Two months on from the announcement of his retirement from professional football, Steven Gerrard was appointed to a new role in the Liverpool academy, taking up his former club’s offer to become youth coach.
During a miserable January on the pitch, Gerrard’s return comes as hugely positive news for the red half of Merseyside, marking the end of an illustrious playing career that took in 17 years in the Liverpool first team, winning two FA Cups, three League Cups, one UEFA Cup and, most importantly, the Champions League in 2005. His trophy haul only goes to some length to underline Gerrard’s importance to the club, however, with the No. 8 one of the Reds’ greatest ever players, alongside the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Billy Liddell, John Barnes, Kevin Keegan, Alan Hansen and Luis Suarez. But now, Gerrard is starting from the bottom once again.
A product of Liverpool’s academy, like Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Carragher before him and Jon Flanagan, Jordan Rossiter and Raheem Sterling after, Gerrard is back where it all began. But while some of the faces have remained the same at Kirkby, with the midfielder’s former mentor Steve Heighway now back in the youth coaching setup, much has changed since Gerrard’s days as a youngster on Merseyside. No academy player has surpassed, or even came close to matching, Gerrard since his debut, but Liverpool are arguably in a better position now to produce in the future. Under Jurgen Klopp, there is an impressive structure in place, fronted by former Exeter City manager Alex Inglethorpe as academy director and linked directly to the first team by elite development coach Pepijn Lijnders; and with revenue increasing, improvements are set to continue.
Gerrard is one such improvement, with Inglethorpe explaining the 36-year-old’s new role on his unveiling. “Like any coach, he’ll have a schedule he’ll work to. The idea at the beginning is to come in and complete his ‘A’ licence. He is going to assess various age groups, primarily in the older groups, 15 to 23,” he detailed. “He’ll assess all of that, have a look and get involved in the coaching with various groups, with the intention eventually of having a group himself—having a team to run and all the responsibilities that come with that.”
Gerrard will take up a wide-ranging role, encompassing all groups from the U6s to the U23s, clearly looking to find his feet before establishing a focus.
With Liverpool looking to aid his development to become an ‘A’ licence coach, they are ensuring Gerrard begins his coaching career in the best possible way, jarring with the entitled approach of other ex-pros. Ex-Manchester United midfielder Ryan Giggs, for example, while seven years older, will be one of Gerrard’s contemporaries in the coaching sphere, but after three years as coach, assistant manager and, for four games, interim manager at Old Trafford, the Cardiff native finds himself without a job, having failed to land the vacant manager’s position at Swansea City in October, blithely explaining afterwards that “their ambitions did not really match mine.” Another former United player, Gary Neville, took over at Valencia in 2015, in tandem with his duties as England assistant manager, and failed miserably, leaving the La Liga side 14th in the table, with a win ratio of 35.71 percent.
While the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson was no doubt invaluable for Giggs and Neville, and the likes of Garry Monk and Eddie Howe serve as contrary examples, there is arguably no substitute for the slow build for an ex-pro looking to move into coaching.
At Liverpool’s Kirkby academy, and in likely trips to the first-team facility at Melwood, Gerrard will come into contact with a host of excellent young talents. On the fringes of Klopp’s senior squad, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ovie Ejaria, Harry Wilson and Ben Woodburn will stand out as fine examples, while below them in Mike Garrity’s U23s squad Corey Whelan, Juanma, Herbie Kane, Adam Phillips, Matty Virtue and Brooks Lennon are ones to watch. In the U18s, goalkeepers Caiohmin Kelleher and Kamil Grabara are joined by outstanding talents in Conor Masterson, Diego Lattie, Adam Lewis, Liam Coyle, Yan Dhanda, Bobby Adekanye, Okera Simmonds, Glen McAuley and Rhian Brewster, while Lijnders has mentioned Paul Glatzel, Luis Longstaff and Curtis Jones as stars of the future. Twenty-four players among a sea of high-potential youngsters on Merseyside.
The best of those train with the first team at Melwood every Tuesday, as Lijnders recently explained in an excellent interview with the Sunday Times’ Jonathan Northcroft. “We started the Talent Group so that we have a 15-year-old training with a 19-year-old with the only goal that they know each other,” he said. “They know the rules of Melwood, they know the staff, the kitchen, all those things…but the most important thing is they know each other. They link with each other.” Lijnders, formerly of PSV Eindhoven and FC Porto, serves as Klopp’s liaison, stressing that “at a club as big as Liverpool it is impossible for the manager to watch every youth game,” and with the club working to fast-track their best young players to the first team, Gerrard could be the ideal role model.
Naturally, Gerrard’s ultimate goal is the establish himself at the top level, as he outlined on his appointment, saying “I want to be the best manager I can be eventually and this is the beginning of the journey.” Working his way up through the ranks, in familiar surroundings, is the best way to work towards this—but could it be as Liverpool manager, with this set of academy stars in his squad? It is a lofty ambition, but no young coach will have higher standards than Gerrard.