This post originally appeared on just-football.com.
The announcement that Steven Gerrard will leave Liverpool at the end of the season has led to a predictable outpouring of unanimous praise. The next five months will doubtless bring more of the same and every goal he scores will be celebrated raucously due to the real possibility that it will be his last.
As much as anything else, there’s an enormous sadness that the Gerrard era is coming to a close, and no-one has been more acutely affected by this melancholy than Gerrard himself. In an age in which shameless mercenarism is the norm, it’s refreshing to see a player who genuinely cares about and understands the club he represents. That’s an intangible quality Liverpool will never replace.
Throughout an interview with Liverpool’s in-house TV channel in which he explained his decision to move on, Gerrard looked as though he would burst into tears. When told that Hillsborough campaigner Margaret Aspinall had described him as “more than a footballer for this city”, his expression became pained and he slumped forward in his seat, exhaling very deliberately so as to prevent complete emotional meltdown. It’s impossible not to feel extremely sorry for him.
His reaction and that of Liverpool fans en masse is understandable. Few players in any place at any time will have a club career as storied as Gerrard’s. He became Liverpool captain at 23, scored for the Reds in several cup finals and his performances in the 2005 Champions League final and 2006 FA Cup final are widely interpreted as two of the most heroic individual showings of all-time.
Thanks to skyrocketing ticket prices and the ever-worsening state of grassroots football in England, Gerrard will probably be one of the last to make the journey from boy on the terrace to hero on the pitch. His refusal to move to a super-club where he would almost certainly win the silverware that eluded him at Liverpool makes him unique, and for his loyalty alone his cultural value is multiplied exponentially.
Liverpool fans are absolutely right to praise and to worship Gerrard. He’s one of their own, a home-grown kid who sincerely loves the club and has proven his commitment beyond question. He’s been a mainstay for seventeen years, scored lots of important and spectacular goals and won a few trophies along the way. If that doesn’t qualify someone for hero status nothing does.
All of the above said, some of the admiration has been almost criminally hyperbolic. Not just this week, but right from the very start. For the entirety of his career he has had to do half as much as every other player to get twice as much acclaim. It’s one thing to say he’s a Liverpool legend, which he is, and another to say he was one of the best players in the world, which he most certainly never was.
It’s baffling that almost everyone criticises the British sports media for its overt jingoism and favouritism – search Twitter for ‘Andy Townsend’ on any Champions League night – but a certain minority becomes offended at the suggestion that the almost Stalinist Sky Sports hype machine has led to the inflation of Gerrard’s status.
That’s not to say that only British people rate Gerrard highly. Through my travels and via the magic of the internet it’s become apparent that he’s revered worldwide, but it certainly seems to be true that suggesting that he was at times a pretty lousy footballer will only enrage a subsection of the British.
Given that it’s been almost impossible for UK commentators to criticise Gerrard for the vast majority of his career, that’s not a surprise. When he plays badly in televised matches, we hear British pundits say bizarre things like “Steven Gerrard is playing passes to players who are not where they should be.” (© Robbie Fowler, 2014) This kind of selective stupidity has been intolerable and it has led to a significant distortion of the facts.
First and foremost, there’s the oft-repeated mythology about Gerrard’s unparalleled performances in big games. It’s sometimes said that he won the 2005 Champions League and the 2006 FA Cup by himself. This is, at best, disrespectful to his teammates, his manager, the coaching staff and everyone else who worked incredibly hard to achieve those victories.
In this mythos it’s almost never acknowledged that Liverpool didn’t actually win or even control either of those finals: both were settled on penalties after dramatic 3-3 draws in which Liverpool very nearly lost. Leaving aside the fact that winning on penalties barely counts as winning at all, it seems a bit odd that the most peerless big-game player of all time came so close to losing the very matches in which he apparently proved his greatness beyond all doubt.
What’s more, Gerrard didn’t start playing well on either occasion until his team was behind or on the verge of defeat. In Istanbul in particular, Liverpool’s first-half annihilation was partly down to his poor performance. He spent the first forty-five minutes chasing shadows and made two mistakes in just a few seconds that led directly to the third Milan goal.
Yes, he showed remarkable resolve and courage to score and to instil in his teammates the belief and confidence to come back, but that doesn’t absolve him of all blame for mistakes that led to the team’s original predicament. The real heroes of Istanbul are arguably Didi Hamann and Jerzy Dudek: Hamann for neutralising Kaká and Dudek for somehow saving from Shevchenko from two yards and then for stopping two kicks in the shootout. A decade on, the two are footnotes in the Istanbul story and Gerrard is its protagonist.
A year later, Gerrard gave what is generally recognised as the greatest individual performance of his career in a 3-3 draw against West Ham. I will repeat that last bit: a 3-3 draw against West Ham. Admittedly, he scored two spectacular goals and set up another with a breathtaking pass but, and this may sound churlish, the most dependable big-game player ever should mercilessly destroy underdog opponents with a midfield two of Nigel Reo-Coker and Carl Fletcher.
As it was, Gerrard and Liverpool had no control over the game, West Ham poured forward at every opportunity and it could realistically have ended up any score. Even after Gerrard’s instantly iconic last-minute long-ranger, the Hammers had much better chances to win the game before the shootout lottery again came out in Liverpool’s favour.
While Gerrard will be remembered primarily for what happened in Istanbul and Cardiff and for the rocket against Olympiakos, those moments aren’t representative of his career and we shouldn’t pretend that they are. When the chips were down for club and country, he often failed to perform. He usually reproduced the first half performance from Istanbul, but didn’t save face by repeating the second half.
It’s almost completely forgotten, for example, that Rafa Benítez once substituted Gerrard in a Merseyside derby because his intense desire to win was making him play like an idiot. The Liverpool fans booed as Lucas Leiva replaced the club captain, but the Brazilian gave the team much more control in midfield and the Reds won the game. “Sometimes you need to play with the brain and not the heart,” Benítez said afterwards.
What happened to Gerrard’s mind in that game was not unusual. While all about him were keeping their heads, he very frequently lost his. Just as often as he galvanised his side, he spooked his colleagues and sent them into blind panic, particularly with England. On more than one occasion, he went one further and torpedoed his own team with a moment of complete insanity.
No other elite midfielder has given as many decisive assists to opposition strikers in big games as Gerrard. No other top-level player regularly became so consumed with the need to do everything at once that he almost completely lost the ability to do anything at all. No-one else has ever screamed “This does not fucking slip!” at his teammates before literally slipping over at the least opportune moment.
None of the above is to say that Gerrard was a bad footballer. He clearly wasn’t. Nor was he always a loose cannon, just as likely to smash a screamer in at one end of the pitch as he was to hand the opponents the initiative at the other. Just to make it clear: he was for the most part a very good player, an excellent professional and, in his later years, a strong and responsible leader, whose overall contribution was positive.
But – and this is a big ‘but’ – Gerrard was fatally flawed in such a way that precluded him from ever being considered a genuinely great player. His gung-ho style was all-or-nothing, anachronistic and often disastrous. While most fans love watching players like him because they guarantee some kind of spectacle, the modern game has evolved to favour an entirely different kind of midfielder.
Over the last decade, mastery of the ball in tight spaces, trust in the collective and an advanced understanding of strategy have become the most vital parts of every midfielder’s arsenal. Gerrard increasingly stood out as a top-level midfielder who not only possessed none of those qualities but as one who epitomised their polar opposites.
This has not gone unnoticed. Despite the media’s insistence that he was the most complete midfielder around, Gerrard became recognised by some as the world’s greatest Roy of the Rovers tribute act: always running around chasing opponents like a headless chicken, refusing simple passes in order to punt long diagonals which flew miles over his teammates’ heads, and shooting from all distances and angles in a bid to be the match-saving hero. It’s amazing when it works, but most of the time it doesn’t.
That he played his most productive football with Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso behind him has also been duly noted. As an attacker free to play his natural game close to the opposition goal, he was incredibly effective, and Liverpool benefitted from the gaps he used to leave in midfield being filled by the two most suitable players for that task in the world. Were it not for the fact that Fernando Torres has hamstrings made out of glass, Liverpool very probably would have won the title and Gerrard would deservedly have lifted the trophy he wanted most.
Ultimately, however, Gerrard ends his Premier League career as both a club legend and a cautionary tale. He was a product of his time and place – the inevitable end result of latent talent being fed into a terrible coaching system based on the outdated and undeveloped long-ball ideas espoused by Charles Reep and Charles Hughes and a product of a culture that still values individual heroism over collective triumph.
A Liverpool fan I know once lamented that Gerrard hadn’t been born in the Netherlands, saying “He’d have turned out like Neeskens.” As it was, he was Liverpool’s very own lobotomised Lothar Matthäus, at least until Brendan Rodgers turned him into a competent playmaker for a couple of years. He’s given the Reds more great memories than any other player in recent memory and for that he will remain an icon forever – but it’d be great if we could drop the pretence that he was ever one of the best players in the world.