the notion that the disappointments can be as much of a motivator as successes.

His appetite to win is ceaseless, but the English Hall of Famer knows that the process behind achieving any triumph can be as important than the result itself.

“My job is to help develop these young men, to help them progress as players and people,” Gerrard, who is immensely proud of Curtis Jones and Rafael Camacho being invited to train with Liverpool’s first-team, says.

“A winning culture is a big part of what I want to create, but so is learning and growing from every situation – whether it is a loss or something that has worked quite well, just as is the case throughout the Academy and at Melwood.

“The journey we had in Europe will do the boys a world of good. They’re so fortunate to have the opportunity to test themselves against the best on the continent and to understand from so young what it’s like to compete in a big competition like this.

“I wasn’t lucky enough to have it as a young player, but feel grateful to have experienced it as a youth coach. I think everything we’ve been through – even losing on penalties in the quarters to Man City despite doing more than enough to win the game – will be hugely beneficial to each individual.”

Gerrard has “been a sponge” over the last year and it is explicit that he flows with an appreciation for the assistance received from Academy director Alex Inglethorpe and the rest of his colleagues at Kirkby.

The Liverpool legend can also count on Klopp’s counsel – a privilege he rates as priceless in the introductory phase of his managerial education.

“Jurgen has been an open book with me – he’s really been so helpful,” Gerrard says. “If there’s something that I need guidance on, or something I’ve spotted and would like more insight on, I know he is just a text or call away.

“He is so giving of his time and is so genuine in everything he does. I can’t thank him or the other staff at Melwood and Kirkby enough.”

Inspiration from Gerrard’s past is still in play in the present too. Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez, who directed his career at Anfield from 2004 to 2010, recently noted that the ex-Reds skipper referenced a piece of the Spaniard’s enlightenment. “Stevie G was on TV talking about a game: ‘Ah, Rafa always said that little details can make a massive difference,” the 57-year-old explained.

“So he heard. Maybe he didn’t realise when he was playing, but now he’s a analyst and a coach and it’s true.”

Gerrard is glowing about the man who contributed to configuring him into a pedigreed footballer. “I could write a book on Rafa and all the insight he’s given me,” he states.

“Rafa made me into a top-level player. When he met me, I was a good player, but he really helped me advance. I achieved a lot of the things that I did in my career because of his advice on my game and his tactical support.

“I think it would be very naive and stupid for me not to take his key messages on board now as a coach as he is someone I look up to as a young manager.

“I’ve tried to take bits from every coach I played under and most certainly from Rafa – he was the best tactician I worked with throughout my playing career.”

As he fuses the wisdom he has accumulated with the unfettered ambition that has always typified him, Gerrard has no intention of taking up residence in a comfort zone.

“I’ve grown so much in so many aspects,” he says of his advancement in the technical area. “Being on the pitch everyday helped me with my confidence in terms of delivering sessions. I’ve taken in as much as I can over the past year from as many people as I can. Being around driven, quality coaches at Kirkby has certainly helped and encouraged me.

“I feel like I’m a man on the move. I don’t want to stand still for very long. I want to progress, I want to improve, I want to keep testing myself.

“There’s no timescale on this, but I certainly want to coach at the top. Whether that happens in one, two, three, four years is hard to predict, but it’s definitely in my thinking.

“I’m really hungry and I’m going to make sure I continue to move forward in the right way.”