Steven Gerrard and Aston Villa had history long before Dean Smith was sacked. As Gerrard became his replacement, leaving Rangers to sign a contract until 2024, thoughts may turn back six years to the FA Cup semi-final when Tim Sherwood’s Villa ensured Gerrard’s Liverpool playing career would not end with silverware and a final on his 35th birthday.
Or, perhaps, a dozen years to Gerrard’s hat-trick in a 5-0 demolition of Villa. Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool were on an inspired charge towards the title. Gerrard had scored six goals in three games as Liverpool eviscerated Real Madrid 4-0, Manchester United 4-1 and then Villa.
Zinedine Zidane, who spoke with a certain expertise about the subject, pronounced him the best player in the world. Thirteen of his 186 Liverpool goals came against Villa, making them his favourite opponents. Now he is to become their ninth manager since Martin O’Neill, seemingly charged with taking them back to the heights they scaled under him, despite that 5-0 thrashing at Anfield.
Gerrard’s past can form the context to his appointment, and not just because Villa CEO Christian Purslow is Liverpool’s former managing director. It lends itself to an irresistible narrative. Gerrard has readily admitted that managing Liverpool is his dream job. Jurgen Klopp has called him his possible successor. If a club of Villa’s stature and history may dislike the notion they could be a stepping stone, the same may be said of Rangers.
But if part of the case for Gerrard lies in his record there, part of it is that he is Steven Gerrard. He comes with an aura, a determined character with a winning mentality. Few players seemed to have won as many games through force of personality. It is simplifying Rangers’ recovery to say it stemmed from willpower alone but, even in a two-horse title race, ending Celtic’s era of dominance spoke to the power of a rookie manager. Gerrard did not shy away from a challenge.
Celtic had won the previous nine league titles. Last season, Rangers went unbeaten, scoring 92 goals, conceding 13 and amassing 102 points. “His achievement in winning the Premiership title with Glasgow Rangers really caught our eye, as did his experience in Europe,” Purslow said.
The gulf between the best and the rest in Scotland can render it difficult to measure achievements and easy to scoff but Gerrard made Rangers hard to beat in Europe: they had been eliminated by a team from Luxembourg the year before his appointment and had not reached the last 16 of a European competition since 2011.
They did so twice under him. Avoiding defeat away at Porto, Benfica and Feyenoord spoke to a new toughness, even if losing a Champions League qualifier to Malmo this season was a blot on his record. But across his first three seasons, Rangers lost just six of 45 European games. As Villa have been beaten in 18 Premier League matches this season, they could only envy that resilience.
That many outsiders felt Smith’s sacking was harsh spoke to Villa’s expectations, but spending the £100 million proceeds of Jack Grealish’s sale added to considerable expenditure. Purslow referred to “the next phase of our ambitious plans… Steven’s coaching ambitions, philosophy and values entirely match those of Aston Villa.”
Gerrard’s background in coaching with Liverpool’s academy forms part of his appeal to a club with a fine group of young players. But Gerrard has left one high-pressure environment for another. Purslow said in the summer that “qualifying for Europe is very much part of our strategic plan.” If Gerrard is to make it back to Anfield, the road will have to be paved with achievements to elevate historic clubs from the wilderness.