As the opening gambit to his sit-down with the Sunday newspapers on Friday, Steven Gerrard was asked what he wanted Rangers supporters to see in his team. He replied that he wanted them to be “proud” of a side “full of fight, full of passion”, “prepared to empty the tank and give me everything they’ve got” and filled with “confident players who can handle the pressure”.
In short, the absolute antithesis of the supine, sorry Rangers who looked so utterly lifeless in being humiliated by Celtic during recent derbies. Told this, his eyes narrowed as the steely demeanour that made him such a bedrock for Liverpool and England over nearly two decades bubbled to the surface. “I can’t have that,” he said. “That’s got to stop. That’s got to stop now.”
So much stops now for Gerrard. The 37-year-old is no longer an iconic footballer, but an untried, out-of-every-comfort-zone manager. The hoopla that greeted his arrival this week was justified. In this age of creating global celebrities, no bigger brand could have been brought into this bonkers world of Glasgow’s big two. And Gerrard proved an impressive, sure-footed ringmaster at the centre of the circus.
Yet, even if the winning impression he was able to create suggested his inexperience would not necessarily be an impediment to taking players with him, and that he might well be able to offer that indefinable leadership quality Rangers are crying out for, he isn’t Rumpelstiltskin. And without a spindle to transform yarn into gold, he has a nigh-on impossible job to match fine words with daring deeds.
Moreover, he provided one misstep that made you wonder if he actually does fully appreciate his remit: which is purely and simply to topple an omnipotent Celtic side who have won seven titles in a row, are chasing a double-treble and whose spending power will not be eclipsed by Rangers whatever financial rabbits chairman Dave King can pull out of any hats. That came when Gerrard was asked whether he believed that he could win the title next season, with the fans craving that after seven years without a major honour.
“I get that. I’m an hour into the job,” he said, as some sort of plea in mitigation where he needs to recognise there is none. “I’ve just met the supporters and the welcome I got was fantastic. I appreciate and respect what they want and they want instant success. They want it yesterday, I get it, but I have been brought in for a reason and the reason is because the team and the squad needs to improve, the players that are here need some support as well and some help for the fight going forward, and that’s my job. The important thing is that the fans are with me and stay with me and really understand what we are trying to do and I’m hoping we can give them some evidence on the pitch pretty quickly that we are going to take it forward.”
The glaring issue is that if you set about cutting away all the defective elements within the Rangers squad, you wouldn’t stop until you would have the numbers to fill out a five-a-side team. Gerrard spoke of the need for “hunger” from his players in a fashion that mirrored Brendan Rodgers. Apparently, much else about his footballing philosophy deviates from the now would-be nemesis across the city. A man with whom he might have significant shared history at Liverpool but about whom he was notably curt.
Gerrard is said to favour old-school directness over any tiki-taki-like adherence to passing. But whatever approach he seeks to mould within the Rangers set-up alongside his assistant Gary McAllister, it is difficult to see how he can use it to usurp Rodgers.
“Wait and see,” he said when asked what sort of manager he will be. “I think that is the exciting thing. I can’t wait to get my teeth into it. I can’t wait to get started. In terms of the players I am going to be honest and I am going to be respectful. I think respect is a word in football that I love. I will give the players the respect that they deserve. I am open, I am approachable and I am honest – sometimes players don’t really want to hear the truth but I am one who gets everything on the table. I try to support them and help them and bring them on board with what I am trying to do. If players buy into that they have got a chance.
“I’ll try, I’ll try [to change players]. I need players that are willing to adapt, that are going to believe in what we are trying to do. But I have been around footballers for a long time, I’ll work it out very quickly who fancies this challenge and who wants to come with me and if there’s people who don’t fancy it and want to be somewhere else and don’t fancy adapting to what we want and demand, good luck to them.
“I wouldn’t like to put a time on it, whether it’s a session, a day or a week or a month, but I’ll work it out as quick as I can and I want a squad of players here who are focused on the future not the past, I want players who want to come with me on this journey, who want to go and take the challenge to everyone that’s in this league and are willing to give everything they’ve got. That’s the simple message and I’ll work out them people very quickly.”
For another storied figure from Liverpool to pitch up in Glasgow continues a curious entwining between the city and the Anfield club. Gerrard will add his name to Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish, John Barnes and, of course, Rodgers as major figures from that institution who have had management stints either side of the Clyde. Souness, who was bankrolled by the Ibrox club to alter the balance of power in the 1980s, has been Gerrard’s biggest cheerleader in his adventure – they share an agency – and is the man in whose footsteps he would obviously love to follow.
“I hope so,” the new Rangers manager said of having the Souness impact. “Graeme is certainly someone who I would like to catch up with and speak to. He is a legend at this football club and someone who I have nothing but admiration for. Not just for what he did with Rangers but at Liverpool as well. Every time he is on the TV I watch and listen to him. He is a fascinating man to listen to. If I can use that to my benefit I am never going to turn that down.”
Gerrard takes charge on 1 June – less than six weeks before the Europa League qualifiers that Rangers hope to be contesting. He will not move his family up from down south then – “they will be here quite a lot [but] are glad to get rid of me,” he said – and will not hang around in Glasgow before then as interim management team Jimmy Nicholl and Jonatan Johansson take the team for this week’s remaining two Premiership matches.
“I think it’s important we show respect to the people that are going to be leading the team but I will watch the games [and] I can’t wait to be standing on that line with the referee with the whistle in his mouth. I can’t wait, let’s do it. Let’s go. My passion is to be involved in big football matches and this is what I have decided to do. I can’t control if people say I’m not ready. I’ve asked myself what I want, and I want a buzz. I want pressure where you have to win three points, win football matches. The day that’s not inside my body I won’t be around football. It’s burning inside me. It did as a player and it’s the same now that I’ve got this job.”
Gerrard will get a buzz in Scottish football, alright, and will undoubted create one for those of us immersed in it. He might also get burned.