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Steven Gerrard: My Love for Liverpool Made Me Reject Chelsea Move

Steven Gerrard: My Love for Liverpool Made Me Reject Chelsea Move

Wednesday, 21 November, 2018 - 08:30
Liverpool icon and Rangers manager Steven Gerrard. (AFP)
London – Donald McRae
The Rangers manager on why his club is like Liverpool, his craving for pressure and what he thinks now about rejecting Chelsea

“It’s a serious business,” Steven Gerrard says with familiar intensity when he is asked about laughter and football. The former Liverpool captain and enduring icon, who is carving out an impressive new career as the manager of Rangers, considers a memory that belongs to his mother. In Make Us Dream, a feature-length documentary about Gerrard’s 27 years at Liverpool, from the age of eight, his mum remembers how he laughed often as a little boy.

Since then there has been glory and pain, loyalty and agony. I know Gerrard pretty well and, in 2015, just as his emotional final season as a Liverpool player approached the end, we spent a memorable few months working on his autobiography. He was much warmer than his slightly morose public image – and he smiled a lot when recalling the sweetest times. But, with Gerrard also facing his darkest days, laughter was limited.

“It really is a serious profession because so many lives are affected by what happens on the pitch,” he says. “I’m serious because I care. I lived my time at Liverpool to the full and the lives of everyone around me were affected. Lots of people think being a footballer is the best job in the world. You should be smiling all the time. Of course I loved it but that intense pressure is powerful.”

Make Us Dream captures Gerrard’s riveting highs and lows, his searing commitment to Liverpool and the emotional toll he suffered.

“You crave those feelings of pressure. It’s a drug. It gets you. Football grips me.”

Liverpool and Glasgow are similar in their footballing passion and for harboring two fierce rivals. “That’s one of the reasons I went for it. Rangers are like Liverpool in many ways. The city, the people’s love for the club and the pressures are the same. I did it for 17 years as a professional and loved it, and I hope this starts a new journey.”

Before discussing how Rangers and management grip him, Gerrard lingers over his Liverpool days. He won the Champions League – in a miraculous Gerrard-inspired comeback from 3-0 down to Milan in the 2005 final, three League Cups, two FA Cups, the Uefa Cup and 114 caps for England. Gerrard scored many incredible goals, hit countless wondrous passes and made ferocious tackles. His skill and commitment, as a local kid, meant he was adored by Liverpool’s fans. But some burned his shirt and called him a traitor when he nearly joined Chelsea. In the end his love for Liverpool meant he stayed.

“The most important thing is the final decision was the right one. Nine out of 10 people might argue I would have made more money, won more trophies, blah, blah. But them people are not me. They’re not in my city and they don’t have that connection with my club. That’s why I’m the one in 10.”

Gerrard almost helped Liverpool win an elusive Premier League title in 2014 – only for his infamous slip against Chelsea to derail that challenge. A year later he told me he thought about the slip every day. “It’s still regular,” he says when asked if it is the same in 2018. “I don’t know whether it’s every day but I think about it a lot. I don’t think it will ever go away. But I wouldn’t be the player I was or have the hunger to be a manager if I didn’t care.”

Few players are as emotionally driven as Gerrard. But a strong manager needs to hide his emotions and almost become an actor. “It’s a good word to use. But I’m not going to change. I will always wear my heart on my sleeve. I always want to be real, honest and authentic. I’m not a good actor. I am who I am. If it’s not going to work in management I’d rather go down being me.”

Rangers are third in the Scottish Premiership, two points behind Celtic and are in contention to qualify from their Europa League group. “I’m quietly satisfied,” Gerrard says. “We’re in a nice position but there’s lots of hard work ahead. The challenge hasn’t got any bigger or smaller than when I walked in.”

As a player Gerrard showed empathy for many of his teammates and that attribute helps him as a manager. “You have to know your players as people. I’ve had to learn how to manage people individually and not just as a team. That’s what I’m really enjoying because it’s about managing the individuals. If you get that right the team will be fine. The players have given me absolutely everything. Even the games we’ve lost hasn’t been through downing tools or not emptying everything for the club.”

Does it hurt more to lose as a manager? “It’s the same. You take it home with you. It’s a nasty feeling and a horrible taste in your mouth. If you win it’s fantastic. That’s why we love it.”

Gerrard’s smile resembles a grimace when I ask if it is possible to enjoy being a manager. “It’s the same as playing … you only enjoy it when you’re winning.”

Last season Gerrard coached Liverpool’s Under-18s. “I learned a lot preparing and delivering sessions, speaking to players one-to-one, using different formations. It gave me a year’s driving lessons. I wasn’t expecting the Rangers offer. Do I think it came a bit early? Probably. But when it’s a club as big as Rangers you only get one opportunity to manage them. So I had to reflect. Where am I strong? Who do I need to help me in areas where I lack experience? The staff Rangers put around me have been absolutely brilliant.”

The steel that defined his playing career is already clear in Gerrard the manager. Last month, after Rangers lost to Aberdeen in a League Cup semi-final, Gerrard said he would buy better players if his squad squandered further opportunities. At the next press conference Jordan Rossiter, a young player who has struggled with injury, was asked about those comments.

“I’ll answer that,” Gerrard interrupted. “It’s a warning. That’s for me, not him. He’s been injured for two years. At a big club, we expect big players to step up on big occasions and provide big moments. If that doesn’t happen, at any big club, the managers and the recruitment will find better players or players who will do that.”

Was Gerrard making a calculated point? “It was off-the-cuff. I don’t plan any press conference or speech. Obviously I have an idea what I am going to say to the players or what’s coming my way from the media. But I’ve always tried to be honest and open. I always protect my team and myself, and I wasn’t out to belittle anyone. I just felt the question was for me.”

Gerrard has learned a lot from Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool. “I was like a sponge, watching and learning. I watch him on TV and see how he handles situations. I could never be Jürgen with his charisma and energy. But if I can take a few things from him it will be such a help. And if I text, call or see him, Jürgen’s always got time for me.”

What was the most valuable lesson he gleaned from Klopp? “Jürgen’s really good at switching off. When the game is on he’s very emotional but once it’s over he can park the emotion. That’s why he’s so good at handling the pressure. After cup finals and a big setback he’ll be the one to start the party. Tomorrow is a different day and that’s a big lesson I have to learn. I have to live my life outside football while still being a manager. It is difficult but I’m trying.”

Gerrard admires José Mourinho but what has he made of the Manchester United manager’s surly attitude this season? “I think of one word: winner. He’s a winner. When winners feel that stuff around them is affecting their chances of winning then maybe the behavior changes. But he’s still a world-class manager and he’s already won things at United. It wouldn’t surprise me if he won more trophies at United. I think it’s him doing things on purpose, to galvanize and get that siege mentality. It would be foolish to write him off.”

How does Gerrard escape the consuming demands of management? “My family help me switch off. Having three girls and a baby boy is perfect for taking my mind off football.”

For Gerrard, “playing football is the easy bit. But you soon learn it’s affecting other people’s lives. It’s about more than just turning up and playing – which is what you do at a kickabout in the park when you can laugh and joke.”

Did Gerrard lose that innocence when he became Liverpool’s captain at 23? “Younger. The crowd make you realize you’re playing football for them as well. It hits you right from your debut – which for me came at 18 [in November 1998].”

Yet there is always space for dreams in football. Does Gerrard still imagine himself as Liverpool’s manager one day? “Anything is possible. Do I want to be the Liverpool manager right now? No, I want to be the Rangers manager. I want to be successful at Rangers. It’s a silly question if you ask do I want to be Liverpool manager one day. I think everyone on the planet knows the answer to that. But I love Jürgen Klopp and I believe he can help Liverpool win the Premier League. I know what it will mean to the fans because they suffered so much in 2014. So we’re in a great place – and I say ‘we’ because I’m a fan and always will be. But I’ve got two teams in my heart now. Rangers and Liverpool.”

It seems the right time for levity and to ask Gerrard if he has got used to Rangers’ blue shirt? “I don’t have to wear it, do I?” he says with a dry little laugh. “But it’s blue, red, white and black. I like it.”

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