Rarely, and perhaps not since Gordon Strachan and Alex McLeish stood near each other on the touchline, have two Old Firm managers known each other as intimately as Brendan Rodgers and Steven Gerrard.
This isn’t to say they are friends. Alan Brazil caused a stir a few days ago when claiming on the morning show he hosts with AllyMcCoist on TalkRADIO that Rodgers and Gerrard don’t get on.
Gerrard did write in his autobiography that Rodgers’ team-talks were shot through with “over-confidence” towards the end of Liverpool’s so-near-yet-so-far title tilt in 2014. But surely this can be read as a positive rather than a negative. Pre-match talks, especially those delivered to players eyeing a league championship, wouldn’t be much good if they were faltering sermons besieged with self-doubt. Rodgers could not deliver one of those if he tried.
But it’s clear the pair are not as friendly as they could be. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. They were once manager and captain rather than team-mates. Although coming to the end of his gilded career, Gerrard still felt loyalty to the dressing room. He was not necessarily going to be Rodgers’ ally.
Then there’s the awkwardness of Gerrard knowing Rodgers saw him at one of his most vulnerable moments. The midfielder was dropped by the manager for a Champions League clash at Real Madrid, after which, it’s said, their relationship was never the same. Around this time Gerrard went to see Rodgers in his office – an office where, on a flipchart, the manager has drawn a stick man wearing a jagged crown.
“Boss, I need to improve,” says Gerrard. Rodgers is conscious this isn’t any player in standing in front of him. It’s Steven Gerrard. Stevie G. He’s 32 years old and still the England captain – he scored in a 5-1 destruction of Germany 17 years ago this weekend. What he says is going to resonate.
“If I don’t have the confidence in what I’m doing, if I don’t believe what I’m telling him is right, I fluff my lines,” reflected Rodgers later.
“I tell him that he is the pillar of this group. We are representing millions of people, so you’ve got to get your chest out. Wear the crown. You’re the king of your own destiny.”
As a sportswriter for the likes of the Independent on Sunday and Mail on Sunday, Michael Calvin watched both men operate for years. But his analysis has been conducted more forensically in recent times; initially when interviewing Rodgers for a well-received book on managers entitled Living On A Volcano, where the above anecdote appears, and, more recently, when researching his current book, published last month, called State of Play.
This is Calvin’s impressive attempt to update Arthur Hopcraft’s classic, The Football Man, and get under the skin of the modern game. Gerrard is included in a chapter entitled “Footsteps”, which examines bloodlines in football. It’s clear Calvin believed, as did many, that Gerrard was being nurtured to take over as manager at Anfield.
“There was a sense, if not quite the chosen one, that there was an obviously logical pathway,” Calvin tells me. “I still think he will return to Liverpool at one stage or another.”
While his interview with Gerrard took place this year, it was still a few months before the Rangers manager clocked on for work at Ibrox with such initially impressive results. It illustrates just how quickly, and profoundly, Gerrard’s life has changed. They met at the Liverpool Academy at Melwood when Gerrard was Under-19s coach. Calvin got there in good time for an 8am appointment. Gerrard had been there since 6am. He was dragging out goals and hauling mannequins around the training field.
The meeting took place in February, shortly after Gerrard’s side had beaten Nicky Butt’s Manchester United to reach the last eight of the Uefa Youth League at Tranmere in front of just 300 spectators. Quite different to the 60,000, all bar 800 of whom are home fans, who will provide a noisy backdrop at Celtic Park today.
Calvin found that Gerrard, in his early foray into coaching, had learned to be “deliberately low-key”. It’s an approach he has continued to adopt at Rangers in nearly every way except results. Just over a year on from that debacle in Luxembourg, the Ibrox side have progressed through four rounds of knockout football to qualify for the Europa League group stage. To use Gerrard’s own phrase, Rangers have been re-launched.
“I am not surprised he has settled in so well,” says Calvin. “He is used to emotionally engaged football clubs and communities.
“He essentially carried a club with its weight of expectation over so many years. The idea of being a figurehead at a revitalised Rangers probably did not unduly concern him. But then again I don’t think anyone is prepared for the acid bath that is Old Firm rivalry – it strips people to the bone.”
Gerrard has certainly coped well in the spotlight so far. But today provides another test completely – a high noon appointment at the lair of Rangers’ great rivals. Rodgers will welcome him and then, presumably, invite him into his office for a drink afterwards. Rodgers’ position as the sorcerer to Gerrard’s apprentice is secure, whatever happens. But these roles are not quite as distinct as they once were.
Still, it can all change again in 90 minutes. Calvin, who helped Joey Barton with an autobiography published in 2016, knows how quickly things can unravel. “If Rangers get a gubbing on Sunday – as in Joey’s first game, what was it… 5-1? – it could have a big affect on Steven.
“An interesting thing to observe over the season is what toll the job takes. I try and read faces and body language when I speak to people. I did notice that he had dark rings under his eyes. That to me indicated someone who drives himself really hard. In that Old Firm environment, it does become magnified. Maybe that could burn him in the end.
“There’s a sense of commitment from him,” adds Calvin. “Inevitably comparisons will be drawn between him and Frank Lampard [at Derby County] – they are the Glimmer Twins of English football, always have been. Frank wants to do well but I think Steven really needs to do well. His commitment is total. Everything has been moved up to Glasgow There is none of this management in exile stuff.”
Despite being as qualified as most to make them, comparisons between Gerrard and Rodgers, according to Calvin, are unfair. “They are different people with different backgrounds,” he says. “With Brendan you get all this ephemeral nonsense – the type of stuff which makes him easy to parody. If you examine his Northern Ireland background, he is a guy who is aware of his roots in the way Steven is. He doesn’t need to come out with all this other stuff. Maybe he thinks it is part of the cavalcade of modern management. I do get the sense that if Steven never saw another headline about himself he would not be bothered.
“All managers say stuff about it ‘not being about me, it’s about the team’,” continues Calvin. “But I would believe Steven when he says it. If you ask around Liverpool a lot of people would say he was not the most natural manager in that group. Many said Jamie Carragher was more obvious. There are still people who would say that now.”
Carragher is slowly rehabilitating himself as a Sky Sports pundit after a spitting incident earlier this year. Rodgers’ crown, meanwhile, has slipped slightly. Gerrard can stride into Celtic Park today with more confidence than any Rangers manager has been permitted for years.
“You have to get your chest out, wear your crown, you’re the king of your own destiny,” says Calvin. “Gerrard was that stick man.”
Nutmeg: The Scottish Football Periodical, will be holding its first Edinburgh event at The Signet Library, Parliament Square on Thursday at 7pm.
Michael Calvin will be among the guests along with Stuart Cosgrove, Michael Stewart and many more. Tickets are available via Eventbrite www.eventbrite.co.uk
State of Play: Under the skin of the Modern Game by Michael Calvin is out now on Penguin.