There is an interesting, and no doubt very common phenomenon called parasocial interaction. This is where people feel they have an intimate, reciprocal relationship with a famous person, a belief that by consuming images of that person, by thinking about them, the mirror becomes a two-way glass; that they can see you too.
We all get this to some extent, right down to the entry-level version where you glimpse a famous person in the street and, as you walk past, automatically say hello-all-right-how’s-it-going-bro-safe-see-you-later-ha-ha-ha-be-lucky-how’s-Tanya, because obviously you must know them, and then five paces down the road realise it was Howard from Take That.
It probably depends on your age and cultural obsessions how this manifests itself. I get a surge of this feeling, and a weird kind of familial tenderness, when I see players from the golden generation era in English men’s football: back when the world was young, when the Premier League seemed to offer up a voraciously hungry new frontier. For the players this was a kind of unplanned social experiment. Let’s throw money, fame and malevolent attention at these young men. Let’s give them no filters or protective layers or genuine guidance. Let’s see how they react.
At its peak – World Cup 2006, the Baden-Baden Supremacy – there was a tendency to see footballers as an acme of fame-driven debauchery. They bought vellum-upholstered super cars and wore solid gold bowler hats and shoes made out of vintage parmesan cheese. They had – one of the biggest crimes of all – wives and girlfriends. The world can seem like a vicious place right now. But it was vicious in other ways then.
Another key point of difference: the players were essentially mute. We didn’t hear their voices much, and didn’t know what they thought in the way we do now. Perhaps because of this, footballers of the time seemed giant scale, a selection of Easter Island heads – the good one, the love rat, the goon – and projector screens for our own feelings of love, need, envy, covetousness.
It is a scar you can still catch a glimpse of now. Players of that era look like survivors. Still a little frazzled and bruised, but oddly heroic too. They were the first ones. They went through it alone. And looking back, we never knew that much about them at all.
This is a long-winded way of getting round to Steven Gerrard, who returns to Anfield with Aston Villa on Saturday, and who might just turn out to be the most interesting graduate of a very distinct group.
Firstly, Saturday is not an audition. People keep saying it is. But how could it be? Gerrard has only just become Villa manager, a huge job in itself. Jürgen Klopp was already an elite coach when Liverpool hired him. On Saturday afternoon he will field one of the great modern-day club teams, currently on a sublime run of six wins in 19 days, with 17 goals scored and Klopp snooded-up on the touchline radiating grizzled alpha-power, another surge of light and fury. Audition that with your inherited mid-season Aston Villa.
And yet, maybe it really is an audition, in the same way everything is to some degree. Certainly, Gerrard has turned out to be a compelling prospect as a manager. The most interesting part is just how different, how ideologically opposed he is to Gerrard the player.
The young Gerrard was a wonderful thing, explosively brilliant even in his defensive work, and in a way that is oddly outmoded now. Looking back he seems in those early years to reduce down to a single galloping pair of legs: all radical energy, stanchion-clanging drives, slaloming, pond-skater dribbles, footballing third eye prised wide open.
Gerrard the manager is something else; modern, controlled and defensively disciplined. In their title-winning season his Rangers team conceded 13 goals in 38 games. His first acts at Villa have been about tightening up and adding resistance. Goals against, xG against, shots against: all have been reined in. Villa play fewer long passes and press much harder in deep areas. It is all quite un-Gerrard.
Or is it? If the comic book film franchise era tells us anything it is that origin stories are your power source, the key to your ultimate fate. This is my Gerrard origin story. All good managers are driven by a wound of some kind. Gerrard was mangled through those Golden years, when football struggled to retain some part of itself. Hence the sense of something old-school and agreeably unforgiving.
But his main wound is 2013-14 and the lost league title. Gerrard the player was always encouraged to gallop, to overwhelm. He gave an on-field speech in that run-in that seemed disastrously overexcited (one weakness: Liverpool’s main man, their leader, had the desperation of a first-time winner.). Ultimately that 2013-14 Liverpool were cut right through the middle in the decisive game against Chelsea.
So Gerrard is building teams to heal that wound. He’s becoming the kind of coach who would have won the league for Gerrard the player. This is football management as therapy, as resolution, as narrative arc. It’s quite good isn’t it? Completely made-up, a maybe story invented out of bits and bobs; but a story all the same. Who knows, it might just take on its own life. Gerrard still has a wariness that translates now into authority. He is clearly obsessed with football, and obsessed with winning. He wouldn’t be a DNA manager at Liverpool. This isn’t badge waffle, of culture blah. He has a style, and will stand or fall on how far he can take that.
Perhaps he can even become the first of that generation to make it as a top-level manager. A few have had a go. Wayne Rooney is doing redemptive, powerfully-bearded things in the wreckage of Derby County. Ashley Cole, who really was poorly treated back in the day, seems very shrewd and might have had the England Under-21 job already.
Either way the Goldens, those old familial faces, deserve some slack. Gerrard, always one of the most opaque, might just be entering an authentic second footballing life.