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Steven Gerrard

Death stares and Sweet Caroline: How Gerrard is proving himself a Liverpool manager in the making

08:00 GMT 10/12/2021
Steven Gerrard Anfield return GFX
The Reds icon returns to Anfield with Aston Villa on Saturday - but what is it like to play under him?

Andy Firth will never forget the tap on the shoulder at the breakfast table, and the sense of dread as he made his way to the manager’s office.

“I’m walking slowly, racking my brain,” the Rangers goalkeeper tells GOAL, smiling at the memory. “I’m thinking ‘what is it, what have I done wrong?’”

Once there, he was confronted not only by Steven Gerrard, but by his coaching team too. Michael Beale, Gary McAllister, Tom Culshaw, Jordan Milsom and Scott Mason; all of them sat stern-faced, ready.

“The gaffer grabs the TV remote,” Firth says. “And he goes ‘Andy, do you want to explain this, please?’

“I’m absolutely shaking, and then I look up at the screen...”

At that point, Gerrard grinned. The clip showed a shooting drill from the previous day’s training session.

“The gaffer had joined in that day,” explains Firth. “A ball has dropped to him on the edge of the box, I’ve set myself for one of his trademark blasts, and he’s absolutely done me, sat me down and dinked me. 

“And now it’s up on the big screen! I thought I was about to get a b*llocking and instead they are all sitting there p*ssing themselves!

“But that’s what he’s like. He can be super serious, as we all know, but there’s another side to him as well, a lighter side.”

It is fair to say that Gerrard has continued making a big impression since swapping Rangers for Aston Villa in November. He has won three of his first four Premier League matches, and on Saturday the Liverpool legend will make an emotional return to Anfield.

“It’s going to be strange isn’t it?” says Edvard ‘Eddi’ Tagseth, who played under Gerrard when he was coach of the Reds’ Under-18s side for the 2017-18 season.

“I’m sure he will get an incredible reception from the supporters, but I’m sure, knowing him, that all he’ll be thinking about is winning. That’s what he is, a winner.”

Both Firth and Tagseth are well-placed to speak about Gerrard the manager, and what it is like to play for one of the game’s modern greats.

“Surreal,” is Tagseth’s description. He had moved to Merseyside as a 16-year-old, and found out about Gerrard’s appointment through a Norwegian newspaper.

“I was already buzzing, and then you read that and it’s like double, triple excitement,” he says. 

“You meet him for the first time after only seeing him on the telly or on FIFA, and you have to look twice to make sure he’s real! Then you start to get to know him and you quickly find out he’s a really great man, and a great coach too.”

Firth had trained with Gerrard towards the back end of the midfielder's playing career, and then again when he was took up his role in the Liverpool academy. And having taken over as Rangers boss in the summer of 2018, it was not long before Gerrard came calling again.

“I was at Barrow,” Firth says. “I got a message from Mick Beale which said ‘we need a chat’, and he just asked me if I fancied going up there. I didn’t have to think too long about it.”

Firth found a rather different Gerrard when he got there.

“With the U18s he was very bubbly,” he says. “He took things seriously and did everything correctly of course, but there isn’t that pressure that comes with needing to win every game, needing to compete for trophies. 

“When I got to Rangers, you could see the change.”

Tagseth, who now plays back in Norway with Rosenborg, remembers his season with Gerrard fondly.

“He made you feel like a first-team player,” he says. “Everything was so professional, so thorough. It didn’t matter if we were playing Everton or Manchester United, or Bury in a friendly, we knew everything about the opposition, and how we were going to play against them. 

“We were only youth teamers, but he made you feel like a proper Liverpool player.”

At Rangers, Gerrard took over a club that was struggling to keep pace with Celtic, its fierce cross-city rivals, and which needed a significant overhaul, both in terms of personnel and mentality.

“The word ‘standards’ came up with him all the time,” Firth says. “At the start of each season, the gaffer and Mick sat down with a few of the boys and they worked out what our 'creed' was for the coming year. 

“Every little detail was covered. What did it need to look like every day in training, in the gym, in recovery sessions, rest days, travel, in the media, at club functions, all these things.

“We all had to sign it as a team. It was our commitment to each other, and to the manager and his staff.”

Tagseth remembers Gerrard as a hands-on coach, approachable and often brutally honest with his feedback.

“Oh he’d tell you if he wasn’t happy!” he says, with a chuckle. “But at the same time, if you did something good he would make you feel 10 feet tall.

“I remember him telling the media that I reminded him of James Milner, because I’d played in a few different positions for him, and of course that went everywhere in Norway! 

“But when you hear something like that from someone like Steven, it means so much.”

Firth considers Gerrard a friend - they remain in contact - but he too speaks of that tough streak.

“Everyone will tell you about ‘the stare’,” he says. “He doesn’t b*llock you, he just looks straight through you and you absolutely fall apart! Yeah, you don't want the stare!

He adds: “We had a lot of discipline problems in his first season. I think it was 11 red cards or something silly like that. The following pre-season, we went to Portugal and I remember he clamped down on that straight away. 

“In the first meeting, he warned us that there’d be heavy fines for anyone letting the team down through lack of discipline. He got stuck right into us, told us we'd never win anything if we kept killing ourselves like we were, but he made the players take ownership. You saw a big improvement after that.”

At Rangers, Gerrard generally left the day-to-day training to Beale, one of the most respected coaches around. It was on match-days and in meetings, both team and individual, that his influence was felt most.

“That was when he was zoned in,” says Firth. “That was when you really felt his leadership and his presence.

“He was massive on mentality. Everyone looks at the Old Firm or the European games, but he drummed into us the need to be on it every single time, whether it was Celtic, Kilmarnock, Livingston, whoever.

“He always had that old-school streak in him. The amount of times he’d say to us ‘just be a horrible team to play against’. He drummed into us that we had to earn the right to play, that it was the opponents’ cup final and we had to be up for the fight.”

Both Tagseth and Firth laugh when they talk about Gerrard ‘stepping in’ during sessions.

“Oh my God!” Tagseth says. “He was amazing. It was a treat to see him. 

“We’d have Rondos, where you have two boxes stuck together, and he would always pick me and Abdi Sharif to go in with the coaches. He knew we ran and ran, so he wouldn’t have to. 

“But I’ll never forget being in the middle there and watching him just pop it about for fun. It was scary.”

Firth agrees.

“He just had that switch where he’d go back into ‘player mode’,” he grins. “It was amazing to watch.”

Gerrard, of course, left Rangers a champion, ending Celtic’s dominance of Scottish football in spectacular style last season, with his side delivering an unbeaten league campaign.

For Firth, the memories are fresh, particularly the scenes in the dressing room after a late win at Livingston back in March, which involved Alfredo Morelos dancing, topless, to Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’.

“That was the gaffer’s thing all season, ‘get the tunes on’!” he says. “I think it came from when we beat Galatasaray at Ibrox in the Europa League play-off, and it just became the soundtrack to our season.

“The gaffer actually got sent off at half-time in that Livingston game. He was raging, and he was sat next to me in the second half. 

“I learned that day that he’s a terrible watcher! He’s alright on the sideline because he can move around, but in the stands he was sitting on his hands and going mad.

“We got a late winner and that was the biggest celebration I’ve seen from him. I think it was pure relief. He didn’t even do a speech, he was just bear hugging everyone, the tunes were on and he was bouncing up and down. That will always stick in the memory.”

Saturday, of course, will be intriguing. It is widely suggested, expected even, that Gerrard will be the man to eventually succeed Jurgen Klopp as Liverpool manager, and this will be the first time Reds fans get to properly see one of their former talisman’s sides in action.

“I think he has similarities with Klopp in the way he treats players,” says Firth. “I can remember one of my first training sessions with Jurgen. Philippe Coutinho whipped one into the top bin, and Jurgen ran on the pitch and picked him up! We were all looking round laughing our heads off.

“I think as a manager you need that balance of players loving you, but also being sh*t scared of you too. Klopp has got that down to a tee, and so has the gaffer. He just commands respect, and he makes you feel like you want to deliver for him.”

Aston Villa’s players, one feels, are in for a hell of a ride. Having served his apprenticeship north of the border, having stopped ‘10 in a row’ and restored Rangers’ pride, it is time for Gerrard to take on the Premier League.

Next stop; Anfield. You don’t want to miss it.