Typical, isn’t it, that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard took their first managerial roles at the same time: they never could square the idea that one should go forward while the other stays behind.
Both men had dabbled in both punditry and worked with their old sides’ under-18s squad before taking their first steps into senior management this summer, and you could not have blamed either man for following the lead of their contemporaries by settling into those roles into their middle age.
But contrary to the wailing about a paucity of Premier League opportunities that has become so common among decorated players of their generation, both Lampard and Gerrard turned their sights elsewhere.
At the risk of coming over all Proper Football Man, the strange thing is that for once (or, rather, for twice), hiring a big-name ex-pro actually makes sense for both club and player: despite their moves a couple of hundred miles north of their old stomping grounds, both of the former England midfielders ought to feel entirely at home.
Lampard has joined an ambitious club that changes managers more often than it changes its home kit. Over the past five years, Derby have given a spin to Nigel Clough, Steve McClaren, Paul Clement, Nigel Pearson, McClaren again, and perennial Championship midland club manager Gary Rowett, plus caretaker spells for Darren Wassall and Chris Powell.
All of them may be English, but they each came with very different profiles: the son of a club legend; a former England manager who had won the league abroad; a former assistant at Chelsea, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich; a man who set up Leicester City for their ludicrous title triumph; a highly-touted up-and-comer who had impressed in the lower leagues.
Yet despite their diverse experiences, none of them had succeeded in taking Derby past a play-off finish at best: they have finished all of the last five seasons somewhere between third and ninth, always threatening but never good enough for actual promotion.
Remarkably, Derby County has never had a non-British manager. If they are committed to keeping that going for whatever reason, then the one type of manager they had not yet tried was the genuine recent superstar player. Why not give Lampard a go as they continue to try and break the glass ceiling that doubles as the Premier League’s floor?
Gerrard, meanwhile, has taken charge of a famous old institution with a huge and passionate fanbase desperate to return to the glories of bygone decades. Like Derby, Rangers had tried various different approaches to little avail as they have struggled to re-establish themselves as genuine contenders to break Celtic’s seven-year monopoly on the title.
Gerrard ticked more boxes than an arachnologist moving his blood-sucking subjects to a new lab. Since their financially enforced relegation to the fourth tier in 2012, Rangers and their fans have been desperate for a bit of the old glamour and shine to come back their way.
Just as the dowdy but competent Roy Hodgson was a poor fit for Liverpool during Gerrard’s time as a player, so too was Mark Warburton – Rangers’ first English manager, and their longest-serving since 2014 – the wrong person in Glasgow. His successor, Pedro Caixinha, completely failed to convince, and while Graeme Murty was a steady hand, players were hardly likely to flock to Scotland to play under him.
I’m sure plenty of Rangers fans will get in touch to assert otherwise, but the overwhelming sense is that Gerrard’s appointment has been hugely popular. My Glaswegian father-in-law has a picture of Gerrard as his Facebook profile picture, and barely a day goes by without a tabloid running a ‘Steven Gerrard has done/said [basic thing] and fans LOVE it’ headline.
— VidmarFF (@VidmarFF) June 24, 2018
Results have been solid but not spectacular so far for Gerrard, but he is particularly beloved for the way he treats Rangers as if they are a big club, regardless of what their squad list or recent league history might say to the contrary.
We love to mock that kind of delusion in rival fans, but look at the reaction fans gave Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool when he rested players for a Champions League group stage game against Real Madrid in 2014, or that David Moyes received for constantly talking down Manchester United’s chances during his doomed season at Old Trafford. A big club needs a big, brash, shiny manager to match, and for Rangers, Gerrard is the very shiniest they could realistically hope to attract.
Likewise, Lampard’s result have been par for the Derby course – they currently sit sixth – but he was hailed by fans after his profile allowed Derby to attract exciting young loanees Harry Wilson and Mason Mount from Liverpool and Chelsea respectively. 19-year-old Mount, in particular, looks like a real coup for Derby, scoring four goals from midfield in seven games. Insert your own tedious comparison here.
There is far, far too much time left in each man’s long debut season to draw any meaningful conclusions about their ability as managers, but their brief tenures so far suggest that there is room and opportunity for intelligent, hard-working ex-players to establish themselves at a decent level (if you happen to be white, at least). And, to the PFMs’ credit, there is more than a germ of sense in the idea that a big name brings certain things that a less-recognisable name cannot.
Now comes the hard part.