Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by!
– W.B. Yeats, Under Ben Bulben
The end came in ignominy. It was a desultory, disheveled, listless performance by a poorly managed team against Crystal Palace two Saturdays ago. Then, a 6-1 rout by Stoke on the final weekend in which Steven George Gerrard scored the single consolation goal for Liverpool.
The end, in his final match at Anfield, should never have come in ignominy for Gerrard. He deserved more.
Physically, as is his wont, Stevie did all he could. The truth, however, is probably a little less kind. Stevie was off; he was off his game, but that is only part of the story. Against Palace, there was a wayward shot near the end; there was a poorly timed run to meet a driven corner that never arrived. Through it all, the camera was trained on him and, Stevie being Stevie, he remained true to himself: he shut the world out with his eyes, those narrowed, downward-cast eyes, that knotted brow, keeping us out, always keeping us out. How I admire his intense internality – the unto-himselfness of Steven Gerrard.
But not even his characteristic remove could hide what I would previously have thought unimaginable. From the little it was possible to discern, Stevie seemed relieved. Not relieved to be taking his leave of Anfield, a ground he has made his own: Anfield Road stadium belongs to Steven George Gerrard. Relieved that he would no longer have any part to play in the Brendan Rodgers debacle. His farewell at Anfield, the place he has made his own these past 18 seasons, seemed, tragically, an afterthought. Stevie was already gone.
The pomp in his honour was touching. There he was leading out his three daughters, Lourdes, Lexie and Lily-Ella, leading out the team for the final time. His daughters have every reason to be proud of their father. After all, he is the greatest Liverpool player of all time. Greater than even Scotsman Billy Liddell, a magnificent winger who starred in the 1950s, the mercurial Kenny Dalglish (King Kenny, King of the Kop, beloved son of Anfield who helped us rule Europe), and the genius John Barnes.
Stevie left us early in April when he was made to sit on the bench behind the tiny Welshman Joe Allen. Liverpool fell behind to their arch enemies, Manchester United, and Stevie watched the first half from the bench. Stevie had just come back from injury, but how does a manager leave him out in favour of Allen, especially against United? Steven Gerrard is, after all, is Steven Gerrard. He watched in anger, visibly piqued that he was made to sit while Allen and the rest of the Liverpool midfield were bossed and shoved all over the park by United’s bruisers.
Down a goal, Rodgers inserted Gerrard. Stevie received the ball, a bad pass from Emre Can, and he stomped on a United player within a minute or so of the restart. The referee missed it, but his assistant didn’t. Off Stevie went, the victim less of his anger than what seemed for me to be a perceived an injustice. Gerrard clearly felt himself wronged. And Stevie, being Stevie, had to make someone pay.
I knew it then. That was the moment Steven Gerrard’s Anfield career ended. The rest was just a series of games to be played out. Not in a fit of pique, but with an increasing sense of remove: the intensification of Steven Gerrard’s unto-himselfness. The bond between Gerrard and Liverpool can never, of course, be broken, but in the moment of his being named to the substitute’s bench, assigned the role of secondary player, Gerrard retreated. He disappeared down the Anfield tunnel after being sent off, but it was also a more significant taking of leave. Disrespected, he bid us farewell, except we could not see it as such. He was gone. He said goodbye, before he left.
To borrow a line from Memphis, “God’s Own Son” had left the building. And he told us what he was doing, we just couldn’t hear him
Therein lies the tragedy, because we Liverpool fans must take it upon ourselves to apologise for not letting God’s Own Son leave on his own terms. If we can properly stipulate the moment of his departure, then we can understand why 16 May 2015 means nothing. The spectacle of man with his daughters, doing something that has defined him all his life (Stevie joined us when he was eight years old) for the last time, is an occurrence of no small significance. But for a man such as Steven Gerrard, it was but a small matter. Something to be done, a task to be undertaken, something that means more to others, never something ontological. The pregame activities of 16 May 2015 in no way bears – or intrudes upon – the unto-himself essence of Steven Gerrard.
No wonder, then, that while Gerrard did what he could to hold Liverpool together one more time, one last time, by the final 10 minutes his eyes appeared to have retreated even deeper into his always reticent self. Stevie wanted this to be over. And I wanted it to be over for him. No mas, no mas. Nunca mas. He did, during his life at Liverpool, all he could. He gave his all, and then some.
In such a moment, one is moved to a Yeatsian poetic. One must write in full knowledge of the end, which means that one writes, necessarily, in anticipation of pain, of the excruciating loss that follows the final moments of a life (professional, in this instance). Under Ben Bulben, as all modernist scholars know (especially those with an interest in Irish modernism and particularly those who share Yeats’ commitment to the nationalist cause), contains the epigraph the poet chose for his own grave. They wonderfully crafted lines, “Cast a cold eye”, so full of equanimity, so deeply inscribed with the force of mortality, “On life, on death”, and yet reaching, determinedly, for something we might name “balance”, the willingness to look Fate, let’s call it, dead in the eye and remain steadfast still: “Horseman, pass by.” Yeats, unbowed even in death, triumphant to the very end and far beyond. Yeats’ self-chosen epigraph has, we have always known, moved us to poetry, to seek our lyricism, impelled us to identify our own elegiac propensities.
Strangely, so it is with Stevie, because even as I can only cast a sad eye on his final exit from Anfield, he has remained – in truth, he has always been – absolutely felicitous to himself. “Horsemen”, no matter the shape they assumed – hapless managers such as Roy Hodgson; machismo madrileño technicos such as Rafa Benitez; returning saviours who couldn’t offer much technically, such as Kenny Dalglish; technical whizz kids such as Rodgers; boorish opponents such as Chelsea; boorish opposing managers such as Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho; pathological foes; take your pick – he has passed them by. Little wonder, then, that the Palace players couldn’t find him soon enough as the final whistle sounded. Gerrard was always a worthy foe, but, deep down, they all knew he was beyond them. Both in terms of his talent and, more importantly, in terms of his Socratic ability to keep himself to himself even as he led his team-mates and battled his opponents. He has always been a man alone, a Socratic figure insofar as he is a man who knows the immense value of his own company. Stevie Gerrard is a man who knows his own value, who is utterly self-aware. His sense of who he is derives, firstly, from no one but himself.
Human beings such as Steven Gerrard are born to be captains. They are born to lead, seldom to be properly known; they are always beyond us, and they can never belong fully to us.
Still, we wronged him because it all ended in ignominy, not in honour. However, such is the force of Gerrard’s unto-himselfness that maybe such honour was never ours to give in the first place. But the sense of having done him wrong lingers. It will not pass. We should have bid him adieu in a more fitting way. Stevie, your farewell at Anfield Road, your leading us out for the last time (how it hurt to realise that; how I wanted only what is good for you), how could it have ended in ignominy? In the moment of cultural record, the moment in which our psychic debts are entered into history, not even the delicate gift of Yeatsian prevarication will suffice.
Above all, there is the abiding regret that we did not give Stevie as much as he gave us.
I have this image in my head of you, waving, then turning your back, our number 8, heading down the tunnel. I don’t think you can possibly know how much of us, our good wishes, our thanks, our admiration, our deep affection for you, our absolute regard, and, most of all, our unquantifiable gratitude went down that tunnel with you.
We are unworthy of you, Stevie.
I am sorry, I am so goddamn sorry for how it ended.
For us Liverpool fans, God’s Own Son has left the building. But then again, like Elvis, your time is eternal, Stevie. It will never pass.
Gif Credit: Steven Gerrard in happier times by Lloyd Gedye