Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool return with Aston Villa is start of audition to replace Jurgen Klopp

No matter what he does as Aston Villa manager, Steven Gerrard’s post-playing career will ultimately be defined by whether his path takes him back to Liverpool. Football loves the story of a returning hero and there are none bigger than Gerrard when it comes to going back to the club he graced for 15+ years, but it is a nostalgia trap that will always threaten to catch him out.

Saturday sees Gerrard’s first competitive action at Anfield since playing his final game for the club in May 2015 and he returns having already made his mark in management by winning the Scottish Premiership title with Rangers last season. Many legendary players go into management shouldering huge expectations because of their feats on the pitch, but few are able to live up to the hype; Gerrard, though, has already proven his credentials as a winning coach and it is why Villa recruited him last month to replace the sacked Dean Smith.

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Yet this weekend will be regarded by many as a precursor to the day Gerrard occupies the home dugout and lives out the fairy tale of being the local boy, who became arguably the club’s greatest player before repeating his heroics as manager. It has happened before at Liverpool: Kenny Dalglish, Gerrard’s biggest rival for the title of Anfield’s best, went from player to manager and guided the club to three league titles and two FA Cups in his first spell as manager. So if Dalglish could do it, why not Gerrard?

In terms of his preparation for a successful career in management, Gerrard has readied himself better than most. He managed Liverpool’s under-18 team for 18 months, learning the ropes as part of Jurgen Klopp’s coaching set-up, then moved to Rangers at the same time as completing his UEFA Pro-Licence, the key qualification to enable him to manage at the top level.

And his three years at Ibrox taught him about management at the sharp end, at a huge club that demands success, which he delivered by stopping Celtic attempts to win a 10th straight Scottish title. So Gerrard has taken the step up to the Premier League at Villa having given himself a solid grounding in coaching.

But what happens next is possibly the biggest question of his career. Klopp’s contract at Liverpool runs out at the end of the 2023-24 season and, given he said in August 2020 that he would “take a year off and ask myself if I miss football,” the prospect of a managerial vacancy in two-and-a-half years is real. If Gerrard does well at Villa, the clamour for him to succeed Klopp will become unavoidable.

But is that fair on him or the team he manages? Villa are too big a club — European champions in 1982 and seven-time English champions — to be a stepping stone to somewhere else and Gerrard must prove himself in the Premier League without the constant judgement of whether he is capable of succeeding Klopp.

Liverpool’s owners may take emotion out of the decision and opt for a coach with Champions League pedigree as the only way to go for a club defined by its success in European football, but while Gerrard is in management it will always be a case of when — not if — he makes a return at Anfield. It will be the topic of conversation between fans and pundits alike before, during and after this weekend’s game.

Few have succeeded in management at the club where they became legends as players. Zinedine Zidane won three Champions Leagues as Real Madrid coach, while Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola became icons at Barcelona. Yet even Cruyff was sacked at Camp Nou, despite winning the club’s first European Cup.

Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan (Newcastle United), Glenn Hoddle (Tottenham Hotspur) and Frank Lampard (Chelsea) were held in the same kind of esteem as Gerrard, but failed to deliver success as managers at their old team, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United is the most recent example of falling short as manager at the place he made his name.

Even Dalglish, in his second spell as Liverpool, was sacked when things turned sour, so the sentiment that can drive the appointment has long evaporated by the time the axe has to fall.

Gerrard may prove to be different. If he succeeds at Villa and becomes the obvious candidate to replace Klopp, he could be Liverpool’s Zidane or Guardiola rather than their Solskjaer or Shearer. One thing for certain is that talk of him managing Liverpool will not go away, whether he likes it or not.