It’s the 21st of July 2014 and the inevitable has happened. After a dismal World Cup for all concerned, England captain and last of the so called golden generation Steven Gerrard has retired from international football. After 114 caps and 21 goals for the three lions Gerrard retired from his country in order to prolong his career with Liverpool, the club he has dedicated his life to. So six months on it seems very strange writing a review on the great man’s career. A lot has been spoken about Gerrard, Brendan Rodgers and the club as a whole since the announcement that he would be leaving the club in July of this year. Should the club have done more to keep him?, Did Gerrard really want to leave? and who is going to step up and replace the man who has carried a football club on his back for almost two decades?. These are all questions that I’m sure over time will be answered but for now rather than looking for controversy I am going to reflect on the career so far of one of the finest midfielders of his generation before he departs for Los Angeles.
Gerrard was given his debut by Gerard Houiller on the 29th November 1998 when he replaced Vegard Heggem in the latter stages of a Premier League game against Blackburn Rovers and he never looked back. He made thirteen appearances in his first season largely due to captain Jamie Redknapp being injured in the centre of midfield, and this is the position that Gerrard has thrived in ever since. Box to box runs, pinpoint passes and superb long range goals soon became trademarks of Gerrard’s and it soon became common place to see Gerrard dictating games from the centre of the field. Houiller describes Gerrard simply as ’class’ in every aspect of his game ‘he is a class person, class as a player and class as a leader.’ Gerrard won 4 major honours with Houiller in charge, all of them coming in 2001. Gerrard was also made captain at the age of 23 replacing Sami Hyypia in the role but arguably his best performances were yet to come.
In the summer of 2004 revolutionary Spanish tactician Rafael Benitez took charge on the red half of Merseyside on the back of breaking the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga by leading Valencia to the title, and Gerrard was set to flourish over the six years Benitez spent at the club. Of course Benitez’s tenure at the club is best known for that miraculous Champions League final victory over AC Milan in Istanbul in 2005 but the dream was almost over before it had even begun. Liverpool were on the brink of going out of the competiton at the group stage and needed to beat Greek side Olympiakos by two clear goals to progress. The game didn’t start well when Rivaldo put the Greeks ahead but goals from Neil Mellor and Florent Sinima-Pongolle put the reds ahead but they were still heading for the UEFA cup (now Europa League). Step up Steven Gerrard. As we are all so used to seeing Gerrard dragged Liverpool from the edge of disaster by scoring a simply brilliant 20 yard half volley which caused Andy Gray in his commentary to scream the infamous words ‘oh ya beauty what a hit son what a hit!’ This goal is personally my favourite goal of all time. Jamie Carragher clips the ball goalward and Mellor cushions a header downwards for Gerrard, lurking just outside the box to hit it perfectly in true Gerrard style into the back of the net. The rest of the 2004/05 season is defined by that night in Istanbul and it would be ridiculous to do a review of Gerrard’s career without mentioning it. However, I am going to resist the urges to do a blow by blow account of how the reds won their 5th European crown as I am sure the majority of football fans are familiar with the events of that wonderful night in May 2005. Gerrard’s performance that evening epitomises him not only as a player but also a person. It would have been so easy to have been disheartened at three nil down to arguably the best team in the world at the time. They had stars such as Dida, Madini, Cafu, Kaka, Seedorf and Schevchenko to name just a few. Whereas Liverpool had Harry Kewell and Djimi Traore amongst their number. Gerrard’s determination, never say die attitude, doggedness and just pure will to win was a catalyst to the comeback. When Gerrard headed in a John Arne Riise cross to make it 3-1 I’m sure even he didn’t believe the deficit could be brought back to 3-3 but he didn’t let that show. Encouraging and spurring on his teammates showing the qualities that make him one of the greatest captains in the game. Benitez himself said this ‘The miracle of Istanbul was only possible because of him, refusing to believe it was an impossible job at halftime.’ Come the end of the game Gerrard was playing right back and having to deal with an emerging Kaka’s mazy runs and put in a stellar performance. Once again instead of trying to be a hero Gerrard sacrificed himself for the team by playing in an unnatural position and this selflessness and loyalty to the team is a trait he has showed time and time again not least by sticking at the club he loves and rebuffing the chance to play for some of the greatest teams in Europe including Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Chelsea twice.
In May 2006 we again saw Gerrard dig Liverpool out of a big hole by single handily winning the FA cup against West Ham in what is now known as the ‘Gerrard final’. His two wonder goals (his second to bring it back to 3-3 is especially sensational), showed how important he had become to the team. Despite the likes of Alonso, Reina and Carragher being at the club Liverpool were evidently becoming a one man team but that soon changed. Arguably though we didn’t see the peak of Steven Gerrard’s career until the arrival of a certain blonde Spanish striker in 2007. Fernando Torres was the marquee signing Liverpool had been screaming out for, a 20 goal a season striker that would take the burden away from Gerrard and balance the goal haul slightly. Gerrard has since said that actually Luis Suarez is the greatest Liverpool teammate he has played alongside but due to him playing largely in a more restricted role during the Uruguayans time at the club you have to say Torres complemented him more. The two of them were simply sensational together, Gerrard at last had someone with an equally brilliant footballing brain and the two really pulled up trees together. The team as a whole were still not good enough to win the league but the brand of football orchestrated by Benitez during this time really made the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea sit up and take notice. Even though Torres was brought in to be the main goal scorer Liverpool so lacked, Gerrard still managed more than 20 goals in the 2007/08 and 2008/09 season. Perhaps their partnership was best proven in the 4-1 demolishment of Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2009 when both players were simply a different class and Gerrard began his camera kissing tradition at the theatre of dreams.
Sadly, Liverpool once again fell short of winning the title and it spelled the beginning of the end for the Gerrard/Torres partnership at Anfield. Benitez left the club a year later after the club failed to build on its runners up spot and finished 7th and Benitez’s last game in charge was a 0-0 bore draw to Hull City. Not long after Torres left in that infamous £50M move to rivals Chelsea and for some section of Liverpool fans they will never forgive him for this which is perhaps why the Gerrard/Torres partnership will not be fully appreciated. On hearing of Gerrard’s departure from Liverpool Benitez said this ‘Liverpool is not just losing a great athlete, or a great footballer. The club is losing its red heartbeat.’
Fast-forward to last season, (mainly so I don’t have to think about the Hodgson/Dalglish eras too much), and Gerrard had one of his most influential seasons to date scoring thirteen times and getting thirteen assists the most in the Premier League that season. Gerrard again showed his adaptability by playing in a more defensive role in the centre of midfield whilst the likes of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling ran riot at the other end of the field. Unfortunately the one moment of the season and his career most people are likely to associate with Gerrard is his now infamous slip against Chelsea in April which many people say is the moment Liverpool lost the league title to Man City. These people are wrong. The real reason Liverpool did not win the 2014 Premiership title was due to their defensive frailties, perhaps best demonstrated in the 3-3 draw at Selhurst Park aginst Crystal Palace where Liverpool lost a three goal lead to draw the match. Any side that concedes in excess fifty goals is unlikely to win the league. Also being without Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge for the last few games of the season was key to the title heading to Manchester. Henderson was sent off in the 3-2 win at Man City for a bad challenge on Samir Nasri and was subsequently suspended for three of the last four matches. Henderson’s energy in midfield was crucial for Liverpool’s good run that season and having a midfield three of Gerrard, Lucas and Allen whilst Henderson was suspended obviously would not have the same mobility or athleticism that Henderson offered. Sturridge is clearly Rodgers best signing as Liverpool manager and gave Liverpool another attacking outlet rather than relying on just Suarez so when Sturridge got injured against Man City and missed the games against Norwich and Chelsea then clearly the opposition defences would have a slightly easier task when Suarez is the only striker. Suarez had this to say about Gerrard’s move to the MLS ‘I have lived one of the best moments of my career with you and I am proud to say I played with a legend like you and I admire everything you have done during the years at Liverpool.’ It is sad that the only title missing from Gerrard’s trophy collection is the league title and many people use this as a stick to hit Gerrard with. It is normal to see people mock Gerrard for his lack of league title but Kenny Dalglish said it best when he said ‘It’s not about what you didn’t win it’s about what you did.’ It might be strange to say this but for me Gerrard’s lack of league winner’s medal is the biggest testament to the kind of man he is. He could have gone to Chelsea and won multiple leagues with them but he chose to stay at the club he loves. It shows his loyalty selflessness and how he always puts Liverpool first. Brendan Rodgers said this about Gerrard ‘This is an era when the word legend is vastly overused but in this case it doesn’t even do him justice. As a player he is immense and the influence he has on games should never be understated. At times he has carried this club on his back. As a leader and as a man he is incomparable with anyone I have ever worked with. He takes professionalism to a new level and he is someone who always puts the club and team before himself and I think ultimately this will be his legacy.’
Finally I want to briefly touch on the debate that still rages amongst football fans. Gerrard, Lampard or Scholes. Firstly it is important to say all three were truly world class players and it’s a shame they didn’t fulfil their potential in an England shirt. In my opinion Gerrard is the best of the three. Perhaps my Liverpool bias sways this decision but there are many factors to consider. Some people will tell me Lampard has more goals and the stats are in his favour and this is a fair point. However, ask yourself how many of these goals are penalties? Secondly Lampard and Scholes have consistently played in better teams than Gerrard so it is expected that they will score more goals. Chelsea and Manchester United have consistently been better than Liverpool over the last ten years. Liverpool have only been better than either of those clubs on couple of occasions and only better than both once in living memory (that was last season), therefore comparing goals and trophies as a measurement of ability is unfair. I am looking at overall gameplay. Yes, Lampard is the best goal scorer and Scholes the best passer of the ball but I would say in every other area, crossing, tackling, dribbling etc Gerrard is the best. Also I look at how Gerrard is regarded amongst his peers. It’s all well and good a few football fans in pubs around the country having an opinion but what your fellow professionals say is what really matters. Gerrard has won PFA player of the year once and that was in 2006. Lampard has never won it and neither has Scholes. Maybe Gerrard had a one off good year people will say. Then let’s look at the PFA team of the year. Gerrard has appeared six times better than both Lampard (five) and Scholes (twice). Zinedine Zidane one of the greatest central midfielders of our generations also said this about Gerrard in 2009 ‘Is he the best in the world? He might not get the attention of Messi or Ronaldo but I think he might just be. If you don’t have a player like Gerrard it can affect your whole team.’ Whoever you think is the best out of the three then it is a valid opinion because they have all been world class in the Premier League era. The only frustrating thing is when people who have their favourite whoever it may be, they underestimate the ability of the others. No matter what club you support it is just pure madness to deny the quality that any of those three players possess.
Liverpool have had some fantastic players over the years. From Dalgish to Rush to Barnes to Fowler to Owen to Torres to Suarez. In my eyes though there will never be a greater man to play for Liverpool football club than the pure genius of Steven Gerrard. It is only fitting to give the last word to the man himself.
‘My love affair with Liverpool football club will never end’ you will be missed Stevie.
By Luke Vials