“None at all,” came Steven Gerrard’s emphatic response. He was asked on Sunday if he would have any sentimental thoughts on his return to Anfield on Saturday. He delivered the correct response for Aston Villa. The implication was that his focus will purely be on them.
Rewind six years and his verdict was a little different. “Being manager of Liverpool Football Club is a huge job,” Gerrard wrote in his second autobiography. “It is a lovely dream … I simply have no idea if it is realistic to even talk about it. It’s still quite fun to fantasise a little.”
His subsequent foray into management has made the conversations realistic. Gerrard makes his first trip to Anfield as an opponent with three wins in four games as Villa manager, as the man who masterminded Rangers’ first title win in a decade and as the subject of an irresistible narrative. Kenny Dalglish, his major rival for the title of Liverpool’s greatest ever player, managed them. Since Gerrard brought his ferocious drive to the dugout, there has been the question if he will gravitate to the home technical area at Anfield.
Jurgen Klopp has helped fuel it. He gave Gerrard his first coaching job, with Liverpool’s academy. Gerrard’s fondness for 4-3-3 can be Klopp-esque. In 2019, the German said: “If you ask who should follow me, I'd say Stevie.”
It had not escaped attention that Gerrard’s Rangers contract, like Klopp’s current deal at Anfield, was due to expire in 2024. Upon joining Villa, he insisted he did not see it as a staging post on a route back home. “You'll never hear me say this is a stepping stone,” he said.
Villa down Leicester - in pictures
But ambition may have brought some changes of heart and not merely because, in his autobiography, he nominated Jamie Carragher and Xabi Alonso as team-mates who could be his assistant; instead it is Gary McAllister. He joined LA Galaxy in 2015 in part because he did not want to play against Liverpool. He will manage against them.
A homecoming promises to be a unique occasion and, for Gerrard, an obstacle course. One of his mentors, Gerard Houllier, erred when waving to the Kop as Villa manager; some felt his standing never recovered with their fans. Gerrard is guaranteed a still greater reception from the Liverpool public.
He never got the golden goodbye he deserved. His Liverpool career ended in anti-climax, in a 6-1 defeat to Stoke, their worst league result since 1963. His final Anfield appearance was a defeat to Crystal Palace. It illustrated the way a player who won a solitary trophy in his final nine seasons became a self-sacrificial figure in Liverpool’s wilderness years, turning down Real Madrid to stay amid often worse teams.
Loyalty was not rewarded by silverware: Anfield staged Gerrard’s infamous slip against Chelsea in 2014, just when it appeared he would finally win the Premier League; instead Klopp ended Liverpool’s long wait.
But Anfield witnessed 104 of his 186 Liverpool goals, including perhaps the greatest: the 2004 howitzer against Olympiakos to keep them in a Champions League that they won thanks in part to Gerrard’s tour de force in Istanbul.
It was an illustration of Gerrard’s status as a big-game player – no one else has scored in all of the Champions League, Uefa Cup, FA Cup and League Cup finals – and of his capacity for greatness. Very few footballers have ever had his ability to win games single-handedly.
Gerrard was the Liverpudlian and the Liverpool fan with the habit of making the extraordinary happen. It is why, a couple of months ago, when Klopp asked which player from Liverpool’s past he would like to manage, he replied: “That’s easy. It’s Stevie.”