Steven Gerrard is possibly the nearest modern equivalent to Sir Bobby Charlton – synonymous with one club, England centurion, capable of stamping his imprint on matches and admired throughout the game – so as he considers his options for the future on announcing his retirement as a player, he will be aware that immense popularity on the pitch does not necessarily lead to a successful career in management.
Charlton’s stab at managing was a brief and forgettable coda to one of the great playing careers. He left Manchester United, possibly a mistake, and lasted two years at Preston North End, where he and Nobby Stiles were relegated in their first season. An even shorter stint as caretaker manager at Wigan followed and that was it.Charlton may simply not have been cut out for management – surprisingly few outstanding players are able to make the switch easily – though if he had his time again he would probably opt to pick up as much coaching and leadership experience as possible at the club that nurtured him before setting out on his own.
Gerrard is being advised to do the same thing. If he is interested in management – he says for the moment he is considering all his options – then it would seem strange to turn his back on the welcome Liverpool appear ready to roll out in order to sink or swim somewhere new.
It may be the case that Gerrard wants a clean break, he may be anxious to prove something to himself other than the known fact that he will always be a legend at Liverpool, but the advice Sir Alex Ferguson always used to give former players taking their first steps in management was to choose their clubs carefully. A couple of false steps at the start of a managerial career are frequently all it takes to bring the same career to a premature close. Some clubs, some situations, offer no realistic prospect of immediate improvement and perceived public failure can be hard to deal with for players who have previously known only respect for their achievements.
That is possibly why so many of the best managers come from the middling band of players, performers who were average at best, sometimes not even that. Arsène Wenger and José Mourinho are the two in the Premier League that most readily spring to mind and Jürgen Klopp is fond of insisting he was extremely limited as a player. A manager with a nondescript playing background first of all has to work to earn the respect of his squad, he has to gain their confidence and then show that his ideas have merit and can produce results. Because no great things are expected of him immediately, this trial-and-error process can often take place at a fairly low level in relative obscurity, which is an ideal way for a young manager to gain experience and pick up some authority.
It is never quite the same when a big-name player tries to do the same thing. He starts with the advantage of instant respect, which is handy for any manager, though often that only means the inevitable early mistakes are magnified and the learning process is conducted in public. Roy Keane was arguably the most respected and feared player in the country when he took his first steps in management and he had the supposed advantage of a close association with Ferguson’s proven techniques, yet he did not find life easy at Sunderland or Ipswich and has been out of frontline club management since.
Looking at the Premier League, Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola might appear to be the exception to the rule that a successful international player cannot make a seamless transition into a top-level manager, though he might be the exception that proves the rule and the example Gerrard should study most carefully. Guardiola started out in management at the club where he made his name as a player. It was a surprise when he was promoted from B‑team coach to manager of the first team, not least to the better qualified and arguably more deserving Mourinho, but presumably the reason Guardiola won the treble in his first season was that he had already demonstrated his suitability for the job to everyone involved with Barcelona.
Gerrard is presently in a position to try something similar. He would probably need to end the synonymity with Liverpool at some stage, if only to prove that he can, but there is no reason to break the link just yet. There might be no immediate prospect of the top job at Anfield, just as there was no vacancy at Old Trafford when Charlton ended his playing career, yet Liverpool at the moment are in better shape than Manchester United were in 1973.
While Gerrard may be looking for something more adventurous than obvious, if he sees his future in management the next step is crucial, as he seemed to realise in turning down the approach from MK Dons. He will doubtless receive other offers, though should not overlook the possibility that the most inviting opportunity might be under his nose.
The Guardian Sport