Title win for Gerrard would be just desserts for hometown boy
Liverpool’s hometown boy’s devoted loyalty sets him apart from the rest
One thing is certain as the Kop gods of yesteryear gather at Anfield to bear witness to the defining hour of Liverpool’s title surge: Steven Gerrard belongs to a football era that has already disappeared.
For the past two months, as Liverpool did the unexpected and responded boldly rather than melt in the heat of a sustained title challenge, Gerrard has become symbolic of the cause for team-mates and fans alike. It is a curious situation. Normally, players make loyal vows to win something for a team-mate stricken by serious injury and therefore unable to contribute.
Gerrard, however, is right there in the heart of the Liverpool engine room, firing those long geometrically precise passes, displaying his usual inscrutability from the penalty spot and still playing on the edge, trying to avoid a 10th yellow card and automatic two-match ban tomorrow.
The story of this season unquestionably revolves around Luis Suarez’ glorious reinvention and brilliance. But if the team can win its first league since 1990, this will be remembered as Gerrard’s year.
In the past few seasons, as Liverpool threatened to drift into irrelevance and the idea of the club as league winners began to appear delusional, there was something affecting about Gerrard’s place in English football lore.
It wasn’t as if he had underachieved: his contribution to Liverpool’s most audacious European triumph when they overcame the 3-0 deficit against Milan in the 2005 Champions League final or his two goal burst in the FA Cup final a year later rank among the best of the club’s historical achievements. But as a player regularly feted as one of the world’s best midfielders for over a decade, Gerrard’s decision to commit to Liverpool for his entire football life meant that he missed out on the haul of honours he might have expected to win if he had done what most of the world’s elite players do and sign with the brightest and richest clubs.
In 2012, Liverpool finished eighth, some 37 points behind the league winners and tomorrow’s opponents Manchester City. Gerrard was 31 years old. The chances of his winning a league medal before he retired seemed remote.
It is hard to pinpoint precisely when Gerrard knew that he was incapable of leaving Liverpool. His ties to the club - growing up in Whiston, a Liverpool schoolboy from the age of nine and nurtured through hesitant early years – meant that the ties ran deep. But by 2005/’06, he could have signed for any club and wavered when first Manchester United and then Chelsea came knocking. By then, he owed Liverpool nothing.
As recently as last autumn, Gerrard revealed that he could have joined either club. Other beloved local lads had left. Robbie Fowler left. Michael Owen left. They were forgiven.
With Gerrard, it was different. There was his cousin John Paul Gilhooley, just two years older than Gerrard was when he was killed in the Hillsborough tragedy at the age of 10. In his autobiography, Gerrard attributed the memory of his cousin as one of his private motivations in bettering himself as a footballer until he became the totemic figure at the club.
All that Liverpool could offer in return for his lifelong commitment was flickering promise, the deathless devotion of the fans and a place that fit Gerrard hand in glove. The thing about Gerrard is that he is Scouser to the bone. In the peculiar and charming documentary of his life in the 2006 season, one moment stands out. Two jerseys from the Istanbul final were encased behind glass. They were fitted onto mannequins that rotated at the flick of a switch. “It’s just showin’ off really,” Gerrard said of the display and soon decided that enough was enough. “Switch them off! Save on the lecky.”
When he wasn’t trying to scythe through opposition defences, Gerrard seemed to be lounging around his home with his family and his constant companion “Gratty”.
Had he moved to London or Madrid, that comfort of the familiar would be gone. He may have won league medals had he moved to Chelsea. But by leaving Liverpool, he would have been just another exceptional player in a club filled with them and after a few years, he probably would have been sold elsewhere. That would have made him just another brilliant careerist.
But he stayed.
Winning a league medal is not so rare, plenty of decent footballers whose careers are already half forgotten have collected medals since Liverpool were last champions. It became apparent years ago that Gerrard’s legacy could not be measured in terms of honours won. His worth was about years of consistent excellence and perseverance and, most of all, it was about loyalty. “I’ve come across and played alongside and been in the company of players who are playing the game for the money. It’s as simple as that,” he said in 2006. “And they don’t respect the game. They are flash.”
Gerrard’s respect for the game and his club overruled personal ambition or career fulfilment, which is what makes it so rare. In fact, it is difficult to imagine English football ever again witnessing a career to match Gerrard’s, to envisage a Liverpool or Manchester or London youngster becoming a superstar yet electing to stick with his club even though the business of winning medals is being conducted elsewhere.
The culture of escalating wages and signing bonuses, of the insane auctions for the top-20 players in the world, of agents and the relentless pressure to move to where the lights are brightest wouldn’t allow for it.
As Liverpool failed and failed again to win the league, there was something old-fashioned about Gerrard’s always being there as other players bed-hopped from club to club.
Now Liverpool’s present is at last living up to the mythology of the 1970s and 1980s. The greying gods from the Paisley and Dalglish eras will be in situ tomorrow. This is Liverpool’s best chance of winning the league in years and many years may pass before an opportunity like this comes around again.
The sublime form of Suarez; the 25 year anniversary of Hillsborough; the turbulence at Manchester United and the quirks in recent results all suggest that the stars are aligning around Merseyside.
It may fall apart as early as tomorrow afternoon. Manchester City may simply be too good, too expensive and too deep. But Steven Gerrard’s decision to stay when the smarter career decision would have been to leave has been vindicated by the general acknowledgement that Gerrard’s would be the most hard-earned and precious league medal in the history of Liverpool.