Steven Gerrard was asked whether he had come back to a Premier League more brutal than the one he left and his answer, offered through the faint upwards curl of a smile, betrayed old wounds. “I played in a real tough league,” he said. “I worked extremely hard to win this competition for 17, 18 years and never managed to do it so I’m fully aware of how tough it is: the individual duels, the rivalry, the teams. This league has got everything, it’s got the lot.”
Winning it as a manager would, to a greater or lesser extent, scratch the itch that remained agonisingly elusive for Gerrard at Liverpool. That is not a realistic goal for Aston Villa at this point but, during his unveiling, none of the hierarchy present were of a mind either to limit or over-exaggerate expectations. The closest anyone came to setting a target was when Gerrard, reflecting on the respectable Europa League showings he oversaw at Rangers, considered the prospect of blank Thursday nights. “I will miss it because I think every player, manager and fan wants to be in Europe,” he said. “That’s the dream and the long-term goal here. We’ll try and provide that as quickly as possible.”
Achieving it this season may suggest Villa have hired an alchemist, although the table remains sufficiently compact that a modest run of victories could see them rise as quickly as they plummeted during Dean Smith’s latter days. In 56 minutes of conversation Gerrard said all the right things: he lavished praise on his predecessor and made bullish, if abstract, promises about culture and the brand of “energetic, exciting” football he will instil, while skilfully heading off an Anfield-related bouncer or two. It was a statesmanlike bow, steely but sometimes guarded; Gerrard comes with an aura that you suspect stands him in good stead and his CEO, Christian Purslow, was keen to expound the virtues that led the former Liverpool captain to Villa Park.
Purslow sat to Gerrard’s left and, at one point, cut in to detail how he had been “blown away with the level of preparation, the thoughtfulness, the clarity” his new recruit had brought to a five-hour interview for the job. The joke went that, by the time Gerrard had completed his case, everyone was famished. It was clear enough that both men felt the integrity of the process, which saw a 20-man longlist whittled down to a final four, was a point worth underlining: Purslow was Liverpool’s managing director from June 2009 until October 2010 and one of the temptations among those who felt Smith had been harshly dealt with was to suggest the kingmaker had taken the first opportunity to appoint an old mate.
“I think people think me and Christian are best mates and that we go to the cinema together, but I hadn’t seen him for a long time,” Gerrard said. “I knew I would have to tick a lot of boxes, I knew it wouldn’t just be given to me, I had to prove I was the number one contender for the job.”
Past acquaintances were, Purslow emphasised, purely a matter for the margins: a happy fact that cut out the awkwardness of early icebreakers but offered no leg-up. Given that judging a manager by his record in Scotland can be a precarious business it was illuminating to learn more of Villa’s working: Purslow dwelled on Gerrard’s year in charge of Liverpool’s under-18s and under-19s, suggesting that experience will dovetail with a youth setup that has begun to generate exceptional talents such as Jacob Ramsey and Carney Chukwuemeka.
Maintaining that production line will be a key part of Gerrard’s remit. “The message to the whole academy, especially the lads that are older and on the fringes of the first team, is that we’ll be watching every move they make on and off the pitch,” he said. “The ball is very much in their court to go and prove they’re capable of being a regular in this team.”
On their senior colleagues’ recent form, that should be an attainable goal. Ultimately, though, Gerrard will need his first-team players to perform. Smith was dismissed for not delivering “continuous improvement”, Purslow explained upon his departure; the concept arose several times on Thursday and it is not a straightforward one. If all 20 Premier League clubs had been unveiling new managers simultaneously, they would be demanding something similar: in a crowded field of similarly resourced powers for whom the perception of regression is rarely an option, Gerrard is tasked with making Villa different from, and better than, the vast majority.
“The challenge is to find a level of consistency over a length of time where you’re not yo-yoing in the league,” he said. “This club will always strive to get better in every area we can. That’s what you have to do in this league.
“But you’ve also got to realise it’s the best league in the world, and why is it the best league in the world? It’s because the best teams are in there, the best coaches. We all accept it’s a tough, challenging league and we have to act on that, and that’s what excites me rather than scares me.”
If that fearlessness transmits to his dressing room, Gerrard may find the path towards completing unfinished business, whether at Villa or ultimately elsewhere, becomes considerably smoother.