Steven Gerrard has style and steel, and this summer he hopes to make the same kind of impact in Japan as another young English midfielder did in Italy 12 years ago - without Gazza's yellow cards and tears, obviously
Sunday 7 April 2002
Observer Sport Monthly
Steven Gerrard sits on a bench at Liverpool's Melwood training ground, studying the slow spread of Saturday's bruise on his ankle. 'That,' he says to the girl helping him to choose what to wear from a new pile of box-fresh training kit, 'was your mate Harry Kewell at Leeds.' He prods the skin around the bruise, watches the purple change to yellow, grins. 'And he looks so pretty, doesn't he...'
Gerrard's teammates and fellow close-cropped Scousers, Danny Murphy and Stephen Wright, wander over to have a look at the damage, and then sift through their sponsor's new silken sweatshirts with Gerrard, holding stuff up against themselves, wondering what might suit. Watching the three of them together, messing about with goalies' gloves, inspecting the studs on new World Cup boots, flicking a ball about in their stockinged feet, competing with the thickness of their accents, you have a sense of two things: first, how at home they all feel here - they've been doing this kind of thing most days since they were young boys - and second, how much like those boys they all, and particularly Gerrard, still seem to be.
The life of a Premiership footballer, as we know, is one of customised Mercedes sports cars (Gerrard has one of those), celebrity girlfriends (he used to have one of those, Jennifer Ellison, the blond shoplifter from Brookie), and the odd furtive alcopop in designer city centre bars (he's sipped a couple of those). But, more than ever, these days, it is also one in which you are expected to do nearly all of your growing up on the pitch.
Gerrard has been playing for different levels of Liverpool teams since he was spotted as a rough and ready schoolboy from a council estate in Huyton at eight years old. Very early on in life he understood that one possible future might well lie in setting up goals for Michael Owen, his mate and exact contemporary, and so far everything has gone according to plan. Still, talking to him, you have the impression that he is only just beginning to realise the kind of greatness that this might imply.
All players speak of concentrating on the next game, of keeping their heads down and working at things on the training ground, of listening to the old pros around them, of football being a constant learning curve, but with Gerrard you have a strong sense that he really means it, and that it has never really occurred to him to think there might be any other way.
Melwood itself seems constructed to reinforce this sense of security in its players: it is made like a little fortress on the edge of the city; you are stopped and searched for mobile phones when you enter; if you ask if you might, say, watch a bit of training before you interview Mr Gerrard, the men who decide these things just laugh: 'It's not really how we do things nowadays...'
How they do things nowadays is rather to protect every aspect of their dozen years of investment in their young star. You are told in no uncertain terms by a range of sportswear PRs that your interview will be terminated by Liverpool FC if you stray any distance from the matter in hand, and the matter in hand is Steven Gerrard's life in football. Fortunately, he does not seem allowed, or to want to have much of one outside it.
The three genuine world class talents England will be taking to Japan in June - Beckham and Owen and Gerrard - all look, in this sense, like part of a New Model Army of footballer. For all the comical wealth that their gifts have brought them, and for all the distractions that wealth seems to offer, they seem genuinely possessed of an almost Corinthian love of the game: playing looks increasingly like the best escape from all the nonsense that surrounds it.
Schooled through various academies and centres of excellence, and mentored by the likes of Gérard Houllier and Sven-Göran Eriksson - men far removed from the up-and-at-'em tradition of English football coaching- they are the first generation of players that has grown up with the example of the foreign stars who came into the Premiership along with Sky TV's money.
Unlike many of their predecessors, therefore, they have been brought up as supreme athletes - watching what they eat and, more importantly, what they drink - and their time has never really been their own: give a top-three Premiership club the boy at seven and they will show you the man.
If there were a blueprint for that man, it would not look unlike Steven Gerrard. He has a game, based on extraordinary physical prowess, that shows no real weakness: he has played right back and left back and all points in between, he can pass short and long, he can make impossible tackles and score outrageous goals, but more than that he has an almost old-fashioned fervour and loyalty for his home-town club.
The first thing Gerrard says to me when we sit down is that he always wants to be here, can't imagine anything else. 'I've got absolutely no intention of ever going to play at another club,' he says, earnestly, in an age of agents and of options being kept open. 'None at all. I'll stay here as long as they want me. Even now I can say I'd love to finish my career here, and then stay in the game after that. But it's down to me to keep performing. You have to deserve to be at this club...'
It comes as a bit of a shock to be reminded that Gerrard is young enough never to have seen his once all-conquering team win a championship. The earliest Kop memory he has is of Michael Thomas's last-minute goal for Arsenal in 1991, which kickstarted a decade of underachievement at Anfield - but still he seems to know what Liverpool meant and what it might mean again. As such, unlike the two previous local heroes, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler, it is hard to imagine Gerrard ever drifting off or needing to be sold on.
But if it is with Liverpool that Gerrard will be the legendary local boy, it is with England, you imagine, he will properly grow into his ambition. When Gerrard was 16, he was the same size as Michael Owen, and sometimes, watching him, it looks as if he is still surprising himself with the capabilities of his late-developing 6ft 1in frame. He thinks of the forthcoming World Cup as the stage on which he will finally learn what he is capable of, prove to himself that his injury-prone body has settled down enough to make it through an intensive tournament and 'hopefully,' he says, 'like Gascoigne in 1990, set the thing on fire. I watched Italia '90 with my Mum and Dad and my brother, you know, leaping around the house when the penalties were on... It would be great to be part of that, to have that kind of impact.'
Gerrard announced himself to Gascoigne by trying to nutmeg him the first time they played against each other when Gerrard was 19. Gazza patted him on the head, told him 'to behave' (a throwaway warning that takes on greater resonance as Gerrard begins to fill his hero's talismanic role in the England team).
Like the boyish Gazza of 1990 Gerrard seems to grow further in stature when he puts on an England shirt. He puts this down partly to the fact that 'because I was missing games through injury when I did get in and I was fit I think I was kind of extra determined to prove I could really play at that level'. Owen has been a spur, always one step ahead, first into the Liverpool team, first into a World Cup, but that's only, Gerrard says, laughing, 'because he's so much better than me...' He enjoys playing with the Manchester United lads, too, 'there's a really good chemistry there' and particularly Beckham, the one footballer, he says 'that everyone wants in their side, because he just understands the game so well'.
Gerrard remains unbeaten in his nine international caps, though he came closest to defeat against Greece when England were saved by Beckham's stunning last-minute free kick. It was, by a long stretch, Gerrard's poorest international game, and afterwards he admitted that the press reaction to his being spotted out on the town the previous Tuesday had affected his performance. 'I didn't think I did very well. I was slow off the mark and was thinking about different things for some reason,' he explained.
He won't add to that, but the taste of the destructive power of the tabloids seems to have had a lasting effect. When Beckham stepped up to take that free-kick, all Gerrard was thinking, he says, was how the team and himself in particular 'were going to get really hammered in the papers the next day if we lost'.
The Greece game - the climax of qualifying, as winners of the group - also seemed to mark the beginning of a serious loss of form for Gerrard, who, he says, 'had only really known [his] game improving up until then'. Looking back on that period now, he suggests that he was suddenly letting too much into his head, that he was allowing himself to worry about the way he was playing, and taking all that on to the pitch.
To get out of that spell he turned to the people he has always turned to: Steve Heighway, his coach at Liverpool for 10 years, and his family. Gerrard's dad was a decent amateur player and 'still,' he says, 'thinks he knows more about the game than me. I see him every day. And he gives me an honest opinion of how I played. He's watched near enough every game I've been in since I was eight, so I suppose he knows the way I play pretty well. If I played crap he always tells me...'
What does he go on at him about most?
'Nothing really,' Gerrard says, smiling, 'I usually put the phone down before he really gets going...'
Gerrard has only recently moved out of his parents' home to his own place in Southport but, of course, he still takes his washing back to his mum, and can't work his cooker. When not playing he does the usual footballers' things: he plays snooker and golf, watches games on the telly, paying particular attention, he says, to Manchester United's Roy Keane and Arsenal's Patrick Vieira, the two players whom he most resembles and most seeks to dominate.
Though he says he never thinks about personal rivalries once he's on the field, Vieira, in particular, remains the benchmark for him. 'Whereas I have played well in certain stages over the season,' he says, 'he does it in every game.' Still, Gerrard feels he's getting closer all the time, and looks forward without any fear to resuming battles after the season has ended. 'The World Cup is the place where everyone really wants to perform,' he says. It could well be the place where Steven Gerrard finally comes of age.
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