LAST Sunday he felt something he’d never felt before. Losing to Manchester United brought Steven Gerrard the normal pain but something new washed through him like an anaesthetic. Perspective.
“That’s the most comfortable I’ve ever felt after a Manchester United defeat, because of how we played,” Gerrard reflects. Last October, his only concern was whether he would be able to continue as a footballer. “I don’t think people realise how close I was to not playing again,” he says. “I appreciate anything I can achieve in any game I can play now. I just think back a year.”
It’s hard to imagine a more rollercoaster 48 hours than those that giddied Gerrard then. Just back from an injury that itself threatened his career — when his groin ruptured and peeled away completely from the bone — “a normal graze from an everyday tackle in training by [Daniel] Agger” made his ankle swell.
He travelled for the game against West Brom and was starting an evening meal with the team when Liverpool’s doctor, Zaf Iqbal, rushed in.
“I’d thought, ‘Some ice, anti-inflammatories, get the ankle a decent size where I can get my boot on . . . I’ll have a painkiller and play’. But the doctor was unhappy with the colour and size and had [taken fluid from it and] sent the sample for tests. There was a severe infection.”
Iqbal ordered Gerrard back to Liverpool. Two hours after sitting down to his pasta, he was having emergency surgery to drain and clean the ankle. “If I hadn’t had the fluid out within 24 hours I wouldn’t have had a cartilage. The bug would have eaten it,” Gerrard says. “I’d probably have never played again, or even trained. In my mind, as the operation began, was, ‘This could be the end’.”
Two nights later, on crutches, going straight from one hospital to another, Gerrard was at the birth of his third daughter, Lourdes. “I was no use,” he grins. “I was on one leg, biting my teeth — but that wasn’t the time to complain about pain to [my wife] Alex! Though, trust me, the ankle was throbbing.
“I owe the doc and Chris Morgan, our physio. Last year put my career into perspective. At the beginning of this season I had a couple of disappointing games. A few years ago I’d have been driving myself mad, not sleeping at night. Now I think, ‘At least you’re out there’.”
The changed outlook is among myriad things discussed in My Liverpool Story, documenting 14 totemic years at Anfield in pictures, captions and short chapters. With other players the format would encourage blandness but Gerrard is so honest and sharp that the book is a joy — filled with nuggets such as: “Torres was easily the best player I have ever played with . . . when he wanted out, it was like a knife to the heart.” And another: “As you get older you realise football isn’t about friends. It isn’t about being loved.” (Yes, in a passage on Rafa Benitez).
Gerrard hopes, at 32, “there are a few more chapters” to come. That’s certainly the feeling watching him: England’s standout at Euro 2012, man of the match against United, still No 1, still his country’s best footballer since Paul Scholes. Staying at the top is hard though. He has stepped up his gym time, uses ice baths and yoga, but says: “I think 90% of players do that now. When I go away with England nearly everyone’s at it. I’ve noticed since I came back, in the last year, the game’s getting better, more physical, quicker.
“This week a 16-year-old [Jerome Sinclair] made his Liverpool debut. At 16, I was a YTS lad leaving school, a beanpole. There’s no way I’d have been able to play for Liverpool then. But they’re coming out of school much stronger now. These are coming out like machines, with the Rooney build, you know?
“It’s getting more difficult for older players. It shows how well [Ryan] Giggs and Scholes have done, with the amount of speed and talent now coming into the game. They get managed superbly. You need a manager who’ll play you at the right times — which is what Brendan Rodgers is doing with myself now.
“I think I can play on at this level for quite a while. I’ve got this season and next on my contract. I’m not looking for a new contract but I’m hoping next year will not be my last. I’ll know when I’m ready to go. After every day in training, for Liverpool and England, I assess whether I’m short of anything. But my two best performances this season have been against Manchester City and Manchester United. And coming off the back of the Euros, doing so well . . . My physical numbers in training and games are as good as they’ve ever been.
“I know I’m not going to be bursting into the box every couple of minutes the way I did when I was 23, 24. Experience, and coaches such as Rafa, [Gerard] Houllier, Brendan and [Fabio] Capello have helped me with timing; when to go, when not to go. It’s more I’ve had to tidy my game up rather than I’ve had to change drastically.”
Yet some think he should change it. A few bloggers, even a couple of mainstream analysts, have suggested Gerrard’s dynamic game and love of the bold pass are incompatible with Rodgers’ “keep-ball” philosophy. This view has not escaped him and, typically, it’s addressed head-on. “I’ve enjoyed working with Brendan from day one,” he says. “I’m excited with his methods and philosophy and I think our relationship will grow. There’s an odd few people chirping up and saying maybe I don’t fit into his system but that’s not the message I’m getting from the manager. He’s told me he wants me around to help him move the club forward.
“The past few games I’ve played beside Joe Allen and Joe’s naturally going to play slightly deeper and keep the passes safe and build attacks. But if I get in the final third and I see a ball . . . you know, if I keep playing balls safe and nice and keep the ball and I’m thinking, ‘Shall I get a 90% pass success so Brendan Rodgers likes me?’ the Liverpool fans won’t be happy with my performances. I’m judged on something else.”
Creating chances, scoring goals? “I’d like to think so. If I can keep the majority of my passes and try a few risky ones in the right areas and get them to come off, I’m sure the manager will be happy. It’s about finding a balance and what area of the pitch you’re in. If I’m close to the defenders and we’re building an attack then of course I’ll be keeping the ball. I’m not going to be trying all kinds of crazy passes. But when my passing is right I know Brendan Rodgers will like it.”
Managers like matchwinners and England have barely produced another one like Gerrard, scorer in finals of the European, Uefa, FA and League cups; creator or scorer of five of England’s past eight tournament goals.
He doesn’t sleep before big games. We discuss his rare ability to grab hold of them and change them. What’s going through his mind during one of his surges of influential play? What powered him in Istanbul? “Fear,” he smiles. “Yeah. I think it’s the nervousness and the butterflies that come from the fear of losing. All those games when I’ve had a fantastic night in a red shirt — you know, I haven’t enjoyed them. Not until they’ve been over. I don’t enjoy any game, really, until the end. It’s weird.
“Roy Keane said all winning did for him was put off the fear of losing for a few moments and it’s like that for me. You win. You can park it [fear] up. And it’s sort of a relief . . . until the next challenge comes. The enjoyment for such an achievement [Istanbul] is so short.
“If you’re an international player, and had a successful season, how long do you get to enjoy it before the next one? Two, three weeks?”
United, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Malaga and recently Paris Saint-Germain tried luring him away. Barcelona sounded him out. He did consider leaving, once or twice, but that’s long gone. “What I’ve achieved here and my feeling and love for this club . . . it’s more important for me, now, to think what can I realistically achieve in the next two or three years as a Liverpool player? Rather than thinking selfishly, ‘Maybe I can sneak away and try and win the league with someone else’.”
An arresting line in the book is: “It will be a miracle if I now realise my dream of winning the title with Liverpool.”
Quite an admission. “I say that because of my age and where we finished in the league the past couple of years. And also the situation we’re in with the rivalries,” he explains.
“There’s not just United and Arsenal now but City, Chelsea and Tottenham. Newcastle coming as well. The Premier League has become a lot more difficult to win for everyone.
“We were eighth last year. If this season goes well, we get a bit of luck, improve, we have an outside, no, a 50-50 chance of being in the top four. That’s being realistic. It’s achievable. But even if we do sneak into the top four I’ll be 33 at the end of the season, so that’s why it’ll be a miracle if we win the title before I finish. But I’ll keep fighting. I’ll keep trying and see what happens.”
Why Gerrard talks top four and isn’t depressed after losing to United involves the renewal he perceives under Rodgers. “We’re on the edge of becoming a really good team. Teams are going to struggle against our style. The kids coming through are very exciting. Raheem Sterling is phenomenal. A lot of people want to take credit but it has to be given to Brendan. We haven’t won a league game and [at West Brom in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday] he puts faith in these young lads. It’s all right saying, ‘I brought them to the academy’ but it’s about having the bottle to give them the chance.”
Gerrard sees mentoring the youngsters as part of his captain’s role. He’s telling Sterling and Co: “It’s not about breaking through and playing 10-15 games. It’s playing 200-300 games, contributing to big trophies. That’s when you become a big player at this club.”
Kenny Dalglish says Gerrard is Liverpool’s biggest ever, but he requires broad shoulders. “At Liverpool, the way it is with myself — and I’ve noticed it’s a bit the same with [Luis] Suarez — if we don’t score or set goals up then we haven’t played well. Whereas other players can pass the ball and have a normal game and they’re ‘sensational’. But that’s fine,” he shrugs.
He admits he is stuck in his ways but Steven Gerrard's quiet approach has won over the public and gained respect along the way
Jonathan Northcroft Published: 30 September 2012
DURING Euro 2012 Roy Hodgson said it so often it became a little joke among the press. “We should ask Steven,” he would reply when questioned about opponents, past tournaments or the mood in the England squad.
Hodgson liked having Gerrard alongside him at important briefings and seeking his view — a habit the manager has continued into the World Cup qualifying campaign. Gerrard, as we also saw before last weekend’s Liverpool v Manchester United derby, speaks well and with authority. That Fabio Capello, twice, passed him over for the England captaincy because he thought Gerrard introverted is prominent among the oddities of the Italian’s reign.
Gerrard, having worn Liverpool’s armband since he was 23, has a record of won five, drawn three, lost none as permanent England skipper. “I think I got it, the Liverpool captaincy, slightly too young but I’ve loved every minute of it and I’ve tried to grow as a captain and learn,” he says when asked about the art.
“The important thing, as I see it, is I’ve got to do my job, the right things on and off the pitch, and ensure my performances are at a certain level. Otherwise I’m in no position to guide others.
“People thought I didn’t have the character or the respect to be England captain, that I was a bit too quiet or a bit too shy. But now people have got to know me and I’ve been in front of the media more, people are getting to know I’m not quiet.
“But I’m not loud either. I just do the right things on the training pitch and if I’ve got to speak to someone I’ll speak to them one-on-one, respectfully, quietly, rather than rant and rave. That’s my way, anyway. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong but I’ve played with all sorts of different captains and the ones I’ve had the most respect for are the ones who’ve done it my way.”
He treats the concept of leadership seriously. Through the Steven Gerrard Foundation, which helps sick or disadvantaged children, he is taking a lead in the community. Everybody talks of him as a future Liverpool manager and the club have offered an ambassadorial role that he can take up when he finishes playing. “It’s an option the club have given me, which is nice of them,” he says, “but I don’t know what I want to do after I stop playing.
“I think about it every day and my mind changes every day. One day I fancy doing a bit of managing, a bit of coaching, and the next day I don’t. But for the moment the focus is to play as long as I can.” He would love to keep going as long as a colleague who inspired him, Gary McAllister, who played for Liverpool well past his 37th birthday.
The foundation has led him to join Twitter, something that he swore he would never do. “There’ll be a few tweets here, there and everywhere trying to raise a bit of awareness for the foundation. But you’re not going to find me a serial tweeter or putting anything ambitious or outrageous out there. It’ll just be safe,” he says.
“There won’t be a tune of the day like Gary Neville. I’m not really a social media person.” He’s old-school — as his boot sponsor has been discovering. Being seen to remain down-to-earth is almost the 11th commandment for any Scouse lad but it’s difficult to eschew modern pretensions in players’ footwear. Gerrard, having worn plain black boots since owning his first pair, is fighting against attempts to put him in coloured ones.
“Adidas prefer me to wear lots of different boots and colours,” he says, laughing at the situation. “Believe me, behind the scenes myself and Kathryn and Struan [his representatives] are asking for black boots. But the [Adidas] answer is black boots just aren’t as popular these days.
“If you look about, even [Jamie] Carragher is putting black marker on his boots to try and get them black. That’s how difficult it is! Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m stuck in my ways and need to change . . .” (he has neon yellow stripes on his boots this season omg dis liar)
Also, he wrote a new book. I downloaded it, so you guys should comment in the post what parts you want to see and I'll upload it for you. It's a great book, very insightful, sad and funny.