(Now THERE’s a headline you never thought you’d see...)
Pat Rice, legendary assistant manager. And thankfully he’s still with us.
When the former Northern Ireland full-backretired, citing serious health issues, a decade ago, Arsene Wenger wasn’t the only one at Arsenal in tears.
Pat was a terrace hero as a player, with over 500 appearances for the Gunners and one of the immortal 1971 Double winners. He also captained them to FA Cup glory in the 1979 ‘five minute final’ against United.
But he was a big success too as assistant to Wenger for 15 years — and his record as ‘caretaker’ manager is remarkable, including a 100% win rate after Bruce Rioch was sacked in 1996.
It was around that time that I asked the Belfast-born Rice, who is now 72, if he’d like to be the number one at Arsenal one day. His reply: “You must be joking. I’m happy staying out of the limelight.”
There are some guys who were just born to be number twos. Patrick James Rice is one of them. Bryan ‘McGlocks’ McLoughlin, sidekick to the ebullient, larger-than-life David Jeffrey at Linfield and Ballymena, is another.
But Pep Lijnders isn’t.
And it’s funny how the Liverpool assistant’s name rarely crops up when Jurgen Klopp’s proposed departure invariably rears its head.
It’s all about the anointment of Stevie G, which is apparently written in the stars.
Icon of the Kop, he’s now nicely positioned on that stepping stone between Rangers and Anfield that is also known as Aston Villa FC.
The expiration of Gerrard’s current Villa contract even coincides with Klopp’s leaving date. How convenient!
If only it was as inevitable in reality as it is in Scousers’ heads.
The club’s owners don’t do sentimentality, something they demonstrated in ruthless fashion when sacking ‘King Kenny’ Dalglish at the end of a trophy-yielding season.
And if I was Steven Gerrard — or one of his many disciples — I’d be more than a little concerned at Fenway Sports Group’s recent promotion of former Larne player Julian Ward as Liverpool’s new sporting director.
Firstly, Ward — who also played for the Whites — is the latest example of FSG’s well-known preference for seamless continuity. (Company founder John W Henry’s favourite TV show: ‘Succession’).
And secondly, Aintree-born Ward — like FSG president Mike Gordon — is a big admirer of what Lijnders is achieving behind the huge shadow of Klopp.
It’s Ward, who is about to replace Michael Edwards, and Gordon who will decide who the next manager is, although they’d be a lot happier if the decision doesn’t have to be made.
When the time comes, however, it will be interesting to see what weight will be given to ‘continuity’ during the interview process.
And, during the Klopp era, the tendency has been to look closer to home for solutions before casting the net wider.
It’s hard, however, to think of someone more steeped in the ‘Liverpool tradition’ than Whiston native Gerrard.
But, by the summer of 2024, the club’s Champions League-winning captain will have been away from Anfield for nine years — which, in hard-nosed US business terms, makes him a stranger.
Ergo, Gerrard has two and a half seasons to keep his managerial career on an upward curve with Villa and make himself a viable ‘exterior’ candidate for the job — the same amount of time ‘the other Pep’ will been afforded to further cement his credentials from inside the tent.
Having spoken to people ‘in the know’ at Anfield, it would be wrong to dismiss the comparatively unknown 38-year-old Dutchman (all-time hero: Johan Cruyff) as a serious contender.
Liverpool were pretty good when Zeljko Buvac was assistant to Klopp, but they’ve reached another level since Lijnders, who played in the Irish League when he was a PhD student at the Ulster University, became the sidekick.
They won the Champions League in his first season, the Premier League title a year later and, following last season’s injury-plagued campaign, are once again the main challengers to City for the big prizes.
Ironically, Klopp wanted a complete clearout of predecessor Brendan Rodgers’ staff (with the exception of goalkeeper coach John Achterberg) when he arrived in October 2015 but Mike Gordon’s only caveat to that was: “Pep has to stay.”
Three years later, after Kuvac’s surprise resignation, Lijnders was the only name on the shortlist to replace the departing Bosnian — and the new assistant was handed control of the senior training programme.
It was Michael Beale — Steven Gerrard’s assistant at both Rangers and now Villa — who first brought Pepijn ‘Pep’ Lijnders to Liverpool in 2014 as under-16s coach. Within a year, Rodgers had promoted him to the first team staff.
The prospect of Lijnders becoming ‘the main man’ will have critics pointing out that he lasted only five months as manager at NEC Nijmegen, the Netherlands second division club he joined in January 2018.
Nijmegen lost in the play-offs but, even if they’d achieved promotion to the Eredivisie Lijnders would have returned to Anfield, having already (and secretly) accepted Klopp’s offer in April of that year.
Of course none of this guarantees him the manager’s chair, and neither does Gerrard’s title win at Rangers or his legendary status as a player.
Graeme Souness, another iconic Anfield captain, won a lot more than Gerrard at Ibrox but his subsequent spell in the Liverpool dugout is not fondly remembered, which is putting it mildly.
FSG will also be aware of the more recent, underwhelming returns of terrace heroes Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as bosses at Chelsea and United.
When Liverpool played Villa recently, Klopp answered the inevitable question about Stevie G becoming a future Anfield manager thus: “I think it will definitely happen. The only problem is, when is the right moment for that? That question, I cannot answer.”
Note that Klopp didn’t say — and never has done — that Gerrard should be the next manager of Liverpool.
And, if Gerrard was uppermost in his mind as immediate successor, then Klopp would already know when “the right moment” was — July 2024.
It’s intriguing, though, that Gerrard’s destiny is partly in the hands of a lesser-known Liverpudlian red-shirted midfielder who strutted his stuff not at Anfield, but at Inver Park.