It is not surprising that Aston Villa have turned to Steven Gerrard to fill the vacancy left by Dean Smith’s sacking. Christian Purslow, the chief executive, has been in thrall to the outgoing Rangers manager for more than a decade.
Purslow’s first involvement in football came when he was made managing director at Liverpool 12 years ago when the club was owned by George Gillett and Tom Hicks. Gerrard was captain and a Kop icon. Anfield was in turmoil and the former private equity trader made it his mission to become close to the brilliant midfielder.
It quickly became a joke among the players how quickly Purslow would engage Gerrard in conversation after entering the dressing room. He was a boyhood fan and seemed star-struck. Purslow relished being in the company of club legends and made particular efforts to cosy up to Kenny Dalglish and Gerrard.
Many of the squad were amused by his antics. In the tunnel before the 2-0 defeat away to Fiorentina in the Champions League group stage, a member of the team said that Purslow patted the man from Huyton on the backside and said, “Go’ed Stevie, la.” The excursion into mock Scouse by the Cambridge and Harvard-educated southerner was the cause of much hilarity.
The team nicknamed Purslow ‘Forrest Gump’ for his tendency to put himself at the centre of every event. As the months went on and the situation at Anfield deteriorated, Purslow did indeed become the central character for a while. He dismissed Rafa Benitez and engaged Roy Hodgson as his replacement. The managing director had long been an admirer of Hodgson and Purslow gave the new manager a welcoming gift: Joe Cole.
Hodgson’s ill-fated tenure is remembered with a wince by the fans but the former England manager should not take the blame for Cole’s signing. That was completely down to Purslow. The midfielder’s salary was an eye-watering £140,000 per week and he made 42 appearances for Liverpool over four years. It turned out to be an awful piece of business by the self-styled “Fernando Torres of finance.”
The Villa chief executive is not remembered fondly at Anfield. John W Henry, the principal owner, was not impressed and dispensed with Purslow’s services five months after buying the club – some six weeks after Hodgson was sacked. The Kop were even less impressed, famously displaying a banner featuring a penis with Purslow’s name written on it.
The 57-year-old has unwavering confidence and appears immune to embarrassment. He once approached Benitez in Euston Station and extended his hand in greeting as if he were friends with the manager he forced out of Anfield. The gesture was rebuffed.
Even Purslow’s worst critics find it hard to be negative about his time at Villa Park, however. The team were promoted in his first year at the helm and Smith appeared to be an inspired choice in the dugout. After flirting with relegation in their first campaign back in the top flight they established themselves as a mid-table Premier League side last season and Jack Grealish, the side’s talisman, emerged as a national hero.
After Grealish was sold to Manchester City for £100 million in August, Purslow was the star of a five-minute video produced to explain the club’s rationale. The fanbase loved it and he received widespread praise for his candour and transparency. More cynical observers murmured ‘Forrest Gump’ under their breath. Three months later, there has been no filmed address to explain Smith’s sacking. The results have been left to do the talking.
Gerrard is a gamble. His record at Rangers has been impressive but the leap to the Premier League will not be easy. In Scotland, on a more limited budget, his status attracted players who might not have necessarily regarded Ibrox as a destination without the presence of such a famous figure. That may not be the case at Villa Park.
The 41-year-old will be operating in a much more competitive environment, against better coaches and stronger sides. Brendan Rodgers came down from Glasgow after a spell at Celtic and has impressed at Leicester City but the Northern Irishman had plenty of Premier League experience before going north of the border. Gerrard produced miracles as a player but managing in the top flight is a different proposition.
This is the second time Purslow has been able to make a dream appointment. His first attempt failed badly. Hodgson was completely the wrong fit for Liverpool. Gerrard should be better suited for Villa. Fans on the Holte End will be hoping Purslow’s decision was made with the head rather than the heart.