Why this is Steven Gerrard’s biggest season yet as a manager

Aston Villa are entering a hugely important season. Two years after promotion to the Premier

League, they are settled in the division. Their current owners have made no secret of their desire to

reinstate the club as one of England’s biggest clubs, with European football hot on their agenda.

Having been through transition and growth after leaving the Championship behind, now is the time

for their heavy investment to bare fruit.

 

Nobody can deny how well Villa have been run since the takeover in 2019, and it is worth

remembering just how close they came to the ultimate disaster. After defeat in the Championship

play-off final that year, administration and even liquidation were distinctly possible such was the

state of their finances; the ambitions and dreams of today could scarcely have been further from

that reality. But once the ownership changed, the club gained focus and decisions were often

ruthless. Steve Bruce, the manager back then, was replaced by Dean Smith, and then last season,

with the club beginning to drift a little, Smith was sacked and Steven Gerrard came in. That was the

moment that signalled everything was stepping up, including the pressure.

 

It has always been clear that the hierarchy have made decisions with the club and fans in mind. The

best example of this openness came last summer, when hometown hero and talisman Jack Grealish

was sold to Manchester City for £100m, a video from CEO Christian Purslow was released, explaining

the process behind the decision. With that sort of communication and the willingness to chase

improvement, there is rightfully a lot of excitement surrounding Villa Park right now.

Gerrard is a huge part of that positivity. Luring him to the club last season was seen as a huge power

move; he was working well at Rangers, having won their first league title in over a decade, and there

was an expectation that he would move from Ibrox to Liverpool, eventually replacing Jurgen Klopp.

His time as a player at Anfield has given him status, an aura which makes him ideal to develop Villa

as a club.

 

That has already been proven in the transfer window; Philippe Coutinho’s initial loan arrival from

Barcelona was proof of that. His shared history with Gerrard was the key, some would say only,

factor in his move to Villa. Lucas Digne, Diego Carlos and Boubacar Kamara are three more signings

who prove the club has some pull. There’s little doubt that they are now in that race for the top

seven in the Premier League; they’ll provide the likes of West Ham, Leicester, Wolves and, you

would presume, Newcastle with stiff competition in that regard.

 

And yet, through signings like Danny Ings, Emi Buendía and Leon Bailey, that was the expectation a

year ago. Smith was sacked with the club stuck in the bottom half of the table, and for all of

Gerrard’s reputation and initial impact, Villa finished 14th and never got close to the European

conversation. That is why this season is, in many ways, do or die. Without significant progress,

questions will be asked at all levels. Gerrard’s playing career has given him a certain amount of

kudos, added to by his work in Scotland, but he needs to start building a lasting legacy.

 

Other English managers will never get the opportunities Gerrard has been afforded in their entire

careers, let alone at the beginning like him. Some of the reasons for that are justified up to a point,

but much like Frank Lampard, his former England midfield partner, he can’t hide behind his name

forever. Once you step into the Premier League, it means very little, and judgements can be

extremely harsh thereafter. Failure is not looked upon favourably; second chances are rare. That is

something rarely spoken about; managers often get to a point of no return, where their relevance

fades.

 

Perhaps that explains Wayne Rooney’s potentially strange decision to return to DC United and make

the next step in his career in Major League Soccer. Despite relegation at Derby last season, with all

 

the issues there, he worked wonders in the circumstances. There was a logical next step in England,

potentially even the top flight. But at 36 years of age, he is still very inexperienced; he would face

the same attention as Gerrard and Lampard, given his playing past. Cutting his teeth away from the

spotlight is what he needs.

 

This could be a brilliant season for Villa, but they are in a strange middle ground; now is the time for

them to break into the top echelons of the league, but they haven’t yet done that, with false dawns

before. Gerrard could find himself on the back foot if they don’t start quickly; a bad season could

provide the sort of blow to his reputation that is difficult to recover from.

Author: Tamara Kim