The 2005 Champions League final is the sort of football match which stays long in the memory. Liverpool were 3-0 down to A C Milan and managed to win on penalties after extra time. If I remember rightly – and I’m sure some of the football nerds for whom detail is everything will keep me right – he didn’t start the game but came on at half time. It was Gattuso’s foul against him which gave Liverpool their first goal back and the goal that Gerrard scored was one that seemed fuelled solely on passion and belief. My recollection of that second half of football was that Gerrard more or less got his team back in the game and up for it. He was involved in every meaningful section of play right until the final whistle of extra time. It was a quite astonishing performance.
And if you read the words – all the words – to You’ll Never Walk Alone, well, it’s almost as though it was playing on a loop in Gerrard’s head that night.
I remember when he was just starting out, as one of an exciting group of youngsters coming out of the youth system at Liverpool and into the senior game. I recall the controversy over the decision to rest Gerrard because of growing pains at 19. It was fascinating because of the debate which raged between old school – if he’s good enough, he’s old enough, let him play mentality – and the new school of sports science which suggested that if Liverpool played him more than they did, they could ruin his career and staying power. I still have visual imprints of him as that gangly teenager, seemingly all limbs and floppy fringe but who even then, was the kind of player that when he got the ball made you hold your breath to see what would come next.
Gerrard was always an exciting player: the sort who made things happen on the pitch, whose contribution could and did change outcomes. But who, when out of sorts, all too often dragged his team down too. That Liverpool side of the noughties was largely built around his midfield hub to make the most of his talents and his undoubted footballing brain. Consequently, when he was on form, that team was wonderful to watch. It zipped and sang, full of youth, vigour, vim and no end of talent. And at the heart of it all, Gerrard and his ability to pivot and pass inch perfectly without even looking up, to track forward and back, to marshall, to shoot, to score, to organise, control and to apply deft and sublime touches, all often within the one segment of play. I loved watching him go to work. It was a thing of beauty.
His more lacklustre career for England has often been said to be down to successive managers not knowing how to incorporate him more effectively into their teams or simply make hard decisions about which midfielders to go with. Pairing Gerrard with others neutralised his talent and skill. The brave thing to do would have been to build around him rather than expect him to adjust his style and instincts to fit in with other egos in the centre of the field.
I’ve never had a sense of Gerrard having an over-inflated ego. He seems to keep himself to himself off the field. There has been little of the Chelsea cock of the walk stuff which Terry and Lampard often displayed. And as a result, I think he lost out in the England set-up. Imagine what might have been for that golden generation had even just one England manager in the last decade been brave enough to dump the rest and build around Gerrard. Tweeting today, Humza Yousaf wishes Gerrard well but wonders if we can all now agree that Gerrard was one of the most over-rated players of the last decade. For once, Humza, you’re wrong. I don’t think he was ever actually rated enough, nor given his full due or opportunity to shine, at least on the national footballing stage.
But what Gerrard did share with his Chelsea colleagues was of being a rare thing in modern football, of being a one team man. Gerrard is Liverpool through and through. He’s been at the club for an astonishing 25 years. So, you can see why it mattered to him that they at least did not disgrace themselves in that 2005 final, out there on the world stage. The reason why his contractual negotiations always seemed so tortuous is because deep down, he never wanted to move from Liverpool, even when managers were less inclined to keep him or thought they could use that commitment to the club to commercial advantage. But the boy wasn’t daft either and knew his worth.
And if, as expected, he announces today that he is leaving Liverpool at the end of the season to go and finish his career in the US, well that tells us that his club still matters to him. He could have had a berth at one of the lesser English Premier League sides or even on the continent but that might have meant playing to beat his old side.
Going to the US is not just a head decision (for it will be lucrative) but also it would appear one of the heart. And for that alone, I like and admire him just a little more.
UPDATE: Just found this brilliant compilation video put together by LFC Entertainment. I’d forgotten what a great two footed player he is. And just how many great goals he has scored.