Steven Gerrard: Liverpool have let me know they are keen for me to come back
A leisurely breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast at The Vincent, the restaurant he co-owns on Liverpool’s historic Exchange Flags, fielding a phone call or two ahead of a 3pm depart for the drive north to Sunderland, where he’ll watch his old team-mates play. A first family Christmas since childhood just behind him. Here is the kind of semi-detachment from football which Steven Gerrard said he owed those closest to him in the midst of the defining year of 2015, when he took his leave of Anfield.
This is self-evidently only a temporary state of affairs. It’s not just the directness of his reply to the question of whether he feels he could still play in the Premier League – “Yes” – but the level of absorption with the games, the players, the nuances of Liverpool’s development under Jürgen Klopp which leads you to conclude that 2016 will be the year when he climbs back into the British game, in coaching or management.
“I’m not 100 per cent sure but I think it will probably be my last year as a player,” he says, the possibility he mooted about a month ago clearly having strengthened into something firmer. You intuit that the confines of a television studio will not be enough when November brings the end of his second MLS season at LA Galaxy, for whom he will take his leave of Liverpool again this month.
“When I come back in November I have my BT work but I am basically available for whatever is out there,” Gerrard says. “Everyone in the football world will know I am available and, hopefully, I will be 75 per cent into my coaching badges and available.” And might he coach at another club? “I’m available. Available.”
It hardly needs saying that there will be no club like Liverpool for him. He felt a profound sadness in leaving, which he has always felt would have been avoidable had the new contract on offer provided something more tangible. “A ‘short, middle and long-term’ plan for me at Liverpool rather than just fade into being a squad player,” as he puts it now. But the way he articulates his experience of training at Melwood for two weeks last month, at the invitation of Klopp, leaves no doubt that the German is someone Gerrard believes can take his football education to very many new places.
It was not so much the old Melwood experience, its familiar faces and contours, as the density of tactical ideas and insights he heard Klopp disseminate which struck him.
“He invited me in, so there’s a discretion I’ve got to keep about what he does,” he says. “But certainly, tactical situations within the 11, I found myself straight away after training wanting to keep what he said, why he did it and the point he made to individuals. I just couldn’t get enough of what he said in the 11 v 11 [games he set up]. Seeing how he is with individual players and his tactics and how he goes about the job, I think that, given time and with a bit of patience and time to add to the XI and the squad, you can get excited…”
He treads carefully here. Gerrard has felt Liverpool expectations intensely for all of his adult life and knows that even to proffer the notion that Klopp is a good football manager carries risks in this city.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure of expectations in there, because if I say the wrong thing – that adds pressure to him and the team, and that’s not fair,” he cautions, calibrating his outward enthusiasm. Yet there can be little doubt how absorbing it would be to see Gerrard, who has lived and breathed and analysed Liverpool – fixing the state of civil war between the club and Luis Suarez and even texting transfer targets – working with Klopp.
If there is a frustration, then it is with the race to make up lost time that he finds himself facing. He wishes he had seized the empty hours in his playing career to begin the coaching qualification work he is now ploughing into. Those tedious afternoons he had with England – watching endless repeats of The Office and The Sopranos as he remembers – could have been put to use and had him well past his C, B and A licence by now.
“A few things put players off coaching,” he reflects. “The brutality of how long you get in a job or how quickly it can go wrong: that puts you off. But the coaching badges are very time consuming and they’re very tedious. Obviously, if you don’t start your badges until the end of your career when you’ve finished, have you got the hunger and motivation to start from the very bottom and go up? There [is] no cutting corners.
“I do have regrets now that I didn’t start my coaching badges at 21, 22. All that time I have wasted in hotels being an England player in the afternoon when I have been bored. I [could] be doing my pro licence now. I know many, many players who get to the end of their careers and get handed a C licence pack, which is about four inches thick, and say, ‘Nah, I’m not doing that’. [A player who] could have 70 to 80 caps and 600 career appearances and he is just going ‘nah’ when he could have had it done.
“Put these coaching badges on offer at a younger age. When you are training, you finish at 1pm and you talk about boredom in hotel rooms. Have the coaching badges available in the afternoons so that when they finish their careers they are ready to become coaches straight away and they don’t need to start at the bottom and do all the tedious coaching courses that are out there.”
Gerrard has become an articulate proponent of using those players who have appearances and years on the clock. He argued passionately in these pages and others a few years ago that ageism was damaging the potential contribution of those for whom the age of 30 had come and gone. He is not the only one in the City of Liverpool who wonders why the clear-sighted intelligence of Jamie Carragher has not been put to use up the road in L4.
“A player like Carra who has played that many times,” he says of his old friend. “I had a meeting with the FA and said, ‘These players that are earning a certain amount of caps… don’t let them go away from the game. Do more to keep them involved.’ A lot of clubs don’t let it happen, they don’t let players like that go. They keep them in. You see Ryan Giggs at United, Barcelona with [Luis] Enrique and [Pep] Guardiola. They say when you finish here: that [your departure] is happening.”
Liverpool’s willingness to let Gerrard and Carragher go is the elephant in the room where we eat.
Before he can start as a coach, there is a second MLS season for Gerrard. The vast range of climate systems you face when playing in the league was perhaps the biggest adjustment in a season during which Galaxy won just two of their 17 games outside LA: the third-worst away record in the league, before a play-off defeat at Seattle.
“I think every Premier League player who goes to MLS assumes they’re going to smash it and it’s going to be easy, a walk in the park. But it’s not – especially when you go somewhere when you’re 35 and the challenges are heat, humidity and plastic pitches. The hurdles that would be a big challenge when you’re 25 are a bigger challenge at 35.”
Gerrard looks with respect to Gary Neville’s decision to make Valencia his jumping-off point in management. “You have to tip your hat to him,” he said. “When you’re playing you’re in control of what you’re doing. When you’re a manager, you’re in control of 25 men with different egos.”
There have certainly been conversations with Liverpool about what lies beyond this autumn. “I have had a chat with Klopp,” Gerrard says. “I haven’t had an offer as such, but the club have let me know they are keen for me to come back but there hasn’t been a conversation where they have said, ‘We want you to do this, we want you to do that’. They have welcomed me back in. I loved it. I actually felt in those two weeks that I was new and young.”
For now, it is the M62 and A1 north to Wearside, reflecting on the Anfield elixir, wondering how it will really be if, come the turn of this year, he is back on the inside, forgoing Christmas and shouldering the onerous responsibility which comes with the need to win on that turf.