The trial of Lampard and Gerrard

19 Dec

The nation umm-ed and ahh-ed on whether to draw the curtains on a centuries’ old union this summer. In the end, it was another antiquated and fractious relationship that was put out of its misery. While those north of the border daubed their ballot paper with a streak of yellow – dashing dreams of a McLiberia for another five hundred years – England finally put an end to its own tricky West Lothian question in the centre of the park.

As Steven Gerrard came on alongside Frank Lampard against Cost Rica in the World Cup, in what will now for certain be their final international game together, it occurred to me that it would be quite amusing if the two of them really “clicked”. The sight of Lamps and Stevie G gelling together would have been a pleasingly ironic denouement to a bleak tale.

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It isn’t difficult to imagine Lampard and Gerrard getting horribly mixed up when they greeted each other at England camps. One attempts a handshake, the other goes in for a hug. Both shotgun the same side of the bed. I’ve never seen the two of them attempt to lift a heavy sofa up a flight of stairs, but I suspect it wouldn’t end well.

This, of course, is old hat though. That Gerrard and Lampard couldn’t play together is common knowledge. What jabs in the ribs a bit is no-one has ever properly drawn up a charter for blame between the pair. Public opinion seems content to stain the legacy of both, apportioning equal volumes of tar and feathers to either Number 8 jersey. Were both really at fault? Or is one conviction unsafe? As Lampard now beats a gentle retreat to the gallows’ humour of the subs bench, with Gerrard surely soon to follow, the time has come for a full and final appraisal of the pair. Too Good embarks on a mission of mercy and seeks to exonerate one of these godforsaken millionaires.

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But before we do so, let’s lift up the bonnet and remind ourselves of the component parts of this uncomfortable portmanteau. Starting with Lampard first.

Arriving on the scene as a slightly chubby-faced teenager, Lampard made an awful lot from physical attributes that were by no means extraordinary. Not especially quick, and couldn’t beat a man for pace nor skill. Not a terrible passer, but nowhere near the wizardry of some at unlocking defences. In fact, in general play, it’s difficult to tell what Lampard actually does well, other than the rather nebulous concept of playing “effective football”.

Lampard’s silver bullet was having perhaps the most accurate shot 20 yards from goal we’ve ever seen. The boy from Essex wasted about as many shots from distance as he did cafeteria deserts during his formative years. It wasn’t just the howitzers from range, either. He would arrive late into the penalty area with the regularity of an Alpen eater. Goals were Lampard’s currency, and he was good for gobbling twenty plus of them a season.

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Gerrard, by contrast, could do it all. Roving midfielder, support striker, winger, full back, it didn’t matter. If Frank was Hot Shot Hamish, Stevie was definitely Roy of the Rovers. Watching Gerrard take a game by the scruff of the neck was like watching a chariot go full speed round a corner on two wheels. Daring and courageous, testing the limits of the possible. Such was Gerrard’s God given ability, if he had applied himself to being a centre-back from an early age, he could quite conceivably have ended up England’s best centre-back instead.

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And it’s Gerrard’s raw ability that forms the noose around the neck in this trial by narrowly read media. With Lampard – the less naturally talented of the two – room for manoeuvre was always comparatively scant. If Lampard wasn’t camped on the edge of the penalty area, one suspects there would have been little else in compensating factors. In truth, he had to be there to be effective.

Gerrard, though, a Rolls Royce who could play any position on the park – famously filling in at right-back towards the end of the Champions League final – surely he could have found a way to make it work?

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The 2013/14 season provided the smoking gun. Gerrard got caught elbow deep in the cookie jar when, under Brendan Rogers’ tutelage, he showed what a wonderful deep-lying playmaker he could be. Anchored in front of the back four, Gerrard was like a reverse Nile delta – the tributary to all angles of Liverpool’s attack, spraying a series of long diagonals that bore as deep into the soul of every Liverpool fan as they did the opposition half.

In many respects, it was Gerrard’s crowning glory; a true display of what a complete footballer he could be even at 33. Both a glorious swansong and, yet, contrastingly, a firm one across the chops for all those England managers who battled endlessly to find a way for he and Lampard to co-exist. As if to rub salt in the wounds, the cheeky blighter’s at it again this year. Taken as evidence, Gerrard clearly had it in his locker to square the England circle or, more specifically, the midfield diamond.

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It begs the question quite how Brendan Rogers was able to persuade where so many England managers had run aground. That delicate art of moving a hero fifteen yards back. How did he do it? What cajoling nuggets of wisdom, steeped in Brendan’s dulcet Northern Irish tones, were able to convince where Sven’s Swedish, Fabio’s Italian and Steve’s Dutch had all failed?

This is an important question. After all, no-one is in any danger of forgetting the ascendancy England were in during Lampard and Gerrard’s collective pomp. Especially in that 2004 sweet spot. Three of the four starting midfielders at this time were regular features in Ballon d’Or voting. The fourth was Paul Scholes. Up front we had wonder kids past and present and, at the back, we had to get by with title-winning regulars Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Gary Neville. Roy Hodgson would trade his entire back catalogue of astronaut jokes just to have half of that lot in the current side.

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Ultimately, football is a team game and the truth is Steven Gerrard never quite grasped this. Hubris man-marked him his entire career. There is something very jarring about watching Gerrard – the Liverpool captain – push team-mates away when he wants to celebrate a goal. I can’t think of another team captain that does this. He might have single-handedly dragged Liverpool over the line in Istanbul. He might have triumphed in the 2009 FA Cup Final through sheer force of will. But such anomalies are part of the vagaries, and wonder, of cup competitions. They can be won through the performances of an outstanding individual. The collective efforts required to secure a league title weed out these one man bands. August through May is an awfully long time to be Roy of the Rovers.

That Liverpool’s most talented footballer of a generation was never exactly imbued with the John Lewis collective spirit is perhaps one small factor as to why Anfield never saw a title lifted on Gerrard’s watch. It is certainly a more telling detail in why England never came close to a major final during his tenure. Getting a team of irregulars to perform as a cohesive unit isn’t especially easy when one of them thinks he’s a super hero. In terms of the game’s biggest honours, it now looks like history will remember Gerrard’s Champions League medal as a platinum-tinged wooden spoon. A top of the range bicycle one Christmas from an otherwise estranged father.

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Gerrard’s been in the dock before, but this time it isn’t for defending the honour of Phil Collins. This time he’s charged with foregoing the collective in favour of the individual. Shackled by conceit, and trapped by his own reflection, he stands accused of dousing a nation’s hopes in petrol and tossing them onto a bonfire of vanity. Steven George Gerrard, how do you plead?

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Lamps was unflustered.  This wasn’t the first time he’d been paired with a superficially attractive option.

Lamps was unflustered. This wasn’t the first time he’d been paired with a superficially attractive option.

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