Henry Winter talks to Stevie G
Steven Gerrard's passion for trophies is so strong that when he finally got his hands on the coveted European Cup in Istanbul, pressed his lips to the gleaming silver and then covered it with kisses, his girlfriend phoned him later to complain, albeit in jest.
When Liverpool's captain awoke the next morning, the European Cup was standing on a table at the end of his bed. "Morning," Gerrard said to the trophy before gazing at it lovingly for 20 minutes. Footballers are often pilloried for rampant materialism, but those star turns who stir the most widespread admiration, men such as Gerrard, Thierry Henry and John Terry, are those for whom glory matters most.
It was no surprise to learn that the two rivals who sent Gerrard the most good luck texts before Istanbul, and the most effusive congratulations afterwards, were Terry and Henry, the symbols of Chelsea and Arsenal, respectively. In return, Gerrard promised Terry and Henry that if they ever found themselves in a corner, he would "be in there fighting for them".
Talent attracts. These principled souls understand that the pursuit of prizes will always be more fulfilling than the scramble for financial riches. Gerrard certainly knows that the best assets are the spoils of sporting combat, such as the AC Milan shirt of Andrei Shevchenko and European Cup winner's medal taking pride of place in the trophy room at the top of his home. In this life, one thing counts: in the memory bank, large amounts.
Settled in his family life, and committed to Liverpool for the rest of his playing days, Gerrard nevertheless remains restless for more success. "Istanbul is an experience I still talk about today," the Liverpool dynamo recalled on Thursday. "It is something I would love to achieve again."
His eyes light up at the mention of the "Miracle of Istanbul", of falling 3-0 behind to AC Milan, seeing the "smirk" on certain Italian faces in the tunnel at half-time, and then the adrenalin-and-goal rush climaxing in victory. "I know it won't happen in those circumstances again," Gerrard smiled, "but I would love to play in another Champions League final because if I could pick one night from my whole career, then Istanbul was the best."
And Gelsenkirchen this summer was arguably the worst. Gerrard missed a penalty as England slunk out of the World Cup, an experience he still finds painful to discuss. "The criticism hurts – but rightly so. We failed over in Germany but we have to use that to drive us on. It is certainly driving me on."
Now 26, Gerrard has reached the peak of his career and is determined to seize the moment for club and country. Liverpool's sluggish start to the season frustrated him, particularly the losses to Everton and Chelsea, although Wednesday evening's 2-0 defeat of Newcastle United lifted the club's position and spirits.
"There always is expectation with Liverpool," Gerrard explained. "The longer we haven't won the league the more pressure there is to win – which is normal. People who write about us, and the supporters, expect us to get off to a flying start and win every game comfortably. Sometimes it doesn't happen like that.
"After the derby defeat we were really upset with how we played. We let the supporters down. Against Chelsea it was different. I missed a glorious chance to come away with a point, so I'll accept the blame there. When you play Chelsea you're not used to getting chances there, so when one comes you tend to panic. I haven't been composed and I rushed it, really."
Chelsea failed in their two-year chase to get Gerrard's signature, but on Thursday it seemed as if half of Liverpool had succeeded. After Gerrard conducted a manic 90-minute book-signing session of his autobiography in a heaving city-centre store, with thousands of fans milling around outside, he found a quiet corner to reflect on his desire to bring more joy to his beloved home-town club.
"It makes me appreciate things when I see the queue of people like today. That's why I love playing for this football club – we have the best supporters in the world. I love playing in front of them. It's the noise and passion at Anfield that gets you. The support we get all over the world is frightening. Every player's mailbox – you can't fit letters in there! Every country you name, we have fans there.
"After asking for a signature today, the clearest message was: 'Get the league for us.' Sometimes it is not just as easy as that, but it is a challenge for myself and the team and we won't shy away from it. It's a really difficult trophy to get at the moment because everyone is desperate for it and there are some magnificent teams out there."Every season our rivals get stronger, and it becomes more and more difficult but we believe in the manager; if anyone is going to bring the title here it will be Rafa Benitez. He knows what it takes, he is bringing the right players in and his tactics are spot-on. He has proved he can match it against Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal. I am sure if people are patient it will come."
Liverpool's captain dismisses the criticism flowing Benitez's way for constantly rotating his starting XI. "The reason why Rafa changes the team so much is that he believes in everyone in the squad," Gerrard countered. Much is also – and rightly – made of Benitez moving England's best central midfielder around, even to left wing, but Gerrard accepts his manager is simply doing what he believes works best tactically for Liverpool.
Gerrard's relationship with Benitez is characterised by immense professional respect if not immense personal warmth. The cold, workaholic Spaniard differs from the other managers Gerrard has had – Gerard Houllier with Liverpool and the England pair of Kevin Keegan and Sven-Goran Eriksson. "Rafa is not maybe a pat-on-the-back manager, whereas those other three would put an arm around the shoulder. When Gerard was my manager, that was what I needed at the time. I was a youngster in the squad around a load of superstars. It is so easy to go missing and hide. If you have a manager who believes in you and keeps giving you chances, that is what you need when you're young.
"Rafa is just a perfectionist who is on at me all the time to improve my game and he has come along at the right time. I was doing well when he came to the club, but he has taken my game to the next level and that is because he is on at me every day, not just about the good things but about the bad things as well. It is easy, as a manager, to put your arm around a player and tell them they are doing well, they are brilliant, but sometimes you need someone to say, 'Hang on, these are the things you are doing wrong as well'."
Under Benitez, Gerrard has learnt to become more tactically disciplined and shrewder in his choice of passes. Benitez has also brought in strikers Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy to exploit Gerrard's thunderbolt deliveries. "I like the combination of a target man [Kuyt against Newcastle] and someone who will run in behind [Bellamy]. Also there is Crouchy as well, who hasn't played much of late.
"They are dream players to play with because of their awareness. Bellamy reminds me of Michael Owen because when you look up his runs are really intelligent. I'm sure that when the midfielders and attackers get used to each other all the chances we are creating will become goals. Unfortunately for the other teams, one or two will be on the end of a hiding.
"The new lads are really lucky at Liverpool because the lads and staff are superb and really help them. I have an extra responsibility to help them. I have had a few chats with Dirk – his English is spot-on and he is mixing with the boys really well. He has a smile on his face. It was good he got his first goal [against Newcastle]. He is going to be an important player for us.
"Dirk is a bit of an all-rounder. He reminds me of Mark Hughes – he is really strong and holds the ball up well. He will have a lot of assists as well as a lot of goals. You can use him as a target man, but also as the No 1 striker who can run in behind. He has pace, he is strong, he can finish, he can bring other people into play. Where most forwards have one main strength, he seems to have a bit of everything."
Gerrard is also impressed by Daniel Agger, the Danish centre half. "When he first made his debut, he never got a run in the side because he had an ankle injury, but he is fit now and he plays like a player who is really experienced. He is going to be a top, top player – there is no doubt about that. For anyone to keep Sami Hyypia out of the team for four games says everything."
With that, Gerrard heads out to meet the Liverpool public again. Although his hair shows signs of sculpting of late, a slight move away from his traditional Huyton crop, this likeable, low-key Scouser is the antithesis of vain. The only reflection Gerrard wants to check on is his face in a well-polished trophy.
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