Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Greatest?

The announcement many of us knew would come someday, but few of us were looking forward to, has now come.  At the end of the season Steven Gerrard will leave Liverpool.

I watched his debut, I seem to have watched every game.  Right from the start you knew he had something about him, and when he emerged he was one of a number of young players we were desperate to become the next big thing.  One thing which stood out to me early on was his speed across the ground and his stamina.  This developed into his long stride, driving the team on, willing them to success.  This brought supporters to their feet and inspired previously lethargic teammates.

Is he the greatest player to ever play for the club?  I don’t know, but he’s in my top five favourite Liverpool players of all time, along with Kenny Dalglish, Robbie Fowler, John Barnes and Ian Rush.  You could argue he was more influential in cup finals than Dalglish ever was, but then he didn’t inspire a side to win League titles as Dalglish did.  Both men made other players great as Ian Rush wouldn’t have been the player he was without Dalglish, nor would David Johnson, much as Torres and Suarez wouldn’t have had the impact they did without Gerrard.  He will be remembered as one of the greatest players of his generation and so many who played with and alongside him, will testify to this.  The fact he is mentioned in the same breath as Dalglish is testament to his achievements.  For many he is Liverpool Football Club, possibly in a way Billy Liddell was, often playing in a side undeserving of his huge talents.  When you consider how his early career was blighted with injuries it is also the mark of the man he has played for the club for over 16 years.

Steven George Gerrard was born on 30th May 1980 in Whiston, Prescot and went to school in Huyton.  He made his debut when he came on late in the game for Veggard Heggem against Blackburn at Anfield in November 1998.  He was a scrawny 18 year old and joined a side which contained Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Jamie Redknapp.  He made his first start a week later at White Hart Lane, but was replaced ten minutes into the second half.  The first sign of his ability came in the Merseyside derby the following April, when he came on for Heggem with twenty minutes to go and cleared two shots off the line as Liverpool won, 3-2.

He’d come to the attention of Liverpool scouts when he was 8.  At the age of 15 he was the same height as Owen, but soon grew, causing him problems with his back and restricting his playing time.  In his early career he was used in a number of different positions including central and right midfield as well as right and left back.  During the late 1990’s a number of young players made it into the first team, all carrying the hopes of dreams of the supporters that one day they might make it big.  Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, David Thompson, Steve Harkness, Dominic Matteo and Gerrard, all broke through with Owen, Carragher and Gerrard entering the Liverpool history books in the chapter marked, “Legend”.

His first goal came in early December 1999 at Anfield against Sheffield Wednesday.  Rigobert Song picked up the ball wide on the right, just inside the Wednesday half and Gerrard was stood in the centre circle calling for the ball.  Song obliged and Gerrard drove towards the area, side-stepping past two Wednesday defenders before sliding the ball past Pressman.  It was a great run, and a wonderful way to open your account.  It was a great taster of what was to come.

Gerrard’s youthful exuberance was in evidence in the Merseyside derby the following season when his rash challenge on Kevin Campbell earned him a red card.  He’d come on as sub that day and seemed too highly strung.  By then he’d earned England honours at under-18 and under-21 level and then in May 2000 came his first full cap when, a day after his 20th birthday, he was in the team which beat Ukraine at Wembley in their final warm-up game before Euro 2000.  Ex-Liverpool star, Kevin Keegan, gave Gerrard his first cap yet his early days with the England squad were tinged with shyness, homesickness and fears he just didn’t deserve to be in the company of players such as Shearer, Seaman, Scholes and Adams.  He made his first international tournament appearance as a substitute for Owen against Germany in Charleroi.  It wasn’t long before he made his mark with a tough challenge on Didi Hamann who “screamed like a girl”, as the young Gerrard would later claim.  During that tournament his homesickness got so bad he even rang his mum telling her he wanted to come home.

2000-2001 was the season when Gerrard really broke through and made a name for himself throughout Europe.  He was an integral part of the team which won an unprecedented cup-treble.  Making 50 appearances that season he became an important part of the mixture between youth and experience Gerard Houllier was building.  He soon started up a battle with Danny Murphy to see who could outscore each other, and both were under the tutelage of Gary McAllister.  Gerrard’s goal in the UEFA Cup Final against Alaves was one of his most important and was typical of the combative, energetic midfielder he’d become, surging from deep.  That season also contained another facet which was to become his trademark – the shot from distance.  He unveiled this to great effect beating Fabien Barthez from 30 yards when Manchester United visited Anfield at the end of March.  His performances that season earned him the Professional Footballer Association’s Young Player of the Year award.

Internationally this season was also to be remembered for his first England goal when he scored their 2nd in the famous 5-1 win in Germany.  Manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson had installed him in an exciting midfield alongside, Beckham and Scholes but after playing a part in England’s qualification for the finals in Japan and South Korea, he missed the tournament through another injury.  Gerrard’s progress on the pitch was often threatened by injuries off it as his continued growing pains affected his posture.  Houllier even had the idea of sending him to a French dentist to have his wisdom teeth removed in the belief this would aid his back problems. 

After a disappointing season in 2002, another cup success came a year later when Gerrard scored the opening goal in a 2-0 win over Manchester United at Milllenium Stadium with another shot from about 30 yards out on the left which took a slight deflection off Beckham.  Seven months later and Gerrard’s influence over this team was rewarded with the captain’s armband after Houllier decided he was a better choice than Sami Hyypia.  Hyypia took the decision with good grace as his own form improved but now Gerrard was the driving force within the team.

Rafa Benitez arrived in 2004 and struck up a good relationship with his captain but the Champions League campaign stuttered with defeats to Olympiakos and Monaco had left Liverpool going into the final group game at home to Olympiakos needing to win.  Rivaldo gave the visitors a first half lead and Liverpool now needed to score three.  But then goals from second half substitutes, Sinama-Pongolle and Neil Mellor gave them hope.  With four minutes to go, Carragher’s ball forward was knocked down by Mellor and Gerrard met it on the half-volley and it thundered past the Greek keeper nearly breaking the back of the net.  It was a stunning strike, and one which will be remembered not only for the goal, the celebration but the commentary which accompanied it

“You beauty, what a hit son, what a hit”

Liverpool were through and after seeing off Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea, they were into the Champions League Final in Istanbul where they were up against Italian champions, Milan.  The game has gone down as the stuff of legend with Milan racing into a 3-goal half time lead having played some scintillating football for the first 45 minutes.  But it was Gerrard who inspired his team back into the game after some rousing singing from the travelling Liverpool fans at the break.  Riise’s cross into the area ten minutes into the second half was headed in by Gerrard and this inspired one of the most remarkable comebacks anyone can remember, when Liverpool scored three goals in six bizarre minutes and the game was level.  The penalty shootout win earned the club their fifth European Cup and Gerrard was voted Man of the Match.

That season had been his best return for goals (13), but the following one surpassed that as he was the club’s top scorer with 23 goals in all competitions.  The season culminated in another memorable match when Liverpool took on West Ham in the FA Cup Final at the Millenium Stadium.  After going 2-goals down, Gerrard provided the ball for Cisse to volley one back and then early in the second half he thundered home the equaliser after Crouch’s knockdown.  After West Ham went back in front, Liverpool appeared to be heading for defeat when Gerrard fired one of the best goals ever seen in an FA Cup Final.  He volleyed the ball arrow-straight from about 35 yards out and it barely rose above the ground beating Hislop low to his right.  It was a stunning strike coming just as the time added on was being announced.  Gerrard would later explain in his autobiography that he was suffering badly with cramp and he took the decision to hit it first time as he could hardly move.  Had he been fully fit then he would probably have taken the ball on and tried to get into the area.  Gerrard converted his penalty in the shootout as Liverpool won another trophy and the game was to be known as “The Gerrard Final”.  Down the years there are only a few players to have a final named after them, Matthews, Villa and now Gerrard.

He won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award that year too and things could hardly be better for him on and off the pitch.  That summer he played an important part in England’s World Cup campaign in Germany, although it ended in disappointment as he was one of the players to miss his penalty kick in the shootout defeat to Portugal.

2006-07 saw Gerrard make over 50 appearances as Liverpool again made the Champions League Final, but this time there was to be no fairy-tale as Milan got their revenge.   Liverpool again finished third in the League but their defence of the FA Cup faltered at the first hurdle as Arsenal won at Anfield.  The following season saw him score a hat-trick in the competition when Luton visited Anfield in a Third Round replay.  Jamie Carragher was named captain for his 500th match for Liverpool and Gerrard’s triple came in just 18 second half minutes.  But that season will be remembered for Fernando Torres first season in English football and Gerrard soon built up a strong partnership with the young Spaniard which went a long way to helping him net 33 times and 24 in the League, the most number of League goals scored by a non-British player during his debut season in England’s top division.

Gerrard, himself, added 21 goals as Liverpool narrowly missed out on their third Champions League Final in four years when Chelsea beat them in extra time.  A fourth place finish was the pre-requisite to the following season when they had their best ever League season since 1990, pushing Manchester United all the way.  Gerrard was top scorer for the season as he netted twice in a memorable night against Real Madrid at Anfield.  Again Liverpool succumbed to Chelsea in the Champions League but this time at the Quarter-Final stage.  In the League they lost just one of their last 27 matches, dropping just 2pts in their final 11 games.  A run which included another memorable performance to come from behind and beat United, 4-1 at Old Trafford with Gerrard and Torres particularly influential.  But United was forced to put together one of their best finishes to a season to deny their rivals.  In plenty of other seasons, Liverpool’s tally of 84pts would have been enough to carry off the title, a measure of how well United had to be to beat them.

Gerrard was again awarded at the end of the season, picking up the Football Writers Footballer of the Year.  Liverpool were unable to match this performance a year later, as they went out of the early rounds of both FA and League Cups and finished 7th in the League.  They didn’t get out of the group stage of the Champions League but their subsequent Europa League qualification saw them reach the Semi-Finals.  The summer saw Gerrard captain his country at the World Cup and initially things got off to a great start as he scored the opener against USA, but things turned sour as the performances got worse, culminating in a humiliation at the hands of Germany.  Instead of being used as a talisman, Gerrard found himself blamed by his own manager for the team’s impotence and the whole experience was utterly forgettable.

The dreadful season was to cost Benitez his job, yet the club was in complete turmoil as both owners fought with each other and their manager.  For reasons best known to themselves they decided Roy Hodgson was the man to replace Benitez but performances did not improve, in fact they got worse.  Hodgson only lasted till Christmas as new owners took over and installed club legend, Kenny Dalglish.  His influence galvanised the team to 6th from having been just 3pts above the bottom three when he took over.  On the downside, Liverpool lost Torres to Chelsea, something which affected Gerrard who had become really close to him.  But Liverpool’s replacement was Luis Suarez and he was to build an even greater partnership with Gerrard over the next few seasons.

2011-12 saw Gerrard lift Liverpool’s first trophy for seven years as they beat Cardiff in the League Cup Final.  They also reached Wembley for the FA Cup Final but were narrowly beaten by Chelsea.  Injuries confined him to only able to play in half the Premier League games, with the highlight coming on a Tuesday night in March where his 5th hat-trick helped beat Everton in his 400th Premier League appearance.  The 8th place League finish did for Dalglish though, and Gerrard was now working with his 5th manager as Brendan Rodgers took over.

Rodgers immediately installed an individual training regime for his captain and it soon paid dividends as Gerrard played every minute of every Premier League game until he went off with an injury against Newcastle in late April, game 35.  No one played more matches than he did that season and the Newcastle game, which proved to be his last of the season, was a thumping 6-0 away win and was an early preview of what was to follow.

Gerrard was now the talisman to probably the third great team during his time at Anfield and 2013-14 was one of the best in recent times.  Buoyed by the prolific strike partnership of Suarez and Sturridge, along with the industry of Coutinho, Sterling, Henderson and Gerrard, Liverpool came within a whisker of winning the Premier League.  Gerrard played another 39 games during the season and returned another 14 goals to add to his tally.  The football played that term was scintillating, destroying teams on a regular basis, as Gerrard willed the team on.  The impact the player has had over the years can be measured by a number of neutrals who wanted Liverpool to win the title purely for Gerrard and the loyalty he’d shown the club.

In the end it wasn’t to be but Champions League football finally returned to Anfield after an absence of four years.  The mood around the club was sky high with thousands taking to the streets just to welcome the team to each home game.  But from there it all gradually slipped away, as Suarez left for Barcelona and the football played in the early part of this season wasn’t a patch on what had come just months before.  Sturridge’s injury also hit the team hard after he’d given a taste of what might be alongside Balotelli against Spurs.

The end came after a conversation between Rodgers and Gerrard where the Liverpool manager explained he was going to manage Gerrard’s game-play.  The 34 year old said he was intelligent enough to realise he wasn’t going to play as often as he would like and therefore he finally revealed he would move on. 

So many professionals within the game have stated their admiration of the player, such as Zinedine Zidane

“He has great passing ability, can tackle and score goals, but most importantly he gives the players around him confidence and belief.  You can’t learn that – players like him are just born with that presence.”

In 2009, Zidane had been asked how highly he rated the Liverpool captain and said

“Is he the best in the world?  He might not get the attention of Messi or Ronaldo but, yes, I think he just might be”

Luis Suarez sent his own tribute

“With you I have lived one of the best moments of my career in a stadium.  I am proud to say I played with a legend like you.  I admire everything you have done during the years in Liverpool MY FRIEND.  I wish you the best of the best!!  YNWA”

Xabi Alonso tweeted a picture of himself with Gerrard, with the message “My hero. My mate”

Dietmar Hamman, stated

“What a career, what a player.  Thanks for the many wonderful moments.”

Thierry Henry

“He, for me, is Liverpool”

Francesco Totti said,

“Steven Gerrard would be the captain of my Word XI dream team”

And all the Liverpool squad gave their praise and tribute to their captain, many of which pointed to the help and support he gave them all.

Emre Can
“I have learned a lot from him.  Steven is the greatest captain Liverpool have ever had and I feel comfortable on the pitch because I always know he is behind me.  I hope to be similar to Gerrard but it isn’t going to be easy because he’s been so successful”

Adam Lallana
“I grew up watching him.  To my best mates, he’s their legend.  For me to be playing alongside him, not just at England but at club level, is quite surreal really.”

Rickie Lambert
“Stevie is his own man but he is Mr Liverpool.  He’s no.1 for me and I think he always will be.  He has meant everything to me growing up as a Liverpool fan.  The nights he has given Liverpool fans are unbelievable – I’ll never forget them and I know the Liverpool fans will never forget them”

Jordan Henderson
“He is a top player but he is also a top person.  The lads can go to him with anything and he will always help them out and put them first.  That is massive as a captain.  With the aura that he has got, he could be a different person but he is very humble”

Philippe Coutinho
“I try to observe him in training, his playing style.  He’s phenomenal.  It’s a pleasure for me to be playing alongside him.”

Jon Flanagan
“Steven Gerrard was my hero growing up, so to run out and play with him has been a dream come true.  He is still my hero now”

Mario Balotelli
“Wow.  I think of him as being at the same level as Pirlo.  Vision, technique but he is powerful as well.  Stevie can do anything, he’s an amazing player.  It’s going to be very difficult for the team to find another player like him in the future”

Dejan Lovren
“When you come to Liverpool, you look at someone like Steven and you realise very quickly what it means to play for this club.  Steven is a fantastic player but he also has a massive personality and his influence in the dressing room is more than just being our captain”

Lucas Leiva
“When you say the name Steven Gerrard, you automatically think Liverpool Football Club.  He really is the symbol of the club.  He is a player who has always valued the club too.  I’ve never played with a player as complete as him”

Alberto Moreno
“I don’t have words for Stevie; he’s a great footballer and he’s a special person, not just here but at a world level.  Steven Gerrard is a great player.  I am proud to be playing with him.”

Mamadou Sakho
“The player that always impresses at Liverpool is Mr Gerrard.  He’s a respectful man, calm, serene, with a foot like clockwork.  He puts the ball exactly where he wants.  He’s an exceptional person on and off the pitch”

Raheem Sterling
“He has been brilliant for me.  He’s always looking after me, always checking to see if I’m alright.  He’s an inspiration and a great captain”

Kolo Toure
“Steven is a man for great days.  He makes the magic when no one can make it.  That is why he is one of the best players in the world.  I am really happy to have him as a captain first and as a man because he is a great player”

Daniel Sturridge
“Stevie will always be a legend – not just for Liverpool but to England as well.  He will go down in history as one of the best midfielders in the game.  He’s just unbelievable every day, a great leader and the perfect example for every young player around the country.”

Carlo Ancelotti
“He is undoubtedly one of the best midfield players in the world.”

Kenny Dalglish
“He’s a fantastic statesman; he has been unbelievably successful at this football club with what he’s done, the amount of games he has pulled out of the mire, and the general way he conducts himself.”

Daniele de Rossi
“Gerrard has been my idol for 10 years and is one of the best players in the world.  He is the example of what all midfield players aspire to”

Gus Hiddink
“I love Gerrard’s qualities as a player and a leader.  Technically and tactically he is the best.  He is a player who fans can identify themselves with and a man who carries the love for his club on his club badge.  There is not another player in the world who combines all those qualities”

“An excellent player, in my opinion, he is a modern player because he is a player who runs, marks, knows how to pass, cross, score goals and he is a leader on the field for Liverpool.  So he is a player that I would like to have in my team”

“For me, in the position he plays, he is one of the very best in the world.  For the job he performs, for me, he is one of the greatest.”

For a man so inspirational to many players and fans alike, what was his special motivation?  His autobiography explains all

Everytime I drive into Anfield, I slow to a crawl as I pass through the Shankly Gates. My eyes are drawn towards the Hillsborough Memorial. I see the tributes to the ninety-six Liverpool Fans who never returned from that FA cup semi-final in 1989. I see the scarves left by visiting fans, signs of respect that lie alongside wreaths placed by families whose tears will never dry. I see the flame that burns always, reminding the world that the ninety-six will never, ever be forgotten.
As my car inches past the Memorial, I look down the names of those who fell on the Leppings Lane End, never to rise again. My eyes stop at one name. Jon-Paul Gilhooley, ten years old, the youngest of those who died following the team he loved. A boy whose life was snatched away just as it was starting. Crushed to death in a stand unfit for human beings. I knew Jon-Paul. He was my cousin. A shiver runs down my spine. I make the sign of the Cross and drive on. 
Whenever I saw Jon-Paul’s parents during my Youth Trainee Scheme days at Anfield, it gave me an extra determination to succeed.  Just before I made my Liverpool debut, they said “Jon-Paul would be so proud of you”.  During the match I felt Jon-Paul was looking down on me, pleased I was fulfilling a dream we both shared.

Hillsborough must never be allowed to happen again.  No one should lose a life or a relative at a football match.  Everytime I see Jon-Paul’s name cut into the cold marble outside the Shankly Gates, I fill with sadness and anger.  I have never let anyone know this before, but it’s true; I play for Jon-Paul”

There will be many a debate on who was the greatest and the fact Gerrard is spoken alongside players such as Dalglish, Barnes, Fowler and Hansen just tells you the impact his career had on the club.  Just imagine a midfield with Gerrard, Souness, Molby and Xabi Alonso.

In Gerrard’s final season at Anfield how fitting would it be for his final game for the club to be on 30th May, his 35th birthday.  The FA Cup Final is set for 30th May 2015.

697 club appearances, 182 goals so far.  114 international caps, 21 goals, 6 international tournaments.

Champions League winner, 2005
UEFA Cup winner, 2001
FA Cup winner, 2001 and 2006
League Cup winner, 2001, 2003, 2012
FWA Footballer of the Year 2009
PFA Player of the Year 2006
PFA Young Player of the Year 2001

Lfchistory. Com
Gerrard – My Autobiography