Steven Gerrard’s late-stage maturity has him on a career high
Liverpool legend has now played under five permanent England managers
England captain Steven Gerrard celebrates his late goal during the World Cup qualifying game against Poland at Wembley.
Perhaps there is a lot to be said, in the end, for just refusing to fade away. Looking back at Steven Gerrard’s clinching second goal against Poland at Wembley on Tuesday night – a brilliantly Gerrard-ish moment of telescopic athleticism finished with a technically supreme toe-poked dink – it was tempting to imagine a Gerrard greatest hits England showreel, sandwiching together his first and last significant interventions in competitive international football.
It is a story that would begin with a superbly precocious last half-hour against Germany at Euro 2000 as England held on to a 1-0 lead in Charleroi. Fast forward 13 and a half years to Poland on Tuesday and, with those stellar bookends – scourge of Germany to the hammer of the Poles – Gerrard has hoovered up 107 England caps over 14 years in what has been, in the event, a perversely choppy, surprisingly mixed, oddly clamourous international career. Albeit with a sense, now, of a more stately kind of vindication in his dotage.
Last man standing
At Wembley on Tuesday night Gerrard even had something of the last man standing about him: last of that gilt-effect generation, the first really talented superstar Premier League England players whose chief legacy will remain the decadent congealment of Baden-Baden. Beyond this, Gerrard and England has at times been an uneasy, only periodically happy marriage.
He has now played under five permanent England managers, appearing variously as central midfield, right midfield, left midfield, right-back and energetic second striker, and taking in from Wembley to Potchefstroom, the full range of generational lows.
It is testimony to his late-stage maturity that Gerrard has managed to emerge from this an unexpected good news story. At Wembley on Friday night England’s captain produced a typically Gerrard 2.0 performance, remaining an urgent, ferrety presence in his central role throughout.
There was one brilliant set-piece delivery and at times a sense of gear change as Gerrard stripped away his veteran’s weeds and emerged briefly as the long-limbed physically assertive midfielder of his youth, on one occasion pretty much running through Adrian Mierzejewski in pursuit of the ball. Not to mention further confirmation that, rebooted by two excellent years under Roy Hodgson, the narrative of Gerrard’s England career has shifted away from a slightly frantic lack of fulfilment to the status of team leader, greybeard, and unflustered midfield pivot.
Going almost entirely against type, he has achieved the near-unprecedented feat of becoming a better England player as he has got older and for Gerrard this looks like a moment of what in the movie business is called “dignity”. It has, it is now safe to say, been an excellent career.
Three distinct ages
Albeit, things could have easily looked quite different. With England there have been three distinct ages of Gerrard. The first ran from 2001-2004: these were the good times. His first 21 caps came without defeat and featured a thrillingly complete central midfield performance in Munich in the 5-1 defeat of Germany. He also played with distinction at Euro 2004, the last time England looked like having the remotest chance of winning a tournament.
Then came the lean years, that extended middle period from 2005-2010, ushered in by the defeats by Denmark and Northern Ireland that signified the slow death of Sven-ism, wrapped around the wider disappointments of Germany 2006 and taking in defeats by Russia in Russia (he was captain) and Croatia at Wembley in 2007 (he was captain), the dismal draw with Algeria (he was captain) and finally the disintegration against Germany in South Africa (he was, again, captain).
The age of Roy
After which, 84 caps and 10 years into his England career, Gerrard might easily have shuffled off into gilded club football dotage. Instead he stayed, missed a year in2011, and was back for the start of the dawning of the age of Roy. Unexpectedly, the past 20 months have provided the most settled period of Gerrard’s England career. In 16 games, all as captain, Gerrard’s England have lost only once, the friendly in Sweden, and have won 10 times.
In that period Gerrard has been a member of Uefa’s team of Euro 2012, led England to late-breaking World Cup qualification and played consistently well in the deep central midfield role that should perhaps always have been his.
Looking back, England managers have perhaps been a little confused by Gerrard, too much in thrall to his long-limbed explosiveness, tolerating his slightly scatter-gun, occasionally golden-bullet long-range passing and using him as sword when perhaps he would have been better left as shield with an extra gear. As he is now. England’s prospects next summer may be bleak to middling.
But for Gerrard personally, qualification represents a notable career high. He spoke about his genuine excitement at the prospect of playing for England in Brazil, testimony three years on from the horrors of Potchefstroom, to football’s ability to renew and replenish – and beyond that to two years of assured late-career international retrenchment