Last Thursday was a great day for the Peter Principle, which says that in any given organisation or field, people tend to rise to their level of incompetence.
First, Liz Truss announced in a short speech that she was resigning as Britain’s prime minister after accepting that her government’s credibility had collapsed. Later, Aston Villa put out an even shorter statement announcing that Steven Gerrard had left the club following their 3-0 defeat at Fulham.
Truss and Gerrard were both elevated to positions they couldn’t handle by people who should have known better, but the bubble of delusion that had lifted them there could not survive contact with reality.
The Bloomberg commentator Izabella Kaminska wrote last week: “What Liz Truss is going through is a medieval-style public shaming ritual on a scale never experienced before due to the scaling of social media and the internet.” (Tell me you don’t follow football without telling me you don’t follow football. Ask David Moyes, Phil Jones or Harry Maguire whether they’ve ever seen anything to compare with the memeing of Truss.)
Steven Gerrard, who famously fell over once, already knew what it was like to be memed and mocked by millions of gloating tribal enemies. At Villa he’s learned what it’s like to be hated by his own. That’s what is interesting about Gerrard’s time at Villa: not that he failed – which was predictable – but how angry his own club’s fans were with him by the end.
The ultimate problem, as ever, was bad results; two wins and six defeats in 11 league matches, to go with an identical run of two wins and six defeats in 11 to close out the last campaign. That form is good enough for 30 points in a 38-game season, which would have got you relegated in nine of the last 10 years.
Yet the results alone don’t explain the rancour. Villa are no strangers to relegation form or indeed relegation. Gerrard’s overall win rate of 32% was bad, but it was still better than some recent predecessors like Paul Lambert (30%), Alex McLeish (21%), Remi Garde (13%) or Roberto di Matteo (8%). None of these drew the same level of venom from Villa fans, nor was their eventual sacking greeted with such joy.
It’s clear that Gerrard made some Truss-like judgment calls at Villa; some of his mistakes were visible from space. The wisdom of signing Philippe Coutinho on loan, effectively sidelining Villa’s record signing Emiliano Buendía, who had only been there for six months, was debatable. But the decision to make the Coutinho deal permanent in the summer, even though his initially promising form had long since dwindled to nothing – that was a disaster.
Then there was the Tyrone Mings captaincy drama, when Gerrard first signed Diego Carlos from Sevilla to replace Mings in defence, then announced that John McGinn would replace Mings as captain, with Ashley Young becoming “club captain” (whatever that means), and Carlos (but not Mings) one of the new vice-captains.
Unfortunately, after Mings was busted down to private it turned out Gerrard hadn’t yet planned the final phase of the operation: how to move him out of the club. It was bad luck that Carlos ruptured his Achilles in the second game of the season, but it was Gerrard’s fault that Mings was still the first reserve. Now whenever Mings played well Gerrard would look foolish, and every time he played badly he would still look foolish but in a different way.
Mings’ recent form showed why Gerrard wanted rid of him – a bungled defensive header that laid on a Chelsea goal for Mason Mount, then an own-goal at Fulham that proved to be the last of the Gerrard era. But when you decide to move against a senior player, with all the bruised egos and bad feeling that will inevitably result, you have to remember to finish the job.
Still, these errors, though costly, were not as damaging as the limitations of Gerrard’s personal style. The situation where a manager arguably has a bigger national profile than the club is always a little unstable.
Media references to “Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa” were always going to irritate Villa fans who remembered there was an Aston Villa before Steven Gerrard came along, especially when the same media would then discuss Gerrard’s long-term ambition to manage Liverpool as though Villa were just a taxi he was taking to his real destination (and one, moreover, that should be grateful just to have the chance to give him a lift).
Gerrard’s profile is, of course, the reason why his first two jobs in management were at big club like Rangers and Aston Villa. Villa’s CEO Christian Purslow, who briefly had the same job at Liverpool when Gerrard played there, was clearly ecstatic to be employing the most famous former player he knew personally.
But as Gerrard’s results failed to live up to the hype, his profile became a liability. Supporters developed the idea that his “media mates” were shielding him from criticism – yet another elite media cover-up – which quickly amplified the toxicity.
Gerrard might have overcome those suspicions if he had developed a personal rapport with the fans, but this never happened. Here he suffered by comparison to his predecessor. Whatever Dean Smith’s shortcomings as a coach, his public persona was warm, friendly, engaging – he could have been Aston Villa’s Dad. Gerrard by comparison was cold, remote, unsmiling, monotonous.
As a player he inspired those around him with deeds, as a manager he proved unable to do it with words. Ahead of the Chelsea game, less than a week before the sack, all he had to offer were cliches about how “some days you’ve got to roll your sleeves up more, you’ve got to dig in, you’ve got to front stuff up . . .”
Perhaps his most infuriating habit was the way he always seemed to end up talking about himself. His interviews increasingly became a series of defensive self-affirmations: I won’t hide, I’ll keep fighting, It’s not in my DNA to quit, I’ll never give up, and so on.
Like Truss, who used many of the same phrases, he seemed oblivious to the reality that there is really no point in saying these things, that what counts is whether people see you doing them.
He kept saying he “understood” and “accepted” the criticism coming his way, as though this recognition somehow disarmed it. There was self-absorption, but not true self-awareness. He seemed full of admiration for the way he, Gerrard, was fronting up to the criticism, but hearing the same empty formulas repeated without any apparent effect just annoyed fans more.
Football is addicted to giving big jobs to famous ex-players, despite a century of evidence that they have no more aptitude for the job than anyone else. Is it possible that, these days, they have even less?
Is it now harder than ever for the very top fraction of players, to which Gerrard belongs, to become successful managers? Fame and exaltation opens some doors, but it shuts down whole ways of understanding the world. The life experience of the really elite players – people like Gerrard, Thierry Henry, Roy Keane, John Terry – is now so different from the experience not only of most people, but of most professional players.
If Gerrard gave the impression at Villa that he believed it was all about him, maybe that’s because for most of his career it was. He’s spent his life as the lead character, the main man, the one everyone would be talking about, win or lose.
As long as he can remember people have been looking at him – what’s he thinking? how does he feel? what’s he going to do next? Living like that must breed habits of mind that are tough to unlearn by the time you reach your 40s. If he’s to have any future as a manager, unlearn them he must.