It’s not often I am moved to write about the captain of Liverpool Football Club. But a lot of nonsense has now been vented surrounding Steven Gerrard since his cataclysmic slip against Chelsea gifted Manchester City the title last April.
From the howls of derision from away supporters to the fluctuating performances which triggered even the converted to question his place in the team, the raging debate over Gerrard’s worth has been given the fine toothcomb treatment by almost everyone with an affinity or enmity to this land’s former skipper.
Having compounded that fatal error for club with that wayward header for country, he admitted himself it was “the worst three months of my life”, but to conclude that his waning influence on matches this season owes entirely to an inability to let go is to neglect the numbers stacked against today’s Sport supplement headliner.
Make no mistake, yesteryear’s Roy of the Rovers can still have a massive impact on the biggest matches at the highest level, so to call him a spent force would be somewhat premature. But in scoring the decisive second goal against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium, Gerrard notched only his third Premier League strike in open play in 21 months.
Admittedly, he’s been deployed deeper, and Gerrard’s enduring influence has never exclusively been predicated on his knack of finding the net. Take away his goals and an abridged version of his career would still place him among the finest midfielders to grace the Premier League. But nor is it a moot point that the sparingly used Frank Lampard has netted five times in the ten matches he’s played since September 21 at Man City.
While those Hollywood balls still invariably reached their targets last night, and the infamous huddle which greeted the seven-point cushion over City eight months ago will go down as one of the year’s most enduring sporting images of a side galvanized by its leader, his match-winner should be treated for what it was worth: a match-winner against the bottom side in the Premier League.
Gerrard earned his luck of course, not stopping to admire his own pass before latching onto a loose ball to plant a slide-rule finish into the net. It was vintage Stevie G. But it was also too obvious as a back-page dream: “Gerrard Roars Back”, proclaimed The Daily Telegraph. “OMG”, so said The Sun. It is on nights like these where footballers can make fools of the finest writers.
Many of whom questioned whether the 34-year-old had been dropped in the fortunate 1-0 victory over Stoke City 16 years on from his Anfield debut as a raw teenager last weekend. But would he have been in the right place at the right time had he not been ‘rested’? Or would he have stored his energy by checking his run 72 hours after playing another pivotal role against Mark Hughes’ side?
A third of the season behind us, I believe it has taken until now for Reds’ manager Brendan Rodgers to realize his shortcomings in mismanaging the midfielder. The focus has swung from life-after-Luis to Daniel Sturridge’s recovery programme to Mario Balotelli’s touches, cloaking Rodgers’ naïve selection process.
It is no surprise that since he smartened up by picking and choosing when to use his influential captain, there has been signs of improvement from last year’s title challengers. A return to form normally starts by winning ugly, and in Liverpool’s case it was by drawing in Ludogorets.
With Champions League qualification now in their own hands, and the prospect of another winnable home fixture against Sunderland at the weekend, confidence is returning to the red half of Merseyside. But it is foolish to claim that Gerrard was taken out of the side as a warning that nobody is indispensable.
BT Sport pundit Steve McManaman eulogized on his mate’s worth, the producers with Liverpool leanings busily readied a compilation of his most telling passes, no matter how elementary to an elite footballer.
And no matter how impressive the broadcasters were again in making an uncanny impression of LFCTV, there was nothing spectacular about his return to the starting line-up.
Far too simplistic is it to say that denying Gerrard a heart-felt reception leading his troops into battle on a milestone occasion has been the catalyst to his own return to form, however much they love an anniversary at Anfield.
Intriguing was it to see the one-club man (his signing of a new deal surely football’s worst-kept secret) line up against a man with a similarly glittering medal cabinet, but with a different perspective on tackling Father Time.
Esteban Cambiasso has been lauded for his performances for the Foxes in the twilight of his career, but at the same age as Gerrard, he too must be handled with care. His head still tells him he can be a box-to-box player, unfortunate not to add to his weekend strike against QPR after his goal-bound shot was blocked by his own teammate Jamie Vardy.
But were he to have not played the 90 minutes of a deranged match at Loftus Road on Saturday, would he have been able to close down Gerrard sooner? Cambiasso has not retreated meekly into the safety net of semi-retirement and the windfall that awaits Lampard when he begrudgingly and belatedly sells his soul to ‘the franchise’. For now, he embraces cold nights in the Midlands with as much relish as a sultry evening at the Bernabeu. It’s the same air that Aston Villa’s Joe Cole admitted to being drawn to in a recent interview.
Cambiasso will undoubtedly cover every blade of grass in trying to drag his side back from the abyss this campaign, while Gerrard poses as the Queen Ant with Sterling, Henderson and Lallana her colony busily foraging for a route back to the top four.
The analogy isn’t so far-fetched. Gerrard is a protected species: already on a yellow card, he broke the offside trap only to collide with Kasper Schmeichel as he tried to round the Danish keeper.
Co-commentator Michael Owen took a long time to effectively do his job, reacting to the incident. Referee Lee Mason, with significantly less, waved away the penalty appeal. But Owen, nor any of the other members of the BT Sport team with Liverpool connections, dared to suggest he had tried to win a penalty by jumping into Schmeichel. If there’s one thing that living in Liverpool has taught them, it’s that Scousers never forget. It’s part of what makes Jamie Carragher’s honest analysis of his former side’s plight so refreshing.
For Gerrard, bigger tests of his longevity await. But as long as he wears the red of his boyhood team, and is protected by those with whom he has forged strong relationships in the media and in the dressing room, he will always be perceived as Captain Marvel.