Friday, 21 September 2012


They say the darkest hour comes before the dawn, although whether or not that includes false dawns – of which there have been a few at Anfield in recent times – isn’t entirely clear. It has been confusing not only for Liverpool’s battered and bruised supporters to ascertain whether the pale sun above them was rising or setting, but also for their talisman, Steven Gerrard.

He has seen the promise of Benítez’s side allowed to wilt on the vine and the early Dalglish bump run aground on a catastrophic shopping spree. Now, Liverpool’s failure to secure another striker in the summer transfer window leaves him further away than ever before from capturing another Premier League title.  

Brendan Rodgers had arrived on Merseyside with the promise of tiki-taka (not easy to say in a Scouse accent), something that even the most wildly optimistic of supporters realized would take time to deliver. Yet the almost face-spiting parsimony and inactivity of the transfer window saw the skies darken again on Merseyside, and moved John W. Henry to send the supporters a ‘Letter from America’: “We should have held you / We should have told you / But you know our sense of timing / We always wait too long.” 

This new upswell of doom and gloom crested the Sunday before last at home to Arsenal, when Luis Suárez – attempting a too-cute finish to a chance that he needed to put his foot through – spooned a shot over the bar and into the groans of the Kop. Sky Sports’ summariser Alan Smith – no stranger to spoiling the mood at Anfield as an Arsenal player down the years – and co-commentator Rob Hawthorne instinctively (and appropriately) adopted the sort of solemn, hushed tone that one hears at funerals. There was no scope for any other reaction: the Kop’s native stoicism prevented any self-pity or maudlin; realism foreclosed any voluble and explicit condemnation of the player, now Liverpool’s sole experienced centre forward.

The cameras cut briefly to Gerrard, the man who has spent the tail end of his career witnessing such disappointment. Heaven knows what was going through his Steven Gerrard’s mind at the time of Suárez’s miss, or 36 hours earlier when the window was shut and curtains closed on Rodgers’s squad reinforcements.

However, recognised or not, the forlorn skipper’s mood was undoubtedly the greatest cause for solemnity. After all, this was surely the moment (or the match, at least) when the long-cherished dream of a nineteenth top-flight title – or a first, depending on your point of view – was finally, irrevocably extinguished. No more sunrises.

Even the flintiest of footballing hearts ought to acknowledge the transcendent suffering in this. Perhaps out of respect, then, the camera refused to linger on Gerrard for a second time that afternoon – for he had already had one abject look beamed across the globe, having earlier been guilty of a careless, close-up eliciting misplaced pass that led to the first goal (although to fail to acknowledge the brilliance of Arsenal’s counter-attack would be a travesty).

Of course, the last time Stevie G struck up a swanky partnership with a world-class Spanish-speaking forward, he was in his pitch-bestriding physical prime – a phenomenally effective player whose strengths were rooted in athleticism, courage and responsibility (even if those same traits meant searching too hard and too often for the Hollywood pass) – while his ‘other half’ was a stunner. His fling with Fernando Torres was a glorious, passionate affair – a summer of countryside lovemaking and frolics across the Old Trafford turf – but now the England captain must cosy up to his new Uruguayan clinch without the vitality and soft skin of his youth and with the grooves on that brow deepened as the furrowing has grown more frequent.

Some may argue that it is still not too late for Gerrard at Liverpool, citing the fact that his performances at Euro 2012 – up until his front-row seat (or was it third?) for Andrea Pirlo’s regista masterclass – were widely praised.

Yet there is the lingering impression that Rodgers’ way – concerted pressing and ball possession, using the full acreage of the pitch to achieve that – implicitly endorsed in Henry’s open letter might signal Gerrard being eased toward the Anfield periphery (although the punditariat are already getting twitchy and stuck in about playing out from the back). To provide guile, the Ulsterman has brought in his trusty deep-lying midfield playmaker, Joe Allen, along with Nuri Sahin; to add thrust, there’s Fabio Borini, Oussama Assaidi and greenhorn Samed Yesil. In short, the component parts of Gerrard are gradually being outsourced, a squad makeover that inevitably invites us to ask: where does this leave Cap’n Stevie?

Slow revolutions are not ideal for the peace-of-mind of a 32-year-old for whom the competitive fires must continue to burn fiercely. He still no doubt wants to play like the best in kid in primary school, the one who scores 117 goals per season and is four inches taller than the others, but the body’s protests are always reluctantly accepted by the mind and this athlete-footballer doesn’t appear to have as straightforward a veterans’ niche as, say, Paul Scholes, six years his senior, at Manchester United. Like a favourite yet ageing dog who, happy to be off the leash, scampers after the first couple of throws with alacrity before succumbing to the complaints of his weary limbs, the veteran Gerrard must adapt, slow down, and stop chasing the ball all the time.

Even so, it is certainly not yet time for Liverpool to look into the dimming, waxy eyes of this favourite Koppite pooch and make the difficult decision of taking him on that journey to the vets for that injection. But tactical discipline and simplicity have never been his forte (which is why Benítez moved him forward for his halcyon years, away from the boiler room) and so the future remains unclear.

Either way, if the Arsenal game is the definitive onset of Gerrard’s autumn, physically and emotionally, then, as his nights draw in – even, perhaps, as a new dawn approaches for Liverpool – we do need some proper perspective on this final phase of his career, to take stock of his contribution to the game on these shores. And respect would be the correct tone. 

Has he been frequently overrated in the British media? Perhaps. A sower of chaos? Without doubt. But for better and for worse – both occasionally confusing the positioning of teammates, yet providing considerable final-third cut and thrust.

Yet beyond the partisans’ squabbles, the hype and the jibes, we should remember that Gerrard is that rare creature: a one-club man. And not a one-club man like Giggs and Scholes, Baresi and Maldini, Xavi and Puyol, with their trophy cabinets the size of swimming pools and thus scant incentive to think the grass could be greener anywhere else. No, here’s a one-club man for a team that, during his career, has rarely been truly competitive over the long course and which, perhaps increasingly burdened by its history, both glorious and tragic, has often struggled to punch its weight.

Here is a man who, while well remunerated for his work (although he would surely have been equally so at Real Madrid, Chelsea or a host of other suitors), has sacrificed opportunities for glory elsewhere for the love of his club and for the dream of making its fans’ dreams come true.

In this of all ages, supporters of all colours – even those along the East Lancs Road and across Stanley Park – ought to acknowledge and respect the old-fashioned virtues in that loyalty.

A version of this was published by ESPN. It’s fair to say the homoerotic passage didn’t go down very well…

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