Steven Gerrard has won fewer league titles than Francesco Totti, not as many Champions League trophies as Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi or Ryan Giggs and fewer Cup finals than the likes of Xavi Hernandez or Iker Casillas. But in terms of influence and popularity, the English midfielder, who Friday confirmed his decision to leave Liverpool at the end of this season, 16 years after making his debut, stands up to comparison alongside the best of these one-club men.
The truth is, it’s easy to stay at one club when the times are good: Maldini won seven league titles and five Champions Leagues (Baresi won six and three) while Giggs (13), Xavi (seven) and Casillas (five) have a combined 25 league triumphs to their name. Even Totti won Serie A in 2001, some compensation for Roma’s seven runners-up spots over the last 15 seasons. At least it was knocking on the door in Serie A.
There were only two seasons in Gerrard’s time when Liverpool was a genuine title contender and fell short (including last season), and in the nine-and-a-half years since he inspired his team to its greatest success, beating AC Milan from 0-3 down at half-time in the 2005 Champions League final, the team won just one FA Cup (2006) and a League Cup (2012). It is a haul that does not do justice to his talent, and one that makes his decision to reject up to 20 offers to leave even more admirable.
“I am very happy to have stayed here,” he told France Football magazine in an interview in 2011. “It’s a source of real pride to me. I could have gone to Italy, Spain. A lot of people asked me to go during certain periods…and winning abroad would have been good, but never as good as winning with my own team, with my own club. Winning with the club you have loved your whole life is very special.”
Chris Bascombe, the Daily Telegraph’s Liverpool correspondent, saw Gerrard for the first time at 17 in a youth-team game. “At 17, he appeared to possess the range of passing of Jan Molby, the intimidating presence of Graeme Souness and running capacity and goal threat from midfield of the marauding Terry McDermott,” he wrote in the 2013 book Best XI: Liverpool.
“As well as an exceptional footballer, Gerrard has often been expected to be a club spokesman or even resemble a social worker, helping to maintain the psychological well-being of a community whose mood is dictated by footballing success.” This is why this decision of Gerrard, as the representative of Liverpool the city as well as its football club, is such a momentous one.
The question being asked in the immediate aftermath of the announcement is whether this is the right decision (from a playing decision, yes, but in terms leaving Liverpool short of leaders, especially one year after the departure of Jamie Carragher, no). Next will inevitably be where Gerrard ranks in the pantheon of Liverpool players (in the top two, and whether he’s above or below Kenny Dalglish is a matter of personal opinion). And one more question: has he still got it, and can he do a decent job for his next team, wherever that may be? Simple answer: yes.
Critics have pointed to his slip against Chelsea last season as the moment that proved Gerrard’s time was up, portraying it as decisive in Liverpool losing the league title. However, those voices may not have factored Mamadou Sakho’s sloppy pass in the first place, or goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who made it easy for Demba Ba to score the subsequent one-on-one. Ironic for a player who thrived on the individual moment that his last ‘big moment’ was that one. In the good times, he scored in finals in the League Cup, FA Cup, UEFA Cup and Champions League – and won all of them.
More significant, perhaps, was that Liverpool’s best performance this season, the recent 4-1 win over Swansea, came without Gerrard in the side. So maybe he’s not the best fit for Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers, with all the baggage that ensues, but if he hadn’t ruled out playing for another Premier League side next season, no shortage of clubs would want his experience, vision, leadership and incredible dead-ball delivery on their books.
In that respect, the better comparisons should be with Raul or Alessandro del Piero, two club legends who recently left Real Madrid and Juventus, respectively, to enjoy Indian summers at new clubs. Raul helped Schalke reach a Champions League semi-final and Al-Sadd win the Qatar league title and his world tour continues at the New York Cosmos, while Del Piero averaged a goal every other game for Sydney FC and recently spent three months in the inaugural Indian Super League for Delhi Dynamos. Both players had grown stale at bigger clubs and agreed that the change was good for them.
Gerrard would never admit it, but this could be an opportunity for him to start enjoying his football again. His frowning expression was a default one as England captain (with good reason, it turned out) while the upheaval and politics brought about by three different sets of owners at Liverpool added to his heavy burden.
So here is the pitch for Gerrard’s next employer: “Imagine playing for a club where you are not the savior, where you don’t represent the whole community, and where every word you say does not define the mood of the city. You are not a politician, not a social worker, not a psychiatrist. You are not a hero. You are just a player, a very good one, but one among many. You don't have to do this on your own any more.” That might just iron out the near-permanent frown.