Steven Gerrard facing early Villa glare after stumbling out of start blocks
At the end of a week in the city where the Commonwealth Games signed off with a showstopper of a closing ceremony, Aston Villa host Everton on Saturday lunchtime hoping to overcome something of a false start. Steven Gerrard has had plenty to stew over since a listless display at Bournemouth paved the way to an opening-day defeat and his players return to Villa Park hoping to taste victory for the first time since April. Going back to the beginning of spring, Villa have won two of their past 12 matches and Gerrard knows the intense glare on him is going nowhere fast.
Indeed it only sharpened after his decision to omit Tyrone Mings from his starting lineup at the Vitality Stadium, fresh from stripping the defender of the Villa captaincy. It was a bold call that was always going to increase the number of eyeballs on Gerrard, who is au fait with the spotlight that comes with the territory. Gerrard is sure his reputation as a legendary player – he was inducted into the Premier League’s hall of fame last year – will be not tarnished regardless of how he fares from here in the dugout. “If I go on and achieve a lot of things as a manager,” Gerrard says, raising his right hand towards the ceiling, “or if I achieve nothing moving forward, nothing is going to change in terms of the stats and my performances as a player. That is done. It is there. It is the same game. It is a completely different journey. I don’t want to be judged as a player any more.”
Gerrard has not given too much thought to whether his distinguished playing career means he is viewed differently under the magnifying glass, but is adamant about one thing: “What I would say is I think certainly that I have that extra determination to prove to people I can be a success from a managerial point of view. In certain people’s minds and opinions, they believe you’re given certain jobs and offers on the back of a playing career – and I think it plays a part, of course it does, your leadership skills – but I made it abundantly clear that I wanted to start from the beginning. I went into Liverpool’s academy for 18 months to try to learn and grow, to see if I thought it was for me. I gave big consideration before I decided to take a big opportunity at Rangers. I’d like to think I’ve done my apprenticeship – whether that was long enough in people’s opinions, I don’t know. I certainly turned a lot of opportunities down.”
One of which was to join Villa in 2016 as Steve Bruce’s assistant, a role that was eventually filled by Colin Calderwood. At the time – during which he was also interviewed by Milton Keynes Dons about the managerial vacancy there – Gerrard did not feel adequately qualified.
It was always going to be a long week but Villa at least eased the sweltering heat by training earlier in the day. As for Mings, he is fit for selection having trained fully on Thursday and Friday after a scan at the start of the week showed damage to adductor muscles. “Tyrone has trained really well the last few days,” Gerrard says. “I’ve had three or four different conversations with him this week, checking on his health, making sure that we got the scan done and [found out] the outcome of the scan.”
Gerrard requires a significant uplift from his team. Diego Carlos – who is taking English lessons before training, arriving at Bodymoor Heath an hour before most of his teammates – and Boubacar Kamara struggled to get their bearings on debut, while others were lukewarm at best on a blue-sky afternoon beside the sea where they came unstuck from two set pieces. Gerrard must decide whether to recall Douglas Luiz, Emi Buendía and Ollie Watkins, with supporters clamouring for Buendía to replace Philippe Coutinho, who was anonymous in the defeat by Bournemouth. Perhaps the biggest call is in the heart of defence, where Mings and Calum Chambers are options if Gerrard opts to rejig things.
On the touchline he will jostle with Frank Lampard, a former longtime England teammate whom he says he has “always got on with, contrary to reports and rivalries”. On the pitch, meanwhile, Conor Coady, a former Liverpool scholar, is likely to debut in Everton’s defence. Gerrard also expects some stick from the travelling supporters.
“The onus is on us to start the game well, especially on the back of last week’s disappointment,” he says. “If we get that match, I think the atmosphere will be in my favour. When you go to Goodison, it’s slightly different. I expect a tasty welcome off the Everton supporters. It’s part and parcel.”