“ . . . no harm can come to a good man either in his life or after his death.” – Plato
I am destined to remember the 2nd of January 2015 for the rest of my life. It is the day that marks the beginning of the long goodbye and, in the forty five years I have been a Liverpool Football Club fan, one of the most painful. Not on the order of Heysel or Hillsborough, but still a tragedy. Optimally, in the short term, this sense of loss will last from today until Stevie Gerrard’s birthday, the 30th of May, 2015, which just happens to be the date of this season’s FA Cup final. Of course I’d like to see him at Wembley, leading us out one more time, like he singlehandedly led us to victory in 2006 against West Ham in Cardiff – the “Gerrard Final”, they’ve dubbed that highlight reel.
One more time, for the good times you gave us, Stevie. When you told us today you were leaving in May, everything changed.
How will we watch you now, in these last games, beginning with Monday’s FA Cup game against AFC Wimbledon? We will savour every moment with sadness, every time you touch the ball, we will find ourselves regretting your impending departure; every goal will remind us how much we admire and love you. But, most of all, watching you between now and then will define what it means to live with a profound sense of loss.
We will be living our own peculiar contradiction: anticipating the loss to come that is already here, palpable, inescapable, overwhelming, tinged with our immense respect for you, our recognition of your place in Liverpool history. You and Kenny, the greatest he’s ever seen, says “Sparrow”, your old coach Phil Thompson; and “Sparrow”, like you a native-born Scouser and our captain, should know since he played with Kenny and saw up close, during Gerard Houllier’s reign, your rise.
Stevie, how can we tell you how much you mean to us? How, for the past 10 or 12 years, you’ve been everything to us? Now an unthinkable moment is about to make itself manifest, that moment when you will no longer be there. Liverpool FC without Steven George Gerrard, Liverpool captained by someone other than our beloved number 8.
The most complete footballer I have ever seen.
In these four-and-a-half decades that I’ve been a Liverpool FC fan, Gerrard is, without question, the most complete footballer I have ever seen. The most complete. Not simply the most complete Liverpool player, but the most complete. At his peak, he could play anywhere on the park and excel – anywhere, that is, except in goal. He could do everything: pass, defend, create, and score goals.
In his prime, he was simply the best “box-to-box” central midfielder in the game. Stevie, he tackled with ferocity and venom, sometimes too much so but he is without question, together with his central midfield predecessor, Graeme Souness, the best tackler Liverpool have ever had. And, then, of course, he possessed that salient quality that is reserved for greats: the bigger the game, the more likely Stevie was to score the vital goal. None of us will forget the one that we needed to take us through against Olympiakos at Anfield in 2004; that header that got us back into the game in Istanbul in 2005; that breathtaking drive in the dying minutes of the FA Cup final that left West Ham’s Shaka Hislop hapless in Cardiff, to offer just the touchstone moments.
Stevie tracked back with vigour and dedication, shielding his defence. He was entirely capable of being not only the Liverpool right-back, but an international defender in that position too; when his then-manager Gerard Houllier needed him to play out wide on the right side of midfield, he stepped into the role with alacrity; when England lacked a left-sided midfielder, there he was, trying to create off his wrong foot, although he did have a tendency to drift inside, where he was most comfortable. Ironically, however, for a player who so seldom initiated the dribble (this is the particular genius of a Messi or a Suarez, of course), Stevie seemed most comfortable taking on opponents when he was locked in the left corner. Assessing his options, you could see him – maybe we’ll see it a time or two more – decide to attack. It was not so much a series of clever dinks and feints as a determined driving at opponents, forcing them in one direction as he headed, ball firmly at his feet, the opposite way. Whatever the moment needed, he has always seemed capable of responding – only the very special ones have this gift.
By no means a striker, he may very well be the player to have first inhabited the “false number 9” role – dropping off the opponent’s backline, he would ghost into a deep lying space and attack from there. He’d lay the ball off, and move with speed and strength to get it back. Under Rafa Benitez, Stevie could play this role because Xabi Alonso and Didi Hamman were pulling the strings in midfield, so he was free to link up with his friend, a player with whom he seemed, from the very first moment, to be instinctively in tune: Fernando Torres. That partnership with El Niño was unforgettable. Stevie loved playing with Torres, perhaps more so than any other Liverpool striker. The Scouser and the Madrileño took to each other like long-lost footballing brothers. It is cosmic, then, that as Stevie takes his leave of us, Torres is experiencing his own homecoming. He has left AC Milan to return to his boyhood club, Atletico Madrid, where he first made his name.
Only Franz Beckenbauer, a retreaded central midfielder (he played alongside Wolfgang Overath in the West German midfield in the 1966 final; Germany played a 4-2-4 formation), is as complete a footballer as Gerrard. Beckenbauer, who is remembered for his exploits as a central defender for Bayern Munich and West Germany, is of course by far the more successful of the two (World Cup winner in 1974, just for starters), but “Der Kaiser” and Stevie are both complete footballers in that they are that rare specimen who can play anywhere on the park with distinction. The ability to perform with distinction in every position on the field is the quality that separates the complete footballer from the versatile one. Versatile footballers “fill in”, the complete footballer inhabits the position as if it were his own.
Stevie remains one of the best exponents of the dead ball; just ask the Basel players about that free-kick in December 2014 or the Leicester City goalkeeper, Ben Hamer. On New Year’s Day, the day before The Announcement, Stevie took two penalties. The first was inch-perfectly placed in the left corner (his preferred target), the second seemed to swerve across the goalkeeper’s body before it nestled in the right corner. His corners are not quite of that standard, but he varies them, driving one, bending another, setting up a teammate or sensing when to play it short. Because of his ability to score from the edge of the area (Olympiakos), as a Liverpool fan I almost want him not to take corners. However, he is so much better than anyone else at the task that there can be no argument.
And then there is the poetry that is Stevie’s passing. No one hits the long pass, that raking, dipping pass that leaves the opposition helpless, better than Stevie. No one I have ever seen, no one even comes close when it comes to being able to execute that pass consistently – and, with the sheer deliberateness of intent. The pass is shaped so beautifully. Stevie wraps his foot around the ball, as though he and the ball alone shared a secret geometrical language. Watch the camera pan to his instep, from whence the Archimedean genius originated. And here’s the real thing of it: when Stevie’s about to hit that pass, especially the one from right to left, everyone on the other team – everyone in the stadium, in truth – knows what he is going to do, is already doing, but no one can do anything about it. His body poised and taut, Stevie creates space to hit that perfectly weighted pass; that pass will pierce opposing defences, creating chances for left-sided defenders, midfielders making the run, forwards turning off their defenders. It is a footballing sight to behold.
Stevie is not as good on the left to right pass, but he’s set many a right-back free to gallop up the touchline. Glen Johnson, in particular, has thrived on it, but the likes of John Arne Risse, Jose Enrique and, this season, the highly promising (but error-prone) young Spaniard Alberto Morreno have positively feasted on it. When Gerrard lines up that pass, the defender can take the “overlap”, momentarily abandoning his post and sprinting toward the area just behind the opposing defence with supreme confidence. The ball which Stevie is hitting will reach him, so the full-back is entirely relieved of his defensive responsibilities. No other player, in my decades of watching football, has ever been able to offer such a guarantee to a full-back or any other teammate.
And this is what it will mean. . .
When Stevie leaves, this is what it will mean. No more life-saving goals, no more arcing corners, no more precisely hit passes, no more surely struck, bending free kicks. No more penalties struck with assurance. No more number 8 leading us out of the tunnel.
And this is what it will mean: every time he does anything from now until the end of the season, every goal he scores, every tackle he makes, every ball he intercepts, every instruction, hands on hips, right hand reaching for his nose, those eyes, those eyes, narrowed, narrowed with intent, he issues to his teammates, will bring everything he has done for us since he made his debut in 1998 rushing back . . . All Liverpool fans are condemned to live the rest of this season as the past-present. It is only through Stevie that we can live the rest of this season. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine the next. Next season, when the finality will be irreversible, when the finality will manifest itself as cruel reality: Stevie Gerrard’s really gone.
How will I watch when it’s not him leading us out the tunnel? I know that I will look for him. As is the way of the spectre, he will never be truly gone. But he won’t be out there either.
Either Martin Skertl, our brave, fearsome Slovak, or the talent and industry that is Jordan Henderson will be adequate captains. Rather Marty, for me, because he possesses a certain indifference to everything but the task ahead of him; Henderson’s time will come. In truth, it may be, at least on the evidence of the Swansea game where Jordan and “Cool Hand Luke” (Lucas Leiva) bossed the midfielder while Stevie watched from the bench, that Liverpool, with the “Little Three”, Lallana, Coutinho and Raheem Sterling spread out across the park up front, would be better served in the future with Henderson in his favoured central midfield role. Stevie, I suspect, knows this.
On one occasion this season, one of those rare occasions when we were up late in the game, Stevie was substituted and sought out Henderson to give him the captain’s armband. It was a telling moment: the old general anointing his young lieutenant. Tender, almost, Stevie’s demeanour in that hand-off was kindness itself – “Here you go, mate.” But there was also something else involved in the Gerrard-to-Henderson exchange: respect, recognition, and, as such, that unavoidable admission – the time, if it had not yet come, the time to leave was nigh. Stevie knew: replacements had been sought and, insofar as it was possible (it will never be possible to replace Steven George Gerrard, we all know that), found. Henderson, a player who has come on in the last season and a half, seemed to sense it too. He accepted the armband with pride and, one suspects, regret – the passing of the guard is never easy; it is never without pain; and it always takes place in public.
Why Stevie’s Different.
I have been a Liverpool fan since February 1970. My first heroes were the Scouser Ian Callaghan, the sublime Ray Kennedy (talk about passing), the poised and massively talented goalkeeper Ray Clemence, and, looming above all of my first generation icons, one Kevin Keegan, imported from lowly Scunthorpe, mop-haired lover of goals. I survived Keegan’s departure in 1977. When Kenny Dalglish came to replace Keegan, he won our hearts because he was, from the very first, one of us – Liverpool through and through. And, he could play a bit, as they say. Kenny, of course, has never left us, even when he was at Blackburn and Newcastle; he was Liverpool.
When John Barnes arrived, proud, black, brilliant, Liverpool became mine as it had never been before. Neither Keegan nor Souness, the only Liverpool captain who can rival Stevie, won my heart like Barnesey.
Stevie, however, there is something different, something singular, maybe even something historic about Stevie: Huyton-born, he may be the last great player in the English Premier League who, as a native, represents and embodies his hometown club. (As for the Chelsea fans who cry “John Terry”, who has been with Chelsea since the age of 14. One should never mistake west London churlishness for football. Terry, of course, was born in Barking, east London. Stevie and Terry share, incidentally, the middle name “George”.) Speaking of Chelsea, there was of course that moment in 2005, just after our Champions League victory in Istanbul when Stevie came very close to lining up with the likes of Terry, but it was, mercifully, only a moment.
Stevie is of us. So much so that one can pronounce him an autochthonous Scouser. At the risk of sounding Heideggerian, one can say that Stevie is, in blood and soil, pure Liverpool. Stevie has always, that one moment apart, always been for us and us only. Stevie not only knows us, but he comes from us. Keegan, Kenny, Barnes, they came to us. Kenny and Barnes are, now, of us too, but they have been grafted on. Stevie is us, marrow and bone: the true Scouser who has led us better than anyone else. About that there can be no argument. Tommy Smith and Phil Neal, both wonderful captains; Alan Hansen, erudition itself; Souness, entirely uncompromising as skipper and, perhaps, as human being; however, they all led teams far more talented than Stevie has ever been surrounded with – Alonso, Torres, Suarez, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen, and Robbie Fowler for a moment, apart.
Steven George Gerrard is the best incarnation of who and what Liverpool Football Club is: grounded in the city of his birth, entirely dedicated to the club, to his teammates, his coaches, and, above all else, to us – Liverpool FC fans the world over. This past decade and a half, give or take, football fans the world over came to know Liverpool FC through him; he showed us what the club means in and to this city, and he never forgot how much it means to pull on that famous red shirt emblazoned with the Liver bird. In this way, and this way alone (Stevie is not given to hubris; or, excess of any kind, it would seem), Stevie links us – directly, and on his own terms, always on his own terms – to the tradition of Shankly. Stevie has borne responsibility with passion, with love, with an unyielding intensity. And he bore it alone. No wonder he always, even in victory, cut such a lonely figure. I wonder if it for this reason that he is in all likelihood headed to the LA Galaxy. Stevie, his wife Alex and their three daughters will have a moment of respite there but, more importantly, in the US Stevie might, finally, be able to be by himself in a foreign country.
For all that, try as I might (in truth, I’m not trying very hard at all), I can’t shake the feeling that the US pro league is not worthy of Steven George Gerrard. Robbie Keane? Sure. Thierry Henry? Why not? David Beckham, him of the endless self-promotion and unending desire for the spotlight? The Galaxy’s welcome to the likes of him. But Stevie? He is so far above all the nonsense that is the Beckham hoopla and Keane’s never-ending quest for footballing relevance.
In every game, Stevie gave everything he had. He played as though he were living the dream of every Red Scouser. More than that, the way he played exceeded our dreams. And then some.
There is nothing for me to do then but to trust Plato. But, just in case, I am going to repeat Plato’s injunction as a request to those on high. I ask that no harm come to Stevie, in the past-present or in the future.
Main photograph: by Ben Sutherland