Steven Gerrard is ready to waken another sleeping giant at Aston Villa

DOMINIC KING: Steven Gerrard transformed Rangers by showing no fear – when he says things, he means them… now he returns to England to wake up a giant

  • Steven Gerrard re-floated Rangers and turned them back into champions 
  • The Liverpool legend is now back in the Premier League with Aston Villa 
  • Aston Villa are bursting with potential that Gerrard is hoping to unlock
  • It’s assumed he will take the Liverpool job but all that matters now is Villa
  • The Villa job is a chance to test himself and he knows tough days are coming

The celebrations will have caught your eye. From dancing in the dressing room in March to being sprayed with champagne in May, the quick assumption to make is that Steven Gerrard is ready for Aston Villa because he knows what it takes to win as a manager.

Gerrard is three-and-a-half years into his second career and what an excellent start he has made.

Transforming the fortunes of Glasgow Rangers, re-floating that listing ocean liner of a club and turning them into champions last season, was an outstanding achievement. 

Steven Gerrard transformed Rangers in a successful three and a half year spell at the club

Gerrard is back in the Premier League after taking on the vacancy at Aston Villa

Critics can question the level of football in Scotland but Rangers were rampant in their unbeaten title-winning campaign, amassing 102 points and scoring 92 goals. There were 32 victories from 38 matches, their parsimonious defence breached just 13 times.

He knows how to win and he knows how to mark the good times but what is shaping him in life after playing is the ability to keep learning, using the tough moments as fuel to improve himself and those around him.

You might think, looking from afar, that life was smooth in Scotland — that he walked into a sleeping giant and just had to sprinkle stardust to get them back motoring past Celtic. The reality is it was anything but an armchair ride. 

It was, in many ways, an experience that opened his eyes and made him stronger.

The easy thing to have done in May 2018, when Rangers called, would have been to say, ‘Thanks but no thanks’ and carry on working at Liverpool’s Academy. Life was good in charge of the Under-18s, helping young talents such as Curtis Jones progress and tapping into Jurgen Klopp’s wisdom.

There had been plenty of opportunities to go elsewhere after he retired — MK Dons were one of the first clubs to make him an offer — but Rangers ticked all the boxes. Everything matters in Glasgow; every word a manager utters is dissected, every result shapes the mood of the city’s fans.

Gerrard knew it was going to be different when 8,000 supporters turned up for his unveiling — ‘I looked out and thought, “Oof! Here we go!”’ he once told Sportsmail — but he also knew it would not be straightforward when he walked around their training complex in Milngavie. Straight away, he saw tired and dated facilities. They could not stay this way. 

Gerrard will be aiming to transform another sleeping giant in the Premier League side

Villa had a tough start to the season under Dean Smith and are 16th in the league table

All his life Gerrard has wanted to be the best at whatever he has done. For Rangers to even think about challenging Celtic, who were streets ahead under Brendan Rodgers, there had to be a change to mindsets and approaches.

Relentlessly, that is what he set about doing. Gerrard, who had been identified by then sporting director Mark Allen and chairman Dave King, laid out his blueprint to the squad during their first meeting in June 2018, at a training camp in the hills outside Fuengirola in Spain.

The speech he gave to the squad that day remains ingrained in his mind. It was not the words he chose, more how his heart was jumping out of his chest as 25 sets of eyes, all fixed on him, worked out whether he could be trusted or if he could inspire them.

‘Away from the cameras, it’s candid,’ he said. ‘It’s raw and completely different.’

Quickly, they realised he and his staff needed to be followed. Tommy Culshaw, his assistant, has a relationship with Gerrard that dates back to when they went to Cardinal Heenan High School in Liverpool; Michael Beale is an outstanding coach, Gary McAllister a wise old counsel.  

Gerrard brings with him former Villa assistant manager Gary McAllister (left) and outstanding coach Michael Beale (right)

They all went about raising standards, arriving at work at 8am, leaving most days at 10pm. The squad were told about the importance of fitness and conditioning by Jordan Milsom, with body fat tests introduced on a weekly basis. Mobile phones were banned from key areas and fines were imposed if they were used.

How they bought into it. Gerrard was clever in his transfer dealings, enjoying seeing players such as Joe Aribo, a Nigerian midfielder brought from Charlton in 2019, develop. In the summer when money was tight, he was the reason John Lundstram turned down better offers to go to Rangers.

This is the stuff that matters — showing the ability to build a club and convey a clear message to make a team progressive. Villa’s new squad will quickly realise that when he says things, he means them. He won’t shy away from shaking things up. 

It’s what he did at Rangers. Yes, there were results that hurt him — a 1-1 home draw against Kilmarnock in October 2018 was particularly exasperating in those early days — but the setbacks, like losing cup finals and being beaten in Europe, were always seen as moments to move forward.

Inevitably, it will be assumed that one day the path he is on will lead back to Anfield but talking to him about Liverpool in the future while he is in another position is not sensible. He would find the idea he is using jobs as stepping stones disrespectful and the only thing that matters now is Villa.

‘I’d have been 30 when he first came into the England squad,’ Gareth Southgate, England manager and former Aston Villa captain, said on Thursday. ‘Steven was always a talent. He had that great drive; we know the number of games when he made a difference in real important matches. 

Gerrard would find the idea that he is using Villa as a ‘stepping stone’ for Liverpool as disrespectful

‘He leaves one massive club for another. I’m sure it is a challenge he will be looking forward to. It is a chance to test himself in a league where every week there is a new challenge.’

There was then a significant footnote. ‘It is a fabulous football club,’ Southgate concluded.

It is. History drips from Villa Park, the commentary from the 1982 European Cup final that is written on the Witton Lane Stand a reminder of their greatest achievement. Potential is bursting from the club and it is why Gerrard is bursting with excitement about what they can achieve.

He hasn’t come back to England for the easy life. He’s come back to awaken a giant. He wants more days when the champagne flows but he knows that before then, tough days are coming.

In many ways, he embodies the club motto. He is Prepared.

Gerrard knows how to win but there could be some tough days ahead of him at Villa Park

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