It is a fixture from the first month of the Football League and it will contain a first this weekend. Aston Villa and Everton’s initial meeting came in September 1888. Some 134 years later, the English top flight has a maiden game between two clubs whose managers are European Cup-winning captains. And if that is dependent on a job title – Phil Thompson was in caretaker charge of Liverpool when they faced Graeme Souness’ Blackburn in 2001 – it is nevertheless a sign of the stature of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.
As players, anyway. Jose Mourinho told Lampard he was the best footballer in the world. Zinedine Zidane once declared Gerrard was. In 2005, they finished second and third respectively in the Ballon d’Or voting, behind only Ronaldinho. Their presence in the dugouts now could seem a throwback: the days when great players were automatically afforded opportunities in management seemed consigned to the past by the career coaches, with their Mourinho-esque grasp of detail and their years of experience while contemporaries were still playing. But there seems to be a wider experiment, also including Patrick Vieira, if iconic players can use their charisma, their force of personality and the knowledge acquired from working for the world’s best managers to win as much in the technical area as they did on the pitch.
For Gerrard and Lampard, part of the answer has been to surround themselves with those with greater coaching credentials: first Mick Beale and then Neil Critchley alongside the current Villa manager, while Everton’s backroom staff includes Joe Edwards and Paul Clement. Yet a personal magnetism forms part of their tool kit: without Gerrard, it would be difficult to envisage Philippe Coutinho plying his trade for Villa now while Everton’s new midfielder Amadou Onana spoke of learning from Lampard. Their contacts have helped secure signings, whether the Chelsea loanees Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount at Derby, or Ryan Kent, who won the Young Player of the Year award in Scotland while owned by Liverpool.
They were fast-tracked on the basis of who they are. Lampard’s first job at Derby came after his uncle, Harry Redknapp, put in a word on his behalf with owner Mel Morris. Gerrard was the rookie parachuted into Rangers. And yet that preferential treatment is not necessarily a mistake. Gerrard ended Celtic’s run of nine straight titles and began to re-establish Rangers in Europe. Lampard took Derby to the play-offs, steered Chelsea to fourth while under a transfer embargo and kept Everton up when they had been five points from safety; social media snipers would argue otherwise, but his three posts so far have been qualified successes.
His win percentage with Everton is slightly higher than Gerrard’s at Villa. That each has lost his first game now means victory against the other may be required to prevent his side from being among the early-season stragglers. A first full season in charge and an opportunity to remodel their squads confers some pressure: four of Gerrard’s recruits are likely to start while Lampard has taken his tally of summer signings to five this week.
But it could also offer some insight into their thinking. Arguably Liverpool’s greatest player and definitely Chelsea’s record scorer had clear identities as players. Some of the obvious influences may not have rubbed off on them as managers: Lampard’s teams have rarely resembled Mourinho’s Chelsea, while Gerrard’s blueprint seems to borrow relatively little from Gerard Houllier’s or Rafa Benitez’s, though his narrow 4-3-3, with its emphasis on attacking full-backs, has more in common with Jurgen Klopp’s gameplan.
Their status as players forms the context to their managerial days, though having been spat out by Chelsea as a coach, Lampard is seeking to forge an alternative career, while the spectre of Liverpool still looms large over Gerrard. The Liverpudlian has, in theory, the more attractive job, given the licence to spend Villa have afforded, but Lampard has forged a bond with a crowd in Gerrard’s home city.
They have spent the best part of two decades being compared. It is a consequence of having careers in parallel, as each was prolific and Liverpool and Chelsea’s rivalry was a clash of opposites that had toxic moments. Their similarities fuelled contrasts, lending themselves to never-ending arguments about who was better. They missed penalties against Portugal together in the 2006 World Cup and went to MLS together nine years later.
They were icons of the Golden Generation, achievers for club but not country. They were famously incompatible for England, with the ultra-versatile Gerrard often shunted around the side while Lampard played as a No 8. They were competitors who eventually became closer when seniority bound them together in England squads and who dovetailed well on the same punditry panel. If they coveted the same role in teams, there are alternative versions of history where they could have teamed up to devastating effect: had Mourinho succeeded in taking Gerrard to Stamford Bridge, Claude Makelele’s presence behind each could have rendered him and Lampard “free eights”. Sven-Goran Eriksson’s devotion to 4-4-2 meant they rarely had such licence to roam in a trio anchored by Owen Hargreaves or Michael Carrick.
If each is a work in progress in management, distance underlines what phenomenal players they were. There are No 10s, attacking midfielders and wingers now, but few genuine goalscoring midfielders are also all-rounders with deeper starting positions. Gerrard’s Villa duo of John McGinn and Jacob Ramsey may be rare exceptions, but neither is at the level his manager reached, for the simple fact few are. Lampard scored 303 goals for club and country, Gerrard 211. Like skippering Champions League-winning sides, they are feats that stand the test of time. But for each, the ambition now is to etch their name in history as managers.