Friday 20 April 2018

Aidan O'Hara: Lessons from Merson must be learned if Gerrard is to thrive in management

Gerrard faces the dilemma of being unproven at managerial level. Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images
Gerrard faces the dilemma of being unproven at managerial level. Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Paul Merson tells a story about what it's like to have been a player at an elite club before dropping down the divisions and trying to manage players who will never reach your former standard.

"I was manager once in a game at Walsall and I said to the full-back to put it down the channel for the first 15 minutes because we were a passing team but you had to earn the right to play. 'Don't play it inside because teams are going to squeeze us'," recalls Merson.

"I told him that after 15 minutes the game will open up then you can start playing it inside and we can play our stuff.

"We kicked off, the ball comes back to him and he passes it straight inside to the centre-half and we nearly lose the ball. I looked at my coach and said, 'Is he taking the p*** out of me?' He wasn't.

"You do get used to it but by the time you get that knowledge you might be out of time in the job. The players at the top, you tell them once what you want them to do and that is it, you don't tell them again. When you come down the leagues you have to tell these guys three, four, five times."


Having been a player at Walsall, Merson took over as manager as a 36-year-old, the same age as Steven Gerrard is now, and given that he is facing into his first January in nearly 20 years without knowing what dressing-room he will be in next, Merson wouldn't be the worst person for Gerrard to speak with.

Like Ryan Giggs, Gerrard faces the dilemma of being unproven at managerial level, which makes it difficult to get a decent job but, equally, choosing the wrong club can kill a career before it has even began.

Ryan Giggs lost out to Bob Bradley for the Swansea job earlier this season and it seems like neither side were interested in going through the interview process again when Bradley was sacked after just 11 games. For Giggs, it had the potential to kill a managerial career before it had even began.

In just over a year, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink took Burton Albion, who had a good structure in place, from fourth in League Two to top of League One before leaving to take over at Queens Park Rangers. He then lasted 11 months at Loftus Road before being sacked and joining the managerial carousel which exists beyond the bright lights of the Premier League where the weekly grind quickly wears down even the most optimistic managers.

"When I first got the job I'd ring up other managers and they'd ask me, 'How are you enjoying it?' and I was saying, 'I love it. I love Saturday. You can't beat that buzz'," adds Merson.

"And every one of them would say to me, 'Not for long you won't, you'll hate Saturday' and I used to put the phone down and think, 'How could you hate Saturday?'

"Within six months or a year I dreaded it. Loved Monday to Friday, hated Saturday."

Merson's parents had to leave the ground during his final game in charge at Walsall such was the level of abuse he was receiving and, as much as dealing with lesser players, coping with smaller crowds can present its own challenges.

"You can't help it if stuff gets to you. When you're at Arsenal and having a nightmare in front of 35,000 people, if a thousand or two thousand have the hump with you, you can't hear them," explains Merson. "And that's the same for any player at any big ground.

"At Walsall you can hear everything. You'd be standing on the sideline and you'd hear a geezer on the phone saying, 'Oh my God I'm at Walsall watching this s***'."

The difference between dugout and television, where Merson is often a figure of fun in his role with Sky Sports, is simple - what you can't hear, can't hurt you. Nevertheless, it's something that Gerrard needs to get into quickly before the comfort of the studio seat - from where he watched Liverpool beat Manchester City on Saturday - takes precedence over the buzz of the managerial hot-seat.

"You need to get into it pretty quickly because when you get into media work you drift away," says Merson. "If he starts getting into media, it's so good that you think, 'This is nice, it's comfortable'. If you say something wrong on the telly you might have 50,000 people shouting at you, 'Merson you dummy, Merson this and that'. . . I can't hear 'em."

Unlike the generation of elite players that came before him, the likes of Gerrard have earned enough money that they don't need to go into management in order to make a living when they finish playing.

Given how quickly the optimism gets quashed, it's difficult to understand why anybody would willingly put themselves through it.

Last year, Sean Dyche took a none-too-subtle dig at Gary Neville and former players, like Gerrard, who may well want to come in at the top but haven't had the experience to thrive.


"I put the miles on the coach with youth teams, being assistant manager etc. At least I'd a feel of the pitfalls and hardships when I eventually became manager," said Dyche.

"When you're sitting with your box of tricks on the TV, after the event, looking at games I think most people can give a good opinion. After the event: easy. When you're on the sideline and you've seconds to debate a decision - or leave it alone. . The pressure is completely different."

By turning down MK Dons and getting involved with Liverpool, Gerrard is at least making the right noises about getting into management.

But if Gerrard were to fail, like Neville, he would be chalked down as yet another great player who couldn't hack it as a manager.

The safety net for Gerrard, as Merson and Neville have shown, is that while there might not be a club who want you to do a job, at least there will always be a media outlet happy to have you talk about it.

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