26 May 2015
On Steven Gerrard
How are you supposed to adequately or appropriately sum up 17 years of Steven Gerrard?
The above graphic seems a decent start, if I may say so myself. Third-most in all-time Liverpool appearances, behind only Ian Callaghan and Jamie Carragher. The fifth-most goals, the highest total for a Liverpool midfielder. Ian Rush is the only other player to appear on both Top-10 lists. Liverpool's top scorer in Europe. Almost twice as many second half goals as first half goals, as the late stages of a match have always seemed and usually been Gerrard Time. 11 trophies won, basically every possible club trophy except the great, elusive league championship. Scoring in every major cup final: the UEFA Cup (2001), the League Cup (2003), the Champions League (2005), and the FA Cup (2006), all matches that Liverpool won. And he did it with Living-On-Fumes-Of-Past-Glories Liverpool, not the We-Run-This-Country-And-Continent Liverpool of the 1970s and 1980s.
But that's still nowhere near sufficient. It's hard to diagram Olympiakos and AC Milan and West Ham, among multiple others, that perpetual feeling – even in his dotage – that Gerrard can and Gerrard did and Gerrard will save Liverpool. I know you remember Olympiakos and AC Milan and West Ham. I also suspect you still remember Charlton in 2002-03, the Watford League Cup semifinals in 2004-05, Aston Villa in 2007-08, Boro in 2008-09, game-winning hat-tricks against Napoli and Everton, and other matches too numerous to list here and even some that I've forgotten. But all of a sudden, I'll remember them, you'll remember then, for no real reason except that it happened and we'll forever treasure it. Even in his last match, the worst match of his Liverpool tenure, he's the only Liverpool player who scores, a disturbingly similar goal to his first for the club. A goal which took place 5651 days ago. Gerrard scored three of the last four Liverpool goals in this hellish campaign, and finished as Liverpool's top scorer.
At the same time, there's the seven red cards, more than twice as many as the next closest Liverpool player since 1990-91, and probably even farther back. I'm sure you still remember his most recent, an archetypal blood-and-thunder-and-blood-so-much-blood performance rather than brains-and-guile performance in the match which was the beginning of the end in Liverpool's fight for fourth. There are the multiple matches where he again attempted to put Liverpool upon his broad shoulders, but ultimately failed, to the detriment of both team and player, the inevitable conflict that results from a superlative individual in what is most definitely a team sport. There are the multiple managers – five, all five, not to mention all those poor saps in charge of England – who could never quite figure out how to fully harness him, how to build their teams around him. There's the fact that his best two seasons (arguably, of course) came with him as a right winger and attacking #10 rather than his "preferred" central midfield position. There's the end of last season and then this one, there's that last futile title chase falling just short and the chaos that followed, and there's that slip.
Gerrard was somehow both talisman and, at times, millstone. This is the dichotomy that is Steven Gerrard, that has been Steven Gerrard for 17 seasons. As Brian Phillips wrote, far better than I could, he is as Liverpool as Liverpool gets, becoming a microcosm of the club itself at a time when the club had little other tangible identity. That Liverpool which won everything in sight? Gone, pushed into the second tier of England and Europe, at best, mainly due to the increasing influence of finances and an ownership and management unable to keep pace. A Liverpool which increasingly carries itself like every other football (and sports) "franchise" – that dirty word – despite the best efforts of the local community. So, for better or worse, better and worse, Steven Gerrard stepped into the breach: a symbol, the personification, of the club itself.
How do you eulogize the once-in-a-lifetime, born-and-bred force of nature who somehow became akin to the furniture, as much an indelible part of Liverpool as the Kop, while fans often focused on sexier signings like Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez? He was, simply put, taken for granted for more than a decade, both at his peak and in the past few seasons. Liverpool need to win? Gerrard will win it. Liverpool aren't good enough? Gerrard will try to make them good enough. And often fail, but not for lack of effort. But sometimes he wouldn't, and it'd be wonderful, it'd be euphoric, it'd be Olympiakos and AC Milan and West Ham. And it'd remind you that you are watching greatness. Incomparable, singular, flawed, once-in-a-lifetime, born-and-bred greatness.
You can't drive a flatbed truck around Merseyside and collect homegrown kids who come to the club at age 9 and become club captain, England captain, club legend. You know how many other Merseyside-born players featured this season? Two. 33-year-old Rickie Lambert – a lovely story but otherwise the less said the better – and Jordan Rossiter, in one League Cup match, the most recent to be stuck with the perpetual Gerrard comparisons.
We can hope there's another in the pipeline, and there's always one a generation who gets the "Next Steven Gerrard" label, as Rossiter has. But they haven't become Steven Gerrard, and chances are, they won't. We shall never see his like again. And now his watch is over.
I still haven't come to terms with Liverpool starting a season without Steven Gerrard, and I don't know that I'll be able to until August 8. And even then, it'll still take some getting used to. I started watching Liverpool in 2002, and next season will be the first where there's no player from the side started watching. Time makes fools of us all.
It is truly the end of an era, and, given this season's results, I can't help but feel that it's further foreboding for a frightening future.