Alex Whybrow delivers a few pointers on what should come next
There isn’t one way to be successful managing Aston Villa – Ron Saunders was like a strict headmaster. Graham Taylor was the perfect gentleman. Brian Little was quiet and unassuming. Dean Smith was the everyman – one of us. All were very different in their styles, but all will be remembered fondly for decades to come.
At the same time, there isn’t one way to be unsuccessful in managing Aston Villa. Helpfully, for the purpose of this piece, Steven Gerrard has managed to exhibit most of these in his short time with the club.
Of course, results matter. The one thing that four of the managers listed above have in common is that they all achieved something at the club – on varying scales. Ultimately, that is probably the biggest factor, but there are certain things to avoid to make your success more likely.
First of all, know that if you haven’t done it for Villa, then we don’t care. I assume this is the same for fans of most clubs, but Villa fans seem particularly unimpressed by a ‘big name’. The mistake both Gerrard and Christian Purslow made was to think his playing career would impress us. There seemed to be an underlying feeling that we should be grateful for him to be here. Maybe if he’d have won a few more matches for us, his background would have been something to, if not celebrate, appreciate a bit more. But, ultimately, ‘his name’ was meaningless to how the fans took to him.
Perhaps it’s a Brummie thing. As a sweeping generalisation, Brummies are proud, but utterly unpretentious. If you look like you’re getting a bit too big for your boots you’ll almost definitely get called a dickhead. Maybe Gerrard needed a Brummie in his extensive coaching staff.
It is highly likely that Gerrard was doomed to never be a good manager for us. He certainly didn’t show many signs of knowing what to do, especially once his right-hand man left (although we weren’t that great before then). But not having the supporters on your side will always come back to bite you.
The reaction of the away fans against Fulham was bordering on unprecedented. It doesn’t happen very often that a fan base is so loud (and creative) when they have lost faith in the manager. This wasn’t a result of one poor performance, it had been building up for weeks and months.
For a man who insisted on a ‘no excuses’ culture amongst the players, he would come out with a lot of excuses. The players weren’t doing what they were told, they were struggling to understand his very complex and clever tactics, the new assistant manager was trying to change too much too soon… As a fan, this blatant hypocrisy and blame shifting doesn’t go down too well.
There are other little things. If we were away at a place that gave him a lot of stick, he always seemed more interested in the opposing fans than ours. That little backwards walk he did at Old Trafford, winking at Everton – great. But it’s not about you. As soon as things got tough, he stopped acknowledging our fans altogether.
He strikes me as a man that hasn’t been told ‘no’ enough in his life. “No Steven, that isn’t a good idea”. “No Steven, you can’t do that”. “No Steven, I’m not playing Phil Collins”.
During the last game before lockdown, against Leicester, we got beat 4-0 and it was one of the worst performances for a long time – probably as bad as Fulham for Gerrard. But Dean Smith wasn’t barracked with songs calling for his head in an attempt to force the owners’ hands. Maybe that saved his job and gave him the time to put it right. Within six months, we were one of the most exciting sides in the country.
Gerrard was never going to be afforded that from our fans, because he had done nothing to get them on side. Whether it was because he didn’t think he needed us or whether he just assumed we’d love him automatically, because that’s all he’s ever known, I’m not sure. But if he expected the fans to drag him out of the mess that he had made, he was terribly mistaken.
Of course, we’ll get told in the coming days and months how horrible we were to poor Steven. How we didn’t show any respect to this Premier League legend, and how he’s probably better off away from such an ungrateful fanbase who have unrealistic expectations of not being seventeenth in the league. Or maybe the Fulham game was so bad that even those guys can’t defend him?
On a more practical level, Gerrard just didn’t know what to do with the players he had. Every single one of them looked lost in a formation that played to nobody’s strength. He made poor team selections, which changed every week, playing in a poor formation and he made poor subs.
All of that meant that he had to go. But it was his lack of relationship with the fans that meant he had to go now.
It was a tone deaf appointment that went the way many of us expected, and I am grateful to the fans that were there against Fulham for leaving him and the club in no uncertain terms how we feel. It’s been a complete waste of a year and (I dread to think how much) money. The connection that many of us felt towards the club has taken a massive hit, although maybe his sacking will go some way to reunite us – such was the feeling towards him by the end.
I really hope that the club has learned a lot of lessons from this mess. Not hiring someone the fanbase has disliked for twenty years would be a great start. Hiring an excellent manager with a proper plan would be even better.