Gerrard's road to Anfield starts now: Neil Humphreys
Villa job feels like a long audition for another
"Five English Premier League sackings are a vicious indicator of normal service resuming and a reminder of the precious commodity that Steven Gerrard has at Rangers. He has time," wrote a fool in this newspaper last week.
"He'll never be in such a privileged position again, not in the EPL at least."
The astute 41-year-old manager would dismiss the overtures of a struggling EPL club and remain ensconced in his Rangers security blanket for at least another season or two, according to this columnist.
So, naturally, Gerrard will take charge of his first EPL match tomorrow night, when Aston Villa host Brighton & Hove Albion, proving that columnists occasionally indulge in speculative fiction and Villa Park really was a more attractive proposition than the Scottish Premier League after all.
But the spectre of the Shankly Gates remains, lurking in the psyche of both Gerrard and every Liverpool supporter who'll now take a professional interest in Villa's results.
The longest audition begins tomorrow, whether all concerned parties care to admit it or not.
Just as Frank Lampard's Derby County felt like a trial run for Frank Lampard's Chelsea, Gerrard's Villa resemble a petri-dish experiment for Liverpool men in sharp suits, all gathered around a microscope and wondering if their club legend can fix an EPL defence.
Even the job requirements leave Villa looking like a feeder service for the Reds.
The owners are wealthy, but the money pit isn't a bottomless one. A heavy emphasis on youth development, a deliberate move spearheaded by Christian Purslow, is part of a concerted effort to promote from within.
Future targets include European football, but fixing the defence now is the priority. Sound familiar?
These are Villa's concerns now, with Purslow as the club's CEO. They were Liverpool's identical concerns a few years ago, when Purslow was the Reds' managing director.
He mentioned Gerrard's stellar work with Liverpool's Under-18s, when unveiling the new manager. Villa won the FA Youth Cup last season. The serendipity is remarkable.
As a Liverpool youth coach, Gerrard was unknowingly auditioning for the top job at Villa, which may eventually lead him back to Anfield. The ideals of both clubs align to a degree.
But the margin for error is still perilously small.
Aside from the loss of time, patience and relative anonymity that Gerrard enjoyed at Rangers, he also finds himself squeezed into a narrow trench with far too many rivals.
Covid-19 saw the EPL table develop a paunch, as middle-tier clubs grew bigger. Fewer managers were sacked. Fewer superstars were sold and cheaper bargains were acquired across a cash-strapped continent.
As the status quo remained, the vultures didn't descend with such intensity on smaller, vulnerable clubs, allowing the likes of Tyrone Mings and Ollie Watkins to stay at Villa.
Jack Grealish was the obvious exception, but his departure simply accelerated Dean Smith's exit as the owners had a hundred million reasons to lose patience with their manager.
They expect good things, rather like the owners of Newcastle United, Burnley, Watford, Leeds United, Brentford and Southampton, clubs that retained both their TV revenues and the bulk of their squads as the industry adopted a "wait and see" approach during the pandemic.
As a result, the difference between flirting with relegation and tiptoeing towards the Europa League is a couple of wins. Therefore, the distance between success and failure, between a new contract and a premature sacking is also a couple of wins.
Gerrard has swopped a two-team league for a tin of sardines, with a largely homogenous school of minnows all fighting for space. He's got to wriggle free quickly.
Smith paid the price for failing to fix a porous defence. Mings' confidence has disintegrated at club level and his partnership with Ezri Konsa needs consolidating quickly.
Gerrard profited from a two-man forward line at Rangers and must repeat the trick with Watkins and Danny Ings, especially as clean sheets may be hard to come by.
More importantly, perhaps, Gerrard's commanding presence may elevate the spirits of a club still struggling with a Grealish hangover, still lamenting the loss of a hometown hero.
Gerrard knows something about that.
And while his Liverpool homecoming retains an air of inevitability, it's now subject to success at Villa.
The eternally self-critical Gerrard wouldn't want it any other way.