Dave Woodhall comments on Steven Gerrard and what comes next.
I really did. I thought that when Steven Gerrard finally put us all out of our misery I’d be angry at the eleven wasted months between his appointment and last night’s implosion. I was, and still am, angry that all the ideas we were sold when these owners brought in were scrapped.
In those days it was all about continuity, employing people in key positions so that when the manager, or the head coach if you prefer, left, the system would continue. It worked, and for the first time in a decade we were making progress. Then as soon as we stopped making progress, the whole system was scrapped in favour of Christian Purslow’s vanity project. The head coach was no longer first amongst equals, he was in total control. The coaching staff were replaced, Academy management sacked and the transfer policy went from signing young players for the future to established stars for the present. It struck me then, and I’m yet to be convinced otherwise, that three years of progress were sacrificed in order to get more TV coverage in the Far East.
Instead of anger, though, I’m more relieved now he’s gone. It shows that the owners are still ambitious, and that doing the right thing is more important to them than loyalty to an old friend. Gerrard had to go – 32 points from 32 games tells its own story, and the way he got to them was just as bad. There was no discernible style of play and no attempt to get the best out of the squad available. He alienated Tyrone Mings and made John McGinn captain seemingly because he’s a bit of a laugh round the dressing room. Then he brought in an assistant who reportedly didn’t have a passport, which might seem unimportant but was a prime example of the little things that should be looked after.
Once the season got underway there were clearly problems from the off. Gerrard attempted to shoehorn Watkins and Ings into the side when it clearly didn’t work and bombed out players for no apparent reason. There were problems with injuries but with Boubacar Kamara out there was no attempt to replace him with a similar type of player. The Luiz/McGinn/Ramsey midfield was clearly unbalanced yet Marvelous Nakamba, perfectly adequate as a stop-gap, sat on the bench alongside Morgan Sanson, both players knowing they’d never get a game. Too often the only attacking idea was to give the ball to Coutinho or Buendia and hope for the best. It didn’t work.
When Gerrard arrived it was said that he had a winning mentality and would be able to attract a better class of player. The first should be a given in any manager at any level, and it didn’t do Roy Keane much good, to name the most obvious. The second is more doubtful. I’m not sure that a player will choose a club based on how good a player the manager used to be, but in any case Philippe Coutinho is hardly the best evidence to put in its defence.
If I do have a small amount of sympathy for Gerrard it’s that the criticism he’s been getting isn’t all about him, it’s the culmination of years of frustration. Back in the days when Doug was in charge things were simple – when he left some random rich bloke would take over, spend a fortune and we’d win trophies. What happened in reality is that we had three/four rich blokes (albeit one of them was only rich in his own mind), all of them have spent fortunes. Two left us worse than they found us and the third/fourth has so far not made as much progress as anyone would have hoped.
We’ve stood still for too long and, yet again, clubs we should be competing with are moving further ahead. To go over old ground, it’s less than eighteen months since Arsenal and Spurs were finishing seventh and eighth after a season when we were beating them without breaking sweat. They’ve regrouped while at the same time Newcastle are giving a lesson in how to be taken over successfully. Once again, Villa seem to be left behind, making up the numbers, and Gerrard has been the focal point of that frustration.
Supporters have been talking about disconnection, and again that isn’t entirely Gerrard’s fault. He inherited a situation where he was not only following a popular manager, but one who lived our dreams. I’ve never known a time of togetherness like those incredible three seasons when Dean Smith was in charge and there was no-one who could have replicated that feeling. When results started to go against Gerrard, and he didn’t exactly attempt to ingratiate himself with fans, the feelings of disillusionment quickly set in.
All managerial appointments are important, but some more than others and this is the case now. We’re facing perhaps the most important one since Martin O’Neill left, and look how that went. The owners, Purslow, whoever makes the final decision, have got to get it right otherwise they’re in danger of losing much of the goodwill they’ve enjoyed since their arrival. What they should also be doing is to go back to what they did right at the start.
Ripping it up and starting again hasn’t worked this time and we’re now where we’ve been too often. The new man will have to bring in his own staff, work with players who have been alienated, introduce his own system to others who’ve been used to working with a different one and galvanise supporters from the off. We can’t afford another failure and neither can we afford wholesale changes on an annual basis.