By Craig Jones
Many would find a life watching the tide drift away from a golden Hawaiian beach, surrounded by the crystal clear ocean, to be the dream ticket but last July this wasn’t the case for one footballer longing for a club.
Following his release by Sheffield United last summer, the career of former Premier League goalkeeper, Paul Gerrard, had come to something of a crossroads. As at the age of 36, he was left to wonder whether his playing days were over and if so, what the future had in store for the former youth International colleague of David Beckham.
To take his mind off the prospect that his career was potentially over, Gerrard whisked his wife and two children away to exotic climbs to await the next move. One idyllic afternoon whilst strolling down the seafront clenching a cornetto in one hand and an ice cold orange juice in the other, Gerrard’s mobile phone rang.
Calling from England was former Liverpool player Gary Albett, now manager of Stockport County, who had an interesting proposition for the shot stopper.
“The call from Gary came out of the blue. I’d had a few offers on the table but County just stood out from the rest,” explains Gerrard who went into detail about the unique opportunity he’d been presented with. He says: “Gary wanted me to coach the goalkeepers at the club but also provide cover if Owain is unavailable for whatever reason. Doing both roles is a perfect scenario for me, I can concentrate on developing as a coach but I do keep myself fit for when I’m needed.”
Today Gerrard finds himself in less enviable surroundings, swapping the beach for Stockport County’s Manor Farm training ground. Instead of a relaxed kick around while basking in the tropical sunshine Paul has the more serious task of putting County’s goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams through his paces in preparation for their upcoming match, on this overcast morning in the North West.
Gerrard has taken to his new job with relative ease but admits it was an odd transition at first. He says: “Obviously it’s taken a bit of getting used to as I’ve been a footballer for nearly 20 years and to move away from that has been strange. I do love the coaching though so I’m pretty happy all in all.”
The rookie coach has been thrown in at the deep end with County struggling on and off the pitch. The club are down at the foot of the table with relegation to League 2 looking likely and even worse their long term future still looks precarious after they went into administration at the end of last season.
Paul, a former International team mate of David Beckham at youth level, deserves great praise for the way he has adjusted to the modest life of League 1, as it’s hard to imagine Becks would have the ‘golden balls’ to attempt what Gerrard’s doing.
Understandably, following the difficult 18 months County have suffered their fans are unnerved, but Gerrard assures them County’s players are 100% focused on staying up.
He reassures that: “Everyone is in good spirits, of course it has been a difficult season because of results, administration and a few other things.The lads have just knuckled down and not thought about the off-field stuff. There are rumours of a potential takeover but we don’t think about that. The financial aspects will sort themselves out in due course. We just need to win football matches.”
As a player, Gerrard began his career a stones throw away from his Heywood home with North West club Oldham Athletic and he was given his Premiership debut by Manager Joe Royle at the tender age of 19.
For this, Paul still holds Royle in high esteem. He reminisces: “Joe believed in me so much and gave me the chance I craved, even at such a young age. For that I’ll always be thankful.” The keeper impressed between the sticks for the Latics claiming the No.1 shirt as his own.
Catching the eye of the England Under 21s management, where he won a total of 18 caps at youth level and was tipped by pundits for potential greatness. Playing with future stars such as David Beckham, Gary Neville, Sol Campbell, Jamie Redknapp, Darren Anderton, Robbie Fowler and Andy Cole amongst others.
Gerrard’s mentor Joe Royle later moved to pastures new, leaving Oldham Athletic to become manager of Everton. Royle swooped to pry his England protégé away from Boundary Park with a bid of £1million in July 1996. Gerrard had no hesitations in making the move to Goodison Park but this left him with the unenviable task of displacing the club’s No.1 and cult hero, Neville Southall.
Gerrard admits: “I was probably a bit naïve when I moved to Everton as I went there hoping I’d get in the team straight away, but at the time Nev was one of the best keepers in the world.” Due to a lack of football and coming to terms with the size of the club, Gerrard struggled to initially settle following his transfer. He concedes: “In that period you get struck by how much of a massive club it is and things play on your mind.”
Paul’s chance finally came as a half time substitute, in Everton’s 7-1 mauling of Southampton and towards the end of the 1996/97 season he began to snatch the jersey away from the long established Southall. Once Gerrard had cemented himself in the first team, Southall quickly exited Goodison Park.
It is clear Paul has great admiration for the Welsh stopper, who he describes as: “A big influence at the club. It was odd displacing him as he’d been Mr. Everton and rightfully so, as he was a cracking keeper. It was just a pity he didn’t stay longer to give me a bit more guidance.”
It was when Gerrard’s one time mentor, Joe Royle, left Everton that the keeper’s reputation grew in stature under the club’s new manager, Walter Smith. He has considerable respect for the role that the Scotsman played in progressing his career at the club. He says: “Walter really got behind me and gave me a very good run in the side at Everton. He gave me the self-confidence to believe, I was good enough.”
Smith’s faith paid off as Gerrard posted impressive display after impressive display and rumours grew of a potential England call up for the former Under 21 keeper. Who had always dreamt of emulating his childhood hero, Peter Shilton,
Paul explains: “I was in good form and when you’re playing well in the top league you hope that phone call will come. Everton’s Goalkeeping coach, Chris Woods had mentioned that Ray Clemence (England’s Goalkeeping coach) had regularly come to watch me and there was talk of me making the squad.”
Unfortunately the telephone never rang, because Gerrard began to make uncharacteristic mistakes in the Everton goal. He speaks frankly of the pressure a goalkeeper faces when they’re struggling for confidence.
He admits: “Making a high profile mistake is a difficult pill to swallow, especially as a young goalkeeper. Where you’re still learning, trying to establish a career and it’s a difficult thing to overcome. When you have dropped a rick it always eats away at you and getting through the 90 minutes does become an uphill task.”
As Gerrard’s England dream never materialised and his club form became indifferent, Everton bolstered the ranks. Signing Norwegian keeper Thomas Myhre and young stopper Steve Simonsen, resulting in seasons of inconsistency for the starting spot, with all three being used in a rotation system.
Paul endured a frustrating time watching from the sidelines and spoke of his desire to get back into the team, he admits: “There was a rivalry in place between us, it’s like that at any club. When someone is in your position you don’t want them to do well.”
While reflecting on the burning desire he had to regain his position, he portrays true professionalism, stating: “Of course you want your team to do well but just for the other keeper to make a few mistakes. So you can get back in the team without costing the club any points. Anyone that says differently is a liar.”
At this time England’s management looked elsewhere and Paul’s prospects faded, a regret that still burns deep in him today he reflects: “I was so focused on making that next step but sadly it never happened, I believed I was ready and it is certainly a disappointment. I’ve thought about that a lot, even now.”
Despite recalling his regret the 6ft 2in tall figure, dressed in a tracksuit emblazoned with the letters PG, isn’t afraid to offer his tips on who should be England’s No.1 out in South Africa at this Summer’s World Cup he admits: “If I’m honest there is no one that stands out a mile.
“David James is a good goalkeeper but when he makes a mistake it’s too highlighted. Robert Green has come in and done well, right now I’d have to say Green as he’s Mr.Consistent.”
He also believes the country is in safe hands for the future and views Joe Hart as a long term No.1, he praises: “For a young lad nothing fazes him, he’s done very well at Birmingham. I was slightly surprised Capello didn’t give him 45 minutes against Egypt. I do hope Ben Foster can comeback stronger too, as his confidence has taken a kicking this season.”
In 2004, following loan spells at Ispwich Town, Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest, Gerrard’s contract with Everton expired. He signed permanently with Forest and was voted Player of the Year in his first season with the twice European Cup winners.
He was signed by Gary Megson and admits the two didn’t always see eye to eye. Gerrard says: “I had one or two run ins with Gary Megson at Forest.” Although he points out there was no bad blood between the two men, he reassures: “It was just the passion we both had, I never fell out with him, it was just a few arguments after games then it was over and done with, you move on.”
Paul left Forest in 2006, following their relegation to League 1 and he is pleased to see his former side now doing well in the Championship, pushing for promotion. He says: “It’s fantastic, Forest are a massive club, football needs the big clubs to be doing well. Look in our league, at the moment we have Southampton, Charlton and Leeds United, they’re all easily Premier League clubs. It’s nice to see Forest pushing for promotion or the play-offs, I genuinely hope they do it, I really do.”
When Paul left Forest he was reunited with a manager he’d worked under during a brief loan spell away from Everton, the often outspoken Neil Warnock, who re-signed the keeper to act as cover for Sheffield United’s No.1 Paddy Kenny.
Gerrard enjoyed working under the controversial manager, having nothing but praise for his managerial style, he explains: “From the outside Neil comes across as though he gets on people’s nerves but he’ll back all his players to the hills, which gives you confidence. I enjoyed my time under Neil, he’s a passionate guy and wants to win, there is not a thing wrong with that.”
During his time with the blades, Gerrard suffered first hand the affects of the Tevez/Mascherano affair at West Ham United. Sheffield United, relegated from the Premiership at the end of the 2006/07 season, felt a sense of injustice towards the Hammers because of the manner in which they signed the Argentine stars and felt the East End club should have been docked points.
On the final day of the season West Ham leapfrogged Sheffield United out of the relegation zone, which resulted with the infamous bitter feud between the two clubs that still runs deep today. Gerrard says: “It was a difficult time as the squad had worked ever so hard that season. Then the soap opera at West Ham didn’t help, as it was all illegal.”
He recounts the heartache of the club’s final day relegation he recalls: “I remember Danny Webber going through one on one, hitting the post and the ball rolled right along the line. It’s weird to think if the ball had of rolled an inch or so back we’d have stayed up and the West Ham stuff would have been irrelevant, that’s football I guess.”
Now Gerrard’s looking to the future and believes despite all their problems Stockport County have a bright one, he thinks: “The club has massive potential, the facilities are all in place and Gary is a great manager. I honestly think this is a Championship club in waiting, there is no reason why in three-five years time we can’t be there.”
As for Paul, he’s concentrating on moving the club forward and making his new career a success, he says: “I just want to solely concentrate on being the best coach I can be. As for becoming a manager, that’s simply not for me, I’m going to stick to what I am good at. I’m very excited for what the future holds, I think it’ll be a fun ride.”