Steven Gerrard insists judgment should be reserved on his attributes as a coach until his tactical decisions, his leadership from the sidelines and his mistakes have been thoroughly examined. That will come next season as manager of Liverpool Under-18s, where judgment on what is required has already been made. “There is a showboating mentality through academies,” claims Gerrard. “My teams will be physical.”
The first of what Gerrard hopes will be several managerial steps at Liverpool was confirmed on Thursday with a fixed role with the under-18s. The current under‑18s manager, Neil Critchley, will lead the under-23s next season, with Mike Garrity – who has been in the post since Michael Beale moved to São Paulo in December – becoming part of Critchley’s backroom team. Both have been shadowed by the former Liverpool and England captain since he returned to the club in February.
The academy director, Alex Inglethorpe, made the appointments in consultation with Jürgen Klopp, who has been closely involved in Gerrard’s transition from star captain to coach of starry-eyed youngsters. “Jürgen’s been the key behind all this,” acknowledges the 36-year-old, who will be assisted by the current under-13s coach, Tom Culshaw, and the rehab fitness coach Jordan Milsom. It was the Liverpool manager’s idea to give Gerrard an initial floating role across all academy age groups and, impressed by the hours and the work put in, considers the fledgling coach ready for the next, more challenging step.
Gerrard explains: “I spoke to Jürgen and we agreed after a few chats that the 18s was the right age group because it still gives you a bit of a spotlight with the coverage it gets but it is a place where you can make a lot of mistakes and grow and learn. Every manager and coach I have spoken to has said I will make loads of mistakes, and your first job is better to be away from the cameras. The other offers I got [managing MK Dons], it would have been learning on the job at the deep end and I probably wasn’t ready for those jobs. I might have been but I didn’t want to take any risks, especially when there is no timescale or plan of where I want to be in a certain time, so the 18s made sense.
“It has been really good so far. I have been shadowing five or six coaches at the academy and been mentored by Steve Heighway and Alex as well. I am still waiting to start in terms of being a No1 coach that leads a team. Shadowing is a bit different, I am more in the background. I haven’t had to make any big decisions, or any substitutions, formations or tactics yet.”
Shadowing has not contained Gerrard’s influence entirely, however. The former midfielder was immediately struck by the lack of physicality at academy level, a frequent lament from many Premier League managers while the Football Association strives to improve the technical abilities of English talent. In an under-18s fixture against Manchester City in March, he called for – and received – greater intensity from the Liverpool players as City were beaten for the first time in 28 months. Gerrard demanded the same the following week against Manchester United – old habits and rivalries die hard – and the 2-2 draw proved a ferocious encounter. Adam Lewis, a lifelong Liverpool fan who idolises Gerrard, was sent off after 30 minutes for a dangerous tackle.
“We work on 50-50s,” Gerrard jokes. “As a player I got many, many tackles wrong and went over the top a few times and I had to apologise. That is not something I want to put into young players at all but you have to prepare them for the top level and the top level is physical and demanding. It is not just about tackles and competing. It is about trying to prepare them for the last five or 10 minutes of games when it is hard and your legs are burning and your heart is burning and it is not a nice place to be in as a player. You have to get them to be mentally strong to be prepared for that. I hate watching footballers and football when there is no physical side and you don’t compete.
“There is a showboating mentality through academies. A lot of kids think they have to do 10 lollipops or Cruyff turns to look good or stand out. We all love a bit of skill and talent but the other side of the game is huge. I have to try and prepare these players for careers in the game. Not all of them will play for Liverpool’s first team but I feel if I can help them to compete in the other side of the game it will help their careers. Maybe it [showboating] comes from computer games, I don’t know. There are a lot of skilful players that young players try and emulate – probably too much instead of playing to their own strengths. They try and model their game on players like Ronaldo whereas you have to look at yourself and say: ‘What have I got? What are my strengths? How can I improve my weaknesses and become a player in my own right?’”
Gerrard, who expects to complete his Uefa A licence by the end of this season, continues: “I like streetwise footballers. I think all the top players come from the street, that type of player. The kids in our academy are coming into an unbelievable place to work, they are getting boss food, they are getting picked up and the full-time lads get a lot more money than we got when we started. There is a case that they get a bit too much too soon. They get into a comfort zone of working in a lovely place and then it is a big shock for them when they have to move on or get released. I’ve seen a lot of players come out of the academy with huge reputations and go into the Melwood dressing room. Then it is sink or swim and a lot of them sink.”
The intensity of Liverpool youth fixtures is not all that has changed since Gerrard returned from LA Galaxy. He himself has had to tailor his coaching methods under the tutelage of the club’s academy director. Gerrard explains: “Alex has been first-class and I’ve had a lot of feedback. He’s been honest and straight with me. He has spoken to me about my body language on the side in coaching sessions. He also talked to me about my coaching voice. He wants it to be the same as it was when I was a player, when I was captain.”
Unsurprisingly, Gerrard has found aspiring youngsters to be “a bit shy” in the presence of Liverpool’s commanding former captain. “But once they know you are approachable they get comfortable very quickly,” he says. “We have to wait and see [what his strengths are as a coach] but you have to be approachable. The best managers I worked with were all very approachable, honest and fair, and always gave me feedback whether it was positive or negative.”
There is a danger, of course, that a coach of Gerrard’s status will be measured by the immediacy of results at under-18 level and not on player development. He accepts it comes with, if not the job, then his decision to pursue a career in management when so many of his peers have kept away. “None of that worries me or scares me,” he says. “If it is my fault we get beat that’s fine. It’s about the players and their development.
“I’d love to see a player I coach make their first-team debut because it is a life-changer. Making your debut for a club this size changed my life and I’ll be pleased for that kid and his family because it is an unbelievable thing to do. Making my debut here was one of the best days of my life. But they will have to fight for it because it is not easy.”