Before the question had ended came an interruption as forceful as a crunching tackle at Melwood from a different era. In the plush executive suite three of Anfield’s new main stand, Steven Gerrard had been asked about his observations on academy football; whether it frustrates him that physicality has vanished from junior levels.
The P-word provoked an instantaneous reaction - as if it were, perhaps, his mission statement. "My teams will be physical," insisted Gerrard, whose emergence, remember, owed much to that morning he deemed it necessary to tell manager Gérard Houllier that Paul Ince was yesterday’s midfielder by shuddering into Liverpool’s club captain, robbing him of possession, before lifting his head and spraying a glorious pass across the field like it was as natural as breathing. “Oh my god,” Jamie Redknapp thought inwardly – knowing his position on the pitch was next to Ince’s. “I might be next…”
That episode happened nearly 20 years ago. Earlier this week, Gerrard spoke ahead of his announcement as Liverpool’s Under-18s coach, replacing Neil Critchley who earns a promotion to the Under-23s, filling the space left behind by Michael Beale after he took the interesting career decision to become Sao Paulo’s assistant in December.
Gerrard had “a couple” of opportunities to become a manager in his own right, one of them with MK Dons, before returning to Liverpool’s academy in January, shadowing Critchley, Mike Garrity, Tom Culshaw and Barry Lewtas, coaches across a variety of ages – as well as Alex Inglethorpe and Steve Heighway, academy directors past and present.
Gerrard has had an authorisation to assist in each of the games he’s been involved in, and though he was invited to say a few words ahead of Liverpool’s Under-18s 2-0 victory over Manchester City in March when he apparently reminded players who they were playing for and not to fear any one despite facing opponents they had lost 7-0 and 3-1 to earlier in the season, he “hasn’t had to make any big decisions, or any substitutions, formations or tactics just yet.” Following conversations with Jürgen Klopp - the person he describes as being “behind all of this” – and, having made a connection with the age group he will soon take care of, Gerrard realised which path he wished to take.
“It is a place where I can go and make many, many mistakes because that is what I have been told I am going to do and I probably will do that,” he explained. “Every manager and coach I have spoken to has said I will make loads of mistakes, that your first job is better to be away from the cameras. But you still get that little bit of exposure with the U18s – LFC TV, do interviews with the local paper. I think it is a great age and a good idea to start there.
“The other offers I got it would have been learning on the job in at the deep end and I probably wasn't ready for those jobs. I might have been but I didn't want to take any risks, especially when there is no timescale or plan of where I want to be in a certain time. The 18s made sense.”
Gerrard’s appointment comes as a boost for Liverpool’s academy after it was banned earlier this month from signing youth players from other English clubs for two years and fined £100,000 for making an illegal approach to a 12-year-old at Stoke City. Since Heighway’s departure in 2007 when he fell out with Rafael Benítez, who wanted greater controls across the club, there has been a feeling that the Kirkby site has been without a figurehead with personal experience of what may follow for young players when they are promoted to Melwood. Gerrard and Jamie Carragher tell stories about Heighway’s car appearing at his parking bay in front of the youth team training pitches back in the 1990s and suddenly, standards were raised to the sharpest levels. Heighway had played 475 games for Liverpool.
It was suggested to Gerrard that things that he says will simply resonate more.
“I hope it does because I've been through that process from the age of eight,” he replied. “I've had the injuries, I've had the highs and lows and that will help me as a manager and coach. I'll treat players how I expect to be treated myself.”
Some youngsters had been shy in his presence at first. “But once you start speaking to them as a group and start pulling them individually and they know you are approachable; you tell them that you are there for them and it is all about them then they get comfortable around you very, very quickly.”
Comfortable but not too comfortable. “I will be approachable I think you have got to be. I will try and take all the best bits of all the managers I have worked with and the best managers, the ones I enjoyed working for, were all very approachable, always very honest and fair with me, always gave me feedback whether it was positive or negative. If those managers were fair and honest with me I would always respect them.”
The reality of Gerrard’s status as a Liverpool player meant potentially, it might not just be the players in awe of him. “The deal with Alex [Inglethorpe] was 'If you're going to mentor me be honest and straight with me. If you see something I am doing wrong or you want me to change something then tell me because if you don't I'll never learn anything.”
Gerrard, it seems, does not want players to be like him exactly but at the very least to share the passion for football – or the “obsession” as he has called it.
“As a player I got many, many tackles wrong and went over the top a few times and I had to come and apologise,” he remembers. “That is not something I want to put into kids or young players at all, but you have to prepare them for the top level and the top level is physical and demanding and it is not just about tackles and competing. It is about trying to prepare them for the last five or 10 minutes of games when it is hard and your legs are burning and your heart is burning and it is not a nice place to be in as a player. But you have to get them to be mentally strong to be prepared for that.
“I hate watching footballers and football when there is no physical side and you don’t compete. There is a showboating mentality through academies. A lot of kids that play the games think they have to do 10 lollipops or Cruyff turns to look good or stand out. We all love a bit of skill and talent, I love all that, but the other side of the game is huge. It’s massive.”
Why has a culture shift happened since he slammed into Paul Ince?
“I don’t know, computer games? There are a lot of skilful players in the game that young players try and emulate – probably too much instead of trying to be themselves and playing to their own strengths. I think they try and emulate other players in the game and try and model their game on others players like a Ronaldo or that type of player. Whereas you have to look at yourself and say, ‘What have I got? What are my strengths? How can I improve my weaknesses and become a player in my own right?’”
There is a perception that academy footballers are over-privileged and too polite when it really matters.
“I like streetwise footballers,” Gerrard says. “The kids in our academy are coming into an unbelievable place to work, they are getting boss food, they are getting picked up and the full-time lads get a lot more money now than we got we first started. There is a case where they get a little bit too much, too soon and they sort of get into that comfort zone of working in a lovely place and then it is a big shock for them when they have to move on or get released. So that is what you have to drive into the players that while they are here you have to make sacrifices and give it your best, don’t get too comfortable, because the hard work starts when you get out the academy.
“I think a lot of them are shocked with the step up to Melwood from academy,” he continued. “I've seen a lot of players who have come out of the academy with huge reputations and go into the Melwood dressing room and then it is sink-or-swim and a lot of them sink.”
In his 2015 autobiography – 13 months before Trent Alexander-Arnold made his Liverpool debut – Gerrard said that the then 16-year-old had a “terrific chance of making it as a top professional,” having watched him while studying for his coaching badges. Since making his debut last October Alexander-Arnold has made 12 first team appearances.
“Jürgen’s given a lot of debuts this season and there are a lot more chances than when I was in the team,” Gerrard said. “There is a pathway but not for all of them so as well as competing together they are competing against themselves to reach Melwood and get that debut.
“Trent's going to be a beauty.”