Keith Duggan: Joy and despair rekindled as Steven Gerrard returns to Anfield

Liverpool fans will hope that this welcome back will only be the first of many

It would seem that one of the easiest ways for Liverpool fans to bump into Jürgen Klopp is to hang around the verdant laneways of Formby until the hirsute, affable German turns up on his daily dog walk.

That's certainly how Steven Gerrard claims to have encountered him most recently. But this Saturday, shortly before 3pm, the pair will say hello in the more public surrounds of Anfield.

There are hierarchies of adoration when it comes to Liverpool. If Kenny Dalglish is the anointed King of the Kop, then Gerrard holds a more complicated and intimate place in the rolling heart of the city: the perpetual kid; the homespun Scouser who looked scrawny and worried as he made his debut in front of an underwhelmed gallery in 1998 only to become the driving force of the aspirations and uncertain glories of the club.

Gerrard was one of the last lifers of elite football. Loyalty to his hometown club and the clear message that signing elsewhere - and he was coveted, all over Europe - would be tantamount to a betrayal meant that Liverpool was the first and last English club he would ever play for.

No matter how many times you watch that clip, it's still hard to believe that it is going to happen

There’s an alternative Gerrard career in which he does leave Liverpool after guiding the club to the messianic European Cup success in 2005 and the two-goal FA Cup final escapology the following spring. He gets his league medals and hears the dutiful applause from the locals when he returns.

But he stayed for another 12 seasons after the unlikely fabulousness of that win in Istanbul. There were entire seasons when, like the club, he appeared lost in the ceaseless storm of Alex Ferguson’s United. And there were sporadic brilliant days.

He emptied himself of his coltish athleticism and had winning leagues been achieved through pure desire, he’d have finished with a handful. But he was tethered to an ailing, inefficient professional franchise which had lost the habit and knowledge of how to win.

Cruel sting

And for all of his glories, the gods had a cruel sting awaiting him just when Liverpool seemed set to re-assert itself. In 2014, Luis Suarez almost won the league for Liverpool on his own. They were on the threshold after beating Manchester City at Anfield, with Gerrard unforgettably and unfortunately filmed in the team huddle, screaming at his team-mates: "We don't let this slip!" Then, against Chelsea, Gerrard slipped.

No matter how many times you watch that clip, it's still hard to believe that it is going to happen. How does one of the most supremely balanced athletes of the Premier League age lose his footing like that? And it was the second of two cardinal errors: he slipped because he couldn't believe he had lost control of a routine pass, allowing Chelsea's Demba Ba to break clear and score a goal which pierced the entire season. Chelsea, the club which had courted Gerrard hardest, killed his dream. They let him know it in the terraces for the next three years as Liverpool drifted and Gerrard slowed, departing further away from his ambition than ever.

The Gerrard mythology was given the full treatment in a recent glossy documentary. But in 2006, when the access to elite players was still somewhat scatter-shot, Gerrard participated in a 40-minute film which caught the best of him. The cameras follow him through that winter and he makes the crew perfectly at home. He’s disconcertingly unguarded and lightly pokes fun at the opulence of his home as he shows the public around a new-build mansion with zebra patterned rugs, a white baby grand, a shed full of televisions and a room which the player had done up to mark the 2005 triumph. There’s a glass cabinet containing the shirts worn by himself and Milan’s Andriy Shevchenko. They are presented on mannequins. A switch allows the figurines to rotate.

“It’s just showin’ off really,” Gerrard shrugs. “But it’s nice to have.”

Then he bends down and says: “I’ll just turn this off. Save on the lecky.” It’s delivered in classic deadpan Scouse and through the season, that caustic humour is never far away and often directed at himself. He was 26-years-old then.

The Gerrard who returns to Anfield this weekend is 41. The worry lines are etched a little deeper into the face. You rarely see the scamp in his interviews now. On the sideline he prefers to wear the sombre, vaguely public-schoolboy-ish attire favoured by serious managers - pristine white shirt, tie, grey v-neck and blazer. His three years at Rangers were a stunning triumph and the first month at Aston Villa has been promising, including a terse win over Leicester City and Brendan Rogers, his old manager during that what-if season of 2014.

Cut throat

Pep Guardiola anointed Gerrard as “already a great manager” in handing his first Premier League defeat. It is, of course, far, far too early for anyone to know that. Managing in the top tier of English football has never been more cut throat. Owners become jittery when their clubs fall anywhere close to the no man’s land of relegation. Gerrard is back where he stood in November 1998: unproven; everything ahead of him.

Klopp reveres the sense of tradition at Liverpool. The significance of this moment - Gerrard’s return, their meeting on the sideline in the old cathedral - will appeal greatly to his values. Like all Scousers, Klopp has a sentimental streak. But still: come the whistle, he will expect his team to skewer Gerrard’s best laid plans.

The perfect future for Liverpool fans is that Gerrard makes a thundering success of his time at Villa and is thus the anointed replacement whenever Klopp decides to take his final bow. Sentiment and loyalty and fate all demand that Gerrard will someday win the league with Liverpool: the Anfield gods are calling him back already.

In a way, the club he loves and shone for has been something of a beautiful prison for Stevie G. Expect the raptures from the Anfield crowd on Saturday. And what a sound: what a spine-tingling sound when they give the mother of welcome-homes to the boy they could never fully allow to leave.