Not literally – but after the club has gone all-in on Steven Gerrard, there’s a few reasons why the manager simply cannot fail at his job.
Words: Daniel Bettridge | @DanielBettridge
90 seconds. That’s all it took for a summer filled with hope and excitement to be replaced by the familiar gut punch of anger, disappointment and despair (Hello, old friends).
Fans who thought that things couldn’t get any worse than that opening day debacle away at Watford last time out were quickly reminded of Villa’s ability to plumb new depths of despair as they sunk to defeat on the south coast.
It was in truth an abject performance, so it should come as no surprise that fans quickly took to social media where they performed a veritable Can-Can of kneejerk reactions. It didn’t take long for hashtags calling for the manager’s head to start trending as Steven Gerrard’s Claret and Blue army began to turn on the man in the dugout.
And who can blame them?
We might only be one game into the new Premier League season but Gerrard’s issues date back much further than that. In truth, the former Rangers manager has done little since his arrival to convince fans that he’s the man to take us to the next level.
Make no mistake Gerrard’s job is on the line this year. Perform badly in the build-up to the winter World Cup and he could be handed his P45 by the Villa Park bigwigs. That would be a calamitous setback for the onetime Liverpool midfielder’s fledgling managerial career, but it could also spell disaster for the club that’s giving him his marching orders.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that after going “all in” on the appointment, Aston Villa simply cannot afford for Steven Gerrard to fail. Here’s why…
Much has been made of Steven Gerrard’s pulling power. The footballing equivalent of a teenage boy doused in Lynx Africa, the manager’s ability to attract top talent has been rightfully lauded as he’s become catnip for big-name signings during his Villa Park tenure.
But those players aren’t making the move to B6 out of the goodness of their own hearts, nor a sheer desire to play for Stevie G, they’re also following the money. Under Gerrard’s tenure, Villa have drastically expanded their wage structure and now rank 7th in the Premier League for total payroll; higher than the likes of Newcastle, West ham and Brighton (all of which finished above us in the table last season).
That’s in no small part thanks to the profile of player that we are now looking to recruit. Gone is the previous model of sustainability where Villa’s recruitment team sought out undervalued foreign imports and young signings with significant upside, in its place is a focus on established players who can contribute in the here and now. That’s why three of Gerrard’s most significant transfers Carlos (29), Digne (29) and Coutinho (30) are all entering the prime of their careers and, if reports are to be believed, are commanding wages close to £150k a week each.
They’re win-now signings, but what happens if we don’t win now?
It doesn’t take much for these players to become expensive albatrosses around Aston Villa’s necks, a drain on not only resources but also potentially on club morale. Players like Coutinho are consummate professionals, but they’ve also made no secret of the fact that they signed with us because of the Gerrard factor. Would they be willing to continue playing for the club under a new manager? And if not would there be any clubs willing to take them and their expensive contracts off of our hands?
If not Villa might be financially hamstrung for years to come. And that’s before we even consider the fact that Gerrard has assembled a squad to play a very specific system that very few other managers around the leagues seem to want to replicate.
Alienation on all sides
David O’Leary was lambasted for calling us “fickle” but the truth is that it doesn’t take much to divide the Aston Villa fanbase.
That wasn’t the case during the height Grealish / Smith era however, a three-year love in that seemed to bring fans and players closer together than ever before. That’s why the end of that era was a pivotal moment in the club’s trajectory. Replacing Smith and Grealish would undoubtedly have an impact on the pitch but also off of it, and the board had to make the right appointment in order to continue the feel-good factor and take Aston Villa to the next level.
The problem, based on current evidence, is they’ve fallen some way short of the mark. Gerrard has given fans very little to hold onto during his nine months in charge. He asked for time, for new signings and for a full pre-season to leave his imprint on this team. But despite getting all three he looks no closer to showing us what his vision of Aston Villa looks like.
The manager talks a good game, but his interviews are starting to wear a little thin and fans are taking note. That could be disastrous. At a time when the club is investing in its infrastructure (and passing some of those costs onto fans as part of increased season ticket prices) it’s vital that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.
Perhaps more concerning than the cracks that are beginning to show between manager and fans are the divides that are forming within the squad. Gerrard has had no qualms about throwing his players under the bus nor publicly picking fights with established members of the team.
The latest example of this is the narrative that seems to have developed between Gerrard and Tyrone Mings in the wake of the defeat to Bournemouth on Saturday. Stripped of his captaincy during pre-season Mings was unceremoniously dropped to the bench during the Premier League curtain-raiser, with his manager using a post-match interview to claim the England centre-back needs to “look me in the eyes and show me he’s ready to play.”
Whatever is going on behind the scenes the treatment of Mings is not a good look. Though he divides opinion, Tyrone has been a wonderful figure for this club both on and off the field. Lest we forget it was his commanding performances that helped us to climb out of the Championship, to escape the drop and to establish ourselves in the Premier League. It’s perhaps no wonder then that we have just a 10.9% win ratio when the big man is absent from the starting XI.
Alienating our better players and potentially forcing them out of the door for less than they’re worth is not just bad for business, it’s bad for the club. It’s not the image that we should project nor the one that we as fans want to be a part of. I’m not saying that the likes of Mings and co. are off limits. But if Gerrard were to fail, a new manager will have to come in and work with this group of players, and attract new ones, something that becomes a lot harder if we lose the kind of professionalism we’ve been rightfully praised for since our return to the top flight.
Question marks over parts of ownership
In Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris Aston Villa are blessed with some of the best ownership in the Premier League. The duo have invested heavily and repeatedly said all of the right things about their stewardship of this historic club. But it’s another member of Villa’s ownership group in the form of minority stakeholder and CEO Christian Purslow that’s started to raise a few eyebrows during recent seasons.
The man who Liverpool insiders nicknamed “Forest Gump” thanks to his tendency of putting himself at the centre of events, put a few noses out of joint off of the back of that frankly bizarre five-minute video explaining why the club sold Jack Grealish. He then made no secret of his desire to install Gerrard into the manager’s hot seat.
“It was an outstanding interview,” the Villa head honcho exclaimed during Gerrard’s unveiling, “ and left us in no doubt that we were on with the right man.” Alongside the gushing, Purslow talked about Gerrard’s winning mentality and how he was the man to take our club to the next level.
Yet with a 34% win percentage – that ranks behind the likes of David O’Leary, Gerrard Houllier and Tim Sherwood – the evidence so far points towards the contrary. If Gerrard fails at Villa it doesn’t reflect well on Purslow. I mean, how can fans trust him to get the big decisions right after dropping this potential clanger? And how can NSWE hold him accountable when he holds a stake in the club?
More worryingly however it will make fans question the entire ethos of this ownership group. Like a lovestruck teenager who changes themselves to impress their latest beau, Villa have torn up their previous business model in order to accommodate a managerial appointment. And if all of that is for nothing, the steady hand we thought was clutching the Villa Park tiller starts to look a lot shakier.
Falling behind the pack
If the Gerrard experiment does fail at Aston Villa we won’t just lose money, alienate fans or erode confidence in the ownership – we’ll also lose time.
Whether it’s after a year or 18 months, were we to call time on the Steven Gerrard era we would be setting ourselves back by a season or more. Clubs like Newcastle, Brighton, Crystal Palace and West Ham have all kicked on during this period of regression – and were we to start from scratch all over again, the upper echelons of the Premier League table would feel even further from our reach.
I’m an eternal pessimist – less of a glass half empty as a not even got the glass out of the dishwasher kind of guy – but I can’t be the only one who can’t shake the feeling that if Steven Gerrard were to fail we’d have blown the opportunity to achieve the success we so desperately crave.
Not only will our competition have moved on but our owners might too. You don’t have to think back too far to when a previous owner went all in on a charismatic manager, bankrolling big wage win-now signings before flying too close to the sun of Premier League success and plummeting back down to earth.
The current manager may not be Martin O’Neil, and our owners are a far cry from the disinterested figure that Randy Lerner cut during his final days at the helm, but the warning signs are there. I just hope history doesn’t repeat itself, because if so then Aston Villa simply can’t afford for Steven Gerrard to fail.