Gerrard cementing his place as Liverpool's greatest

When Steven Gerrard was selected to start for Liverpool at Carrow Road, Norwich on Easter Sunday 2014 it took him past Ray Clemence and Emlyn Hughes (both 665) into third place in the club’s all-time competitive appearance list with only Jamie Carragher (737) and Ian Callaghan (857) now ahead of him. Callaghan’s total is probably out of reach but matching or exceeding Carragher’s might be possible now that Steven has adapted well to his new holding-midfield role because that ought to lengthen the playing career of a man who will celebrate his 34th birthday soon after the end of the 2013/14 season.

We have got used to Steven George Gerrard regularly creating/breaking records and setting new standards since his debut in Liverpool’s first team at the end of November, 1998. Only a fortnight before he jumped past Clemence & Hughes on the appearance list he passed Kenny Dalglish’s total of 172 Liverpool goals to move just ten behind Robbie Fowler’s 183, a total he will almost certainly better at some stage of the 2014/15 season; and the penalty that took him past Kenny’s total moved him level with Jan Mølby on 42 successful spot-kicks although Big Jan’s success-rate was 93.3% compared to Steven’s 82.35%. Another milestone that will be celebrated in the 2014/15 season is that Gerrard will captain the Liverpool first team for the 450th time, a phenomenal total that few club captains in world football will ever get close to. Not long after that happens he should reach seven hundred competitive appearances for his one and only club.

Gerrard has stayed loyal to his home-town club but at the peak of his powers he could have had his pick from any of the continent’s top clubs. He was certainly coveted by many outside British shores but within them the closest he came to leaving was when he was tempted away by nouveau-riche Chelsea in the summer of 2004 with the London club making another serious attempt a year later in the aftermath of Istanbul, the club virtually conceding it had lost its inspirational captain until the player had an overnight change-of-heart and signed a new deal with Liverpool the following day. Chelsea became the English champions in each of the seasons after they tried to entice Gerrard away from Merseyside. So it could be argued that they did not need the player as much as Liverpool did because despite his extraordinary talents Gerrard only twice became involved in a serious Liverpool challenge for the Premier League title (in 2008/09 and 2013/14).

If ever a youngster was destined for stardom, it was this one. His progress was monitored closely by Liverpool scouts, where his leadership qualities were noticed as much as his playing ability. From an early age it seemed pretty much inevitable that he would one day captain his club (and also his country even though he did not ever appear for the England schoolboys’ team). Although he had trials with other clubs in his mid-teens, there was only one club he wanted to play for and his first professional contract as a 17-year-old was always going to be a formality based on the blistering progress he was making. If Steve Heighway had nurtured him at the Liverpool Academy, it was Frenchman Gérard Houllier who mentored him through his early days as a professional and who was confident enough to name him in a senior match-day squad for the first time when Blackburn Rovers came to Anfield only two weeks after Houllier had taken sole control of first-team matters following the resignation of Roy Evans. It wasn’t just a token gesture either. With time running out and the team holding a comfortable two-goal lead Houllier brought the 18-year-old on for Vegard Heggem. Gerrard barely had time to get properly warmed up after entering the field of play but he certainly had enough time to incur the wrath of referee Jeff Winter, who cautioned the youngster for an over-zealous challenge. It wouldn’t be the last time the player would find himself on the wrong side of the sport’s officialdom. Shortly before his 31st birthday he received the sixth red card of his Liverpool career, twice as many as any other player in the club’s entire history. However, rather than being seen as the rightful punishment of an unnecessarily aggressive player, it is perhaps fairer to say that it showed his absolute commitment to the Liverpool cause. Steven himself admitted in his 2012 autobiography that “I wanted to be a success so much that my temperament boiled over”. His will-to-win is one of the things that makes him stand out as a player. He has frequently been targeted by other club’s players (and supporters) but as he has matured as both a footballer and a man it has become apparent that over the years he has learned how best to use his abilities without resorting to retaliation after being provoked by others.

It took a while before Steven Gerrard regularly added goals to his other talents but once he started scoring regularly his goals from midfield have never dried up, especially as he was confident enough to put himself forward as the team’s penalty-taker, a situation in which he has a terrific record despite missing four of his first ten. A player’s first senior goal is always remembered, even if he goes on to score dozens. Steven’s first came in his 25th appearance a year and a few days after he had made that brief debut as a substitute, a mazy run ending with a precise shot past Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Kevin Pressman at Anfield. In his report of that match Liverpool Echo journalist Ric George was already eulogising the midfielder’s play by saying that he had “the steel of (Nobby) Stiles and the style of (Graeme) Souness”. It was in the following season (2000/01) when he really started to move up the goal-scoring charts. Either side of Christmas came two exceptional Anfield goals against Arsenal and Southampton and at the end of March came one of many “trademark” Gerrard goals, a driving run and ferocious shot leaving the opponents’ goalkeeper (in this case Manchester United’s Fabien Barthez) clutching at air as the ball flashed past him. In the season’s final cup match Gerrard moved into double figures for a season for the first of nine times by moving on to Michael Owen’s accurate pass and driving his team into a 2-0 lead in the UEFA Cup final against Alaves in Dortmund. Before the decade was out he had added goals in winning finals of the Football League Cup, the Football Association Cup and the Champions League to prove time and time again that he was very much the man for the big occasion.

How many times has a late Steven Gerrard goal rescued his team ? How many times has he almost single-handedly turned a defeat into a draw or a draw into a victory? While others’ legs are getting heavy and sometimes others’ minds are maybe already drifting towards the comfort of the dressing-room, Steven always seems to keep his energy levels up until the final whistle sounds. It has happened too many times for it to be a coincidence. Let’s look at just a few examples of how this man has turned matches: in one of the final matches of Houllier’s penultimate season (2002/03), the team is a goal down to Charlton Athletic at Anfield and time is running out. Gerrard flicks on a Riise corner and Hyypia equalises in front of the Kop. But Gerrard’s contribution is not over. As the clock reaches ninety minutes he twists and turns on the edge of the visitors’ penalty-area with the ball at his feet, skips past a couple of attempted tackles and drives the ball under Dean Kiely for a dramatic winning goal. Exactly the same scenario occurs in the first home league match of 2008/09. Mido has put Middlesbrough ahead, Carragher has equalised with a deflected shot in the 85th minute and then deep into added-time Alonso’s hopeful punt forward comes off Robbie Keane’s chest and is thundered into the Kop goal by the marauding captain. BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce immediately and poignantly says “How many times will he win games for Liverpool?” and in his post-match interview he even asks the player “Who writes your scripts?!”. Perhaps the best example of all came on the grandest of stages, the 2005 Champions League final. Not a last-minute winner this time but a goal of massive importance all the same, the goal that started a scarcely credible comeback and a goal remembered as much for the way it was scored as for the way the skipper twice raised his arms towards the crowd as he ran back for the kick-off, exhorting them to give even more than they had already given.

A wonderful career might be coming to a close but it is far too early to write its obituary. It is usually only goalkeepers (and only the best goalkeepers like Peter Shilton, Dino Zoff and Brad Friedel) who can extend their careers beyond their fortieth birthday. It is unusual for an outfield player to still be competing at a high level at that age. Could Steven Gerrard be the exception to the rule? Well, it is probably unlikely that he will ever play for another club or play below the level of the Premier League. But in the new deeper role to which he has adapted so well, who knows what this extraordinary athlete still has to offer ? Steven Gerrard’s status is already iconic. All he can do is add to that status because what he has already achieved is something that very few footballers will match, however good they are in their own right. Liverpool were the perennial champions in the early years of his life. When he was old enough to be able to do something about it himself, nobody could have given more as he tried so hard to bring those good times back to a fan-base that had really suffered in watching that mantle being passed to a fierce rival. As a member of that fan-base himself, Gerrard knows how much tangible success means to the supporters of the club he has always supported, the only club he will ever play for and the club for whom he has now proudly become its longest-serving captain.

The long-awaited league title is tantalisingly close for Gerrard who arguably deserves a winners' medal in the Premier League. "A club with this history should have got an awful lot closer during those 24 years", Gerrard told the Telegraph's Jason Burt earlier this week. "There are times when maybe I have given up on it — or been close to giving up on it. When you are finishing seventh or eighth and you see the gap to the top sides, it’s mentally tough. And then you come to the end of the season and you see the big hitters spending all kinds of money and making their squads even stronger. But when Brendan came in I got  a real feeling from him. I  liked his vision for the club. I totally believe in this manager and his plans. You hang on to that glimmer of hope that you will have one small chance, one final go before you hang up your boots... and it’s here."

Copyright - Chris Wood ([email protected])

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