Liverpool fans may revere their team and the sport it plays, but they are too cheeky to sustain reverence for individuals. That is something Steven Gerrard has always understood. He is, after all, one of their own.
Gerrard still has one game left for his first club, Liverpool, before moving on to his second, the LA Galaxy. But that last game is away to Stoke. So his 709th competitive appearance in a Liverpool shirt, at home to Crystal Palace, was a chance for the club, and its fans, to say goodbye. Tickets were reportedly changing hands for almost $20,000.
It was a showbiz occasion even Los Angeles might struggle to match. Gerrard was interviewed live on Sky TV during his warm up. He insisted, twice, that what he wanted from the afternoon was three points. But when asked who would take any penalties he shot back “me” before adding “and the goal kicks too.” As a true Liverpudlian, Gerrard knows better than to take himself too seriously.
When the teams came out, Gerrard waited behind in the tunnel with just his three daughters and the TV cameras. He slapped the “This is Anfield” sign as he went down the stairs and then slapped hands with the Crystal Palace players who formed part of a guard of honor as he came out. The fans held up a mosaic that spelt out “Steven Gerrard” and, in the Kop, “S 8 G”.
Rafa Benítez, the manager with whom Gerrard shared his greatest success, called the player “almost a representative of the Kop on the pitch.” He was tied to the supporters by one of the club’s darkest moments. His cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, was one of the Liverpool fans who died in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.
As Gerrard appeared on Saturday the crowd launched into a rousing chorus. Lourdes, at 3, the youngest daughter, jammed her hands over her ears and pulled a tortured face. She was not impressed.
The behavior of the fans for the rest of the afternoon said something about Liverpool. They sang the Gerrard song again after the kick off. From then on, they clapped politely whenever Gerrard did something good. They grew more noisily excited when the ball went near Gerrard close to goal or when they sniffed a penalty. They wanted to see Gerrard score. Most of all, like the man himself, the fans wanted three points.
The Palace fans were less polite. “Have you ever seen Gerrard win the league?” they chanted. They cheered sarcastically and enthusiastically every time Gerrard misplaced a pass.
Palace fielded a weakened team, with Martin Kelly, a former Liverpool junior, making a rare appearance at center back. After 26 minutes he presented Adam Lallana with a goal. Lallana couldn’t resist milking the moment in his celebration.
“Lallana scores for Liverpool and runs straight into the arms of Gerrard,” tweeted Gary Lineker. “So wonderfully beautiful It's become all too much for me.”
But Crystal Palace, even under strength, has shown a knack for deflating Liverpool over the last couple of seasons.
What happened next might only have convinced Gerrard that this is a good time to leave. Yannick Bolassie tormented the Liverpool defence. Jason Puncheon leveled with a pretty free kick before half time. Wilfried Zaha put Palace ahead after an hour. Glenn Murray added a third, popping in a rebound after Simon Mignolet had saved his penalty. This time, Gerrard could not save the day. That is a knack that has deserted him over the last year. Liverpool lost, 3-1.
After the game, the Liverpool players came back onto the field wearing team shirts with No. 8 and the captain’s name on the back. They were all Gerrard. The club and its fans can only wish.
Gerrard returned carrying Lourdes, and said all the right things about the owners, the management, the players and former players and, of course, the fans “who stand out more than any.” “Youse the best,” he told them, speaking their own language. When asked, however, if he was “optimistic about the future of the club,” Gerrard could not resist answering sarcastically, with a wry smile: “If you go on today’s performance, every chance.”
Gerrard will leave the club pretty much as he found it. Liverpool goes into the last day of the season in a three-way battle for fifth place. It ended his first season in seventh
In between, Gerrard and Liverpool won two FA Cups, a UEFA Cup, and appeared in two Champions League finals. He also won 114 England caps. He could never quite drag Liverpool to an English league title. Gerrard famously refused to join Chelsea, but he could not reverse Liverpool’s decline into a second-tier club, unable to compete financially with the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Arsenal.
The contrast with the other midfielder who won more than 100 England caps over the same period and is now heading to play MLS soccer is striking. Frank Lampard, paradoxically, showed his loyalty by joining Chelsea. His loyalty was to his family. He quit West Ham after it had fired his uncle, Harry Redknapp, as manager, and his father, Frank Sr, as a coach. At Stamford Bridge, Lampard won 11 medals, including three Premier League titles and four FA Cups and one in the Champions League, where he too appeared in two finals.
Yet, though some Chelsea fans may disagree, Lampard rarely attracts the epithet “great.” With Gerrard there are only a few dissenting voices. Throughout his long peak, to watch Gerrard in any game was to see greatness.
He could pass, he could shoot, he could tackle, he could head. He did it all with the grace and certainty of a great athlete. He was strong, he was quick, and he was nimble. He was physically courageous and cool in a crisis. He also had, until the final month of last season, an instinct for the big occasion. His reputation is cemented by three remarkable matches.
He scored his first international goal when England beat Germany 5-1 in a World Cup qualifier in Munich in 2001, by some way the best display by the Three Lions this century.
In 2005, in the Champions League final in Istanbul, Liverpool was utterly outclassed in the first half and trailed AC Milan 3-0. In the second half, Gerrard scored one goal to start a remarkable burst of three goals in six minutes. He won the penalty from which Xabi Alonso scored the third goal. The game ended, 3-3. Gerrard did not take a kick as Liverpool won the penalty shoot out.
A year later, Gerrard reprised the role. West Ham jumped into an early two-goal lead in the FA Cup final. Gerrard set up a goal for Djibril Cissé. Then he scored. After West Ham took the lead again, Gerrard leveled again with a vintage long-range strike on a half-volley in added time. This final also ended 3-3 and went to penalties. This time Gerrard converted one as Liverpool won.
Gerrard has plenty of fans.
Robbie Fowler, another Liverpudlian who grew up to win trophies for the club said Gerrard “is the greatest Liverpool have ever had.”
Kenny Dalglish, another candidate for that title, said: “I feel lucky that he was a Liverpool player and that I saw him play.”
The admiration crosses the Mersey.
“At his peak he was the best in the world,” Zinédine Zidane once said.
Pele has called Gerrard “one of the best midfielders in the world.”
There are dissenting voices. Arrigo Sacchi, who managed a great Milan team in the late 1980s, told the Daily Telegraph in 2008 that Gerrard looked better than he was because he lacked "what I call knowing-how-to-play-football.”
“You see, strength, passion, technique, athleticism, all of these are very important. But they are a means to an end, not an end in itself. They help you reach your goal, which is putting your talent at the service of the team and, by doing this, making both of you and the team greater.”
"In situations like that, I just have to say, Gerrard's a great footballer, but perhaps not a great player."
It is probably true Gerrard seized control of big matches by force of will rather than by out-thinking opponents. He can hit any pass, but rarely produces one that surprises spectators or opponents. Yet he did great things. Often.
Gerrard knows what he has done and understands that age is catching up. It is time to move on. He also knows that he has played so well so often that he does not need to pretend he is good when he isn’t.
Asked if he might reappear when the MLS season ends, Gerrard answered like a true Liverpudlian: “I don’t think I’ll come back on loan after today’s performance.”