Liverpool and Steven Gerrard: Never Again
Time called on Steven Gerrard at the end of last year, as he brought his career to an end. The nature of modern football means that everything is worthy of comment and so that final retirement – effectively his second in eighteen months – brought the usual obituaries, love letters and, inevitably, irritation.
For every Liverpool fan intent on paying their respects at the monument of his career, there were others who sought to desecrate Gerrard’s legacy; was his worth overstated and his talented over-emphasised on account of his passport? Probably, but that kind of analysis – with its strains of very British self-flagellation – ignores the most obvious aspect of Gerrard’s appeal. Just as he wasn’t at the time, he isn’t now celebrated for who he was a player, rather for existing at a centre-point between footballing worth and emotional appeal.
Gerrard had many anachronistic qualities. The way he played the game and the on-pitch role he occupied often seemed to belong to a different time and, without veering into comic-book cliche, his captain-as-match-winner shtick exists more commonly now in hearts and minds than it does in contemporary sport.
Very few have access to the territory in which he existed. The Premier League has contained better players and more decorated athletes and, in a literal technical or statistical comparison, he doesn’t stand alongside Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo or even someone like Alan Shearer; the drama of all those Gerrard moments, domestically at least, probably outweighed their actual worth. But that only serves to emphasise his differences. Henry could have played 200 more games for Arsenal and Ronaldo might have scored another 100 goals for Manchester United but, even then, they wouldn’t have ascended to his level of the game. To be a boyhood fan is special and to be intertwined with a pre-emninent, club-defining tragedy creates a tenderness which football alone cannot replicate. Gerrard had the full deck of cards, he landed on the midpoint between merit and meaning.
That’s why he’s celebrated and that’s why the written odes and television monologues will continue into 2017 and beyond. Admittedly, they have an alienating quality, but that’s only because the connection between author and object is inaccessible to those who have no affection for the city of Liverpool and its football club. The sentimentality surrounding Gerrard and the divisiveness he causes grow from the same root: he doesn’t belong to football, rather to Liverpool, and so his appeal invariably evades those who try to evaluate him on a purely sporting basis.
He wasn’t the first player to be figuratively gated off from the rest of the world, but he might be one of the last; the qualities he represented are going to become more rare.
Gerrard wasn’t the most naturally talented player, but the attributes he did have were accentuated by a scarce appetite for self-improvement. He had certain gifts and his size and shape made him suited to playing in a Premier League midfield, but his greatness was cultivated rather than gifted; he didn’t rely on the talent he was born with, he used it as a starting point. Self-motivation isn’t in short supply in the present day, but there aren’t many whose levels of attitude and ability are so perfectly dosed and it’s rarer still for the mixing of the two to create such a spectacular reaction.
But beyond his abilities as a football player, the opportunity for childhood fans like him to become stars within their hometown teams is narrowing. Top-flight sides now trawl drag-nets through the oceans of global football, limiting the importance of local catchment areas and restricting academy chances for local boys. The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union may impact scouting strategy in time and redress that balance, but for the moment they remain truly international meritocracies. The next Steven Gerrard, whoever he may be, will have to jump through more hoops, dodge more bullets, and sidestep more landmines if he is to enjoy a similarly linear career.
And he must be born in the right place and support the right club.
Lots of communities have local heroes and the further down the pyramid one goes, the easier they are to find. Gerrard’s story is precious because it was multiplied by circumstance: he was celebrated for who he was locally, but his loyalties – and ability – also gave him access to a grander stage. The image of him holding the European Cup aloft in 2005 represents a wonderful achievement, but also a highly unlikely series of events: what are the chances of that happening again? Of someone rising as he did and of their career coinciding with that kind of opportunity at that kind of club?
Glancing around the Premier League, there are a few players who could theoretically infiltrate a similar territory. Harry Kane’s scoring rate and loyalties put him on a Gerrard-like trajectory, while Marcus Rashford is a childhood Manchester United fan who might one day enjoy equivalent stature. In each case, though, they lack Gerrard’s layered association with their clubs – plus, of course, Tottenham seem unlikely to win the European Cup during Kane’s career and Manchester United, with their financial resources, are sure to limit Rashford’s opportunities with further competition.
Yes, the eulogies can become grating but, while some of it can seem indulgent, it really draws its energy from the knowledge that Gerrard symbolised a once-in-a-generation confluence of factors, and one which we’re unlikely to witness again for a long time.