‘Kids think it’s all about Cruyff turns’ - Gerrard on Coaching Mentality
It was not simply what Steven Gerrard said but, rather, the manner in which he said it. The question, centring on whether he had discerned a flimsier side to academy football over his first few months as a coach, was still being delivered and yet he felt compelled to interrupt. In that instant, he offered up the first real insight into his managerial philosophy.
The Liverpool Under-18 players will not be encouraged to indulge in rainbow flicks, attempt nutmegs or bamboozle opponents with a blur of step-overs next season. Instead, it will be a case of rolling up their sleeves, working feverishly and delivering those match-defining moments through heart and graft, as forces of nature, much as Gerrard had in his own playing days.
“My teams will be physical,” he said, the emphasis in his voice leaving no room for any doubt. “I hate watching footballers, and football, when there is no physical side and you don’t compete.”
Gerrard will take charge of the junior age group in his own right in the summer, the pressure of being responsible for careers more than results something he is keen to embrace, but he has already made his presence felt during 12 weeks shadowing more established coaches at the Kirkby facility.
During last month’s clash with the Manchester City Under-18 side, it was Gerrard who delivered a rousing half-time team-talk, the sort to make the hairs on the back of the neck stand to attention. Liverpool’s youngsters, imbued with confidence, duly inflicted a first league defeat in 28 months on their rivals.
He had consciously sought to inject a little more oomph into their performance and will continue to do so.
“How do you coach it? 50-50s!” said Gerrard laughing. “No, I think it is important that you channel it in the right way. As a player I got many, many tackles wrong and went over the top a few times and I had to come and apologise.
A lot of kids that play the games think they have to do ten lollipops or Cruyff turns to look good or stand out
“That is not something I want to put into kids, or young players, at all, but you have to prepare them for the top level and the top level is physical and demanding and it is not just about tackles and competing.
“It is about trying to prepare them for the last five or ten minutes of games when it is hard, and your legs are burning and your heart is burning, and it is not a nice place to be in as a player. But you have to get them to be mentally strong to be prepared for that.
“There is a showboating mentality through academies. A lot of kids that play the games think they have to do ten lollipops or Cruyff turns to look good or stand out.
“I don’t know [where it comes from] – [maybe] computer games. There are a lot of skilful players in the game that young players try and emulate and model their game on other players like a [Cristiano] Ronaldo or that type of player. Whereas you have to look at yourself and say, ‘What have I got? What are my strengths? How can I improve my weaknesses and become a player in my own right?’
“We all love a bit of skill and talent, I love all that, but the other side of the game is huge. It’s massive.
“I like streetwise footballers. I think all the top players they come from the street that type of player. The kids in our academy are coming into an unbelievable place to work, they are getting boss food, they are getting picked up and the full-time lads get a lot more money now than we got we first started.
“There is a case where they get a little bit too much, too soon and they sort of get into that comfort zone of working in a lovely place and then it is a big shock for them when they have to move on or get released. So that is what you have to drive into the players that while they are here you have to make sacrifices and give it your best, don’t get too comfortable, because the hard work starts when you get out the academy.”
Gerrard, who is expecting the birth of his fourth child and will turn 37 next month, speaks from experience. He has been back at Anfield since March when he bucked the trend among his contemporaries and opted to start over at football’s coalface, albeit one he knows well from his own stellar career.
He could have played on, or sat permanently on the pundits’ couch, but there is a curiosity that lies within. An itch that needed to be scratched, having seen Gerard Houllier, Rafa Benítez, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers make decisions and wondered what he would have done in their position. There is also an ambition to help Liverpool that remains undimmed.
It was Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, who told Gerrard he needed to align himself with a team and accept responsibility rather than float between age groups.
Academy director Alex Inglethorpe [along with Steve Heighway] mentors him and, in return, Gerrard asked for one thing.
“He’s been first class and an open book,” said Gerrard, whose role will see Neil Critchley promoted from the under-18 side to the under-23 side, where he will assisted by Mike Garrity.
“The deal with Alex was, ‘If you’re going to mentor me be honest and straight with me. If you see something I am doing wrong or you want me to change something then tell me because if you don’t I’ll never learn anything.’”
What has he mentioned?
“[Positive] Body language on the side in coaching sessions,” said Gerrard. “He talked to me about my coaching voice and he wants it to be the same as it was when I was a player, when I was captain. He is very good.”
This is typical Gerrard: as open about how he needs to improve as the adjustments he will seek to make in others.
Of course I want to win and the kids want to win as well but it can’t be the be-all and end-all at that age
Klopp and Inglethorpe both believe he boasts the attributes to be an outstanding coach and Gerrard’s eye for a player seems sharp. After all, he tipped Trent Alexander-Arnold, whom he coached while undertaking his Uefa B licence, for stardom two years ago.
He has already put together his staff. Tommy Culshaw, currently the under-15 coach, will be his assistant. Jordan Milsom, the rehab fitness coach for the first team who Gerrard forged a close bond with during his playing career, will join them.
Gerrard knows every defeat will be viewed by some as a slight on his capabilities. He is aware his character will be tested by having to pick teams and drop players, hand out ear-bashings.
“None of that worries me or scares me. If it is my fault we get beat that’s fine. It’s about the players,” he continued. “I feel confident I can do a good job and I am really looking forward to it. I am not scared nervous – I am excited nervous.
“Every manager and coach I have spoken to has said I will make loads of mistakes, but your first job is better to be away from the cameras. You still get that little bit of exposure with the under-18 side – LFC TV, interviews with the local paper. It is a great age and a good idea to start there.
“I’ve been through that process from the age of eight. I’ve had the injuries, I’ve had the highs and lows and that will help me moving forward. I’ll treat players how I expect to be treated myself.
“The key with this age group is development. Of course I want to win and the kids want to win as well but it can’t be the be-all and end-all at that age. It is about their long-term development, trying to prepare them for their own careers, but once the game starts …”