Philippe Coutinho still remembers the first time he met Steven Gerrard at Liverpool’s training ground in the January of 2013.
‘I remember I was very nervous when I saw him,’ Coutinho told Sportsmail. ‘He was an idol for me and everyone. I was very young but he was so humble and everything he did was so simple.
‘I used to watch him train and how he reacted in games and did things. For me it was a big thrill to play with him.’
Philippe Coutinho has made his move to Aston Villa permanent after initially joining on loan
Almost ten years on and the relationship between the Brazilian playmaker and his former Liverpool captain endures 100 miles south at Aston Villa.
It was Gerrard who brought the 29-year-old back to the Premier League in January after difficult years at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Initially on loan, Coutinho is now a Villa player for good after signing a four-year contract.
‘I call him boss now but he was always the boss,’ laughed Coutinho. ‘When I played with him he was captain and leader. He was the club. Now as a manager he is great.
‘He is strong when he needs to be but he is open to speak to as well if you need to. Everybody here respects and looks up to him.
‘I came here to the club probably because he called me. We spoke about many things and he was the first contact from the club. I came here because of him.
‘I was at home when he called and we did a Zoom and spoke about a lot of things.
‘It didn’t take long to decide because I wanted to play and this was a big opportunity. Now I am very happy that I have signed.’
Coutinho played with Aston Villa boss Steven Gerrard for two and a half years at Liverpool
Coutinho has always been an intelligent, clever and versatile footballer. When he left Liverpool for Barcelona in 2018 the Merseyside club and their supporters were devastated.
For Coutinho himself the intervening years were not all he had hoped. He struggled to find his best form and was also side lined with a knee injury for nine months. There were, he admits, times when he feared he would never get back to his best.
‘It was not the experience I expected but life is like that,’ he explained. ‘The only time I was worried was when I got a bad injury. I was out for nine months and had three surgeries.
‘That time I was worried about going back to play again and things like that. But now everything is normal and I am very happy and I just want to stay here.
The Brazilian quickly agreed to join Villa in January after speaking with Gerrard over Zoom
‘I don’t regret anything. It’s all part of life’s ups and downs. It was my dream to play at Barcelona since I was a child. But now it’s in the past and I am looking forward to my future here.
‘Also I learned a lot in that time. It was a very difficult time for me but it made me stronger in my head. From that point on it was important for me. I missed it a lot and now I feel more love for the game.’
Coutinho has taken to life in Birmingham where his three children are already wearing Villa shirts.
‘They have ‘daddy’ on the back,’ he laughed.
Coutinho scored against Manchester United in his first game back in the Premier League
That part of the transition back to England did concern Coutinho and his wife Aine a little bit.
‘When we came we were worried about schools and things but it’s been easy and they are very happy,’ he said.
On the field, Coutinho was quickly and easily in to his stride. He scored on his debut against Manchester United at Villa Park but feels there will be more to come when he has the benefits of a proper pre-season this summer.
‘I had to remember how physical it is here,’ he laughed. ‘The first few trainings and games were hard but now I have managed to adapt.
‘I have been here six months and hopefully after a full pre-season my body will be better. It was hard at the beginning but I am getting used to it now and it makes me happy to see all the fans in England again.
‘It makes me feel very happy and it makes me want to succeed more and repay that on the pitch. Even more than normal.’
Villa face Manchester City on the final day, while Coutinho’s old club Liverpool meet Wolves
Villa’s season will finish on Sunday with the eyes of the world on them. Gerrard’s team travel to Manchester City knowing that even a draw could help hand the Premier League title to Liverpool.
Villa have Liverpool connections everywhere. Gerrard and his assistant Gary McAllister played for them, as did Coutinho and players like forward Danny Ings.
But Coutinho does not falter when asked about the possibility of any conflicting emotions.
‘It’s a great game to play,’ he said. ‘But we want to finish well against a great club. And that’s it. We always want to improve and do well and finish as high as we can.
‘I only care about my new club. I want to play well for them. I have had a lot of messages from Liverpool fans on social media but I don’t look at it that much anyway. My focus is only on the games we have.
‘City are one of the best teams in the world. It’s always difficult to play them. But we have played them before and done well and competed throughout the game.
The midfielder says he has had messages from Liverpool fans ahead of Sunday’s key fixtures
‘That is what we want to do this time and compete on the same level.’
Some teams travel to clubs like City and Liverpool and aim to limit the damage. That has never really been Gerrard’s way.
‘No we want to win all our games,’ Coutinho added. ‘That’s our rule. If it’s eleven against eleven nothing is impossible. We always play for victory.
‘The boss always wants me to play free and create things. He does that with other players also.’
At home in Barcelona, Coutinho used to watch the Premier League on TV. Gone but not forgotten. He has played in all four major European leagues – having originally joined Liverpool from Inter in Serie A.
Coutinho has played in all four major European leagues but ranks the Premier League highest
‘This is a great league,’ he nodded. ‘For me it’s the best one. The games are so competitive and the atmospheres are fantastic. The other leagues are great but for me the Premier League is something different.
‘I hoped I may come back but I was never sure. At Villa I feel happy. Everybody at the club has been so welcoming. We want to improve and we will.
‘The ambition is to finish high and play in Europe. Our fans deserve that. We want to work hard for that next season.
‘For a long time I was not very happy playing football but I have felt happiness again here. That’s why I decided to stay.’