The weight

26 Mar

Even at his peak, life as Steven Gerrard never looked easy.  Too much was at stake.  Too little help at hand.  When you’re part of a team, the load gets shared around.  But when you basically are the damn team, the responsibility looms a little larger.  

The Class of ’92 had it easy.  Six of them to share the burden.  Six to share the ups and downs, laugh off the occasional poor performance.  A luxury Gerrard could never enjoy.  Installed as the lynchpin from Day 1, he had to be Butty, Scholesy, Becks, Giggsy and the half-decent Neville all rolled into one.  38 games a season.  It never daunted Gerrard – heck, he was better than most of those guys in each of their own positions – but it eventually manifested in him a way of thinking the world had to be.

There were other options, of course.  He could have found a way to share the burden – Chelsea came calling every summer – eventually it became clear that he didn’t want to put the burden down, perhaps even couldn’t.  Human beings are pack animals by nature, but when you’ve wandered the prairie alone for so long, conditioned yourself to solitude, it’s hard to chuck it all in and go speed dating. 


The result was a career uncomfortable to observe.  There was never room for brevity.  Single-mindedness bordering on narcissism isn’t exactly a rare commodity in sporting elite, but for most it gets incorporated as part of the show.  Ronaldo, at least in the good moments, was able to bring a lightness to proceedings, a way of reminding you that deep down he was enjoying himself.  The muscle man celebrations, the tricks near opposition fans during the warm-up; you were invited to laugh because ultimately he knew he was putting on a performance.  Sure it said Real Madrid on the ticket but he and you both knew who you were here to see.

Gerrard, in contrast, could only tetchily oversee his brilliance.  There was no room to allow others in to enjoy the moment.  Teammates got batted aside during goal celebrations (even as team captain).  And when he kissed the camera lens it felt less like affection and more like an act of aggression, of him marking the Anfield turf.  He was showing you that he didn’t need anyone else.  People wanted to be CR7.  When it came to Stevie G, people wanted to get the hell out of the way.


The lonely pilgrimage was occasionally punctuated by others’ radiance.  First Owen, then Torres and latterly Luis Suarez all hinted at something bigger.  But each left Gerrard for greener pastures.  Each committed acts of treachery just as soon as the wheels really started to move.  It was tough: how can you keep making yourself vulnerable when you knew deep down they’re always going to leave?  Gerrard’s career had the hallmarks of a lady in her mid-30s trapped doing endless laps of Tinder.

The betrayals became coping devices.  No-one was here for the long-term.  Gerrard was to be a spinster, a cat lady.  It’s telling that his finest moments in a Liverpool shirt came when none of the above were in attendance.  The 2006 FA Cup final, the “Gerrard final”, was won with Djibril Cisse and Peter Crouch leading the line.  The Miracle of Istanbul starred Milan Baros and an overweight Harry Kewell up top.  Isolated by his own dominance, Gerrard never seemed happier than when he was single-handedly dragging mid-table players to the peak of Europe.


Swansongs are a funny beast.  Careers tend to fizzle out at the end, often descending into a chummy nonchalance, safe in the knowledge that your epitaph’s already been written.  Remember Rio at QPR?  Just occasionally though, more is revealed of the player once he commences the descent.  As the talent starts to wane, the human comes into sharp focus and informs the legacy.  In Gerrard’s case, the final distillation very much confirmed the projections.

By 2014, aged nearly 34, with many contemporaries enjoying a victory lap around the MLS or a cushy player-coaching role, Gerrard was furiously gangbustering his way to one last shot at an elusive premier league title.  An ageing body was being commanded to perform actions it once knew, but now with phantom limbs moving three seconds ahead of the real ones.  Diminished athleticism had forced him into a deep-lying quarter-back role, sat in front of the defence but still the sole touch paper for every single attacking movement.  Liverpool centre-backs would duly wait for Gerrard to pick the ball up and begin each move upfield, a sort of midfield Panama Canal through which all trade must pass.

It was gallant stuff.  Father Time had forced Gerrard into playing a role several England managers had given up trying to get him to play; tired legs finally pre-empting the game-management brain into better action.  Despite the limitations of age, it was one of Gerrard’s best seasons; a testimony to a player who really could do it all, if only you could persuade the bugger.  And so in the 36th game of the season when that fateful slip let Demba Ba through on goal, costing Liverpool the league, it was hard to muster anything other than sympathy.  The warrior had gone out on his sword.  

Partisans cackled with delight, naturally, but how else could Liverpool have lost that league title?  When you’re the master-board for the whole team, the sole cylinder, there is no “other”.  Every small action, every synapse of the hive mind, was initiated by Gerrard.  Either he won that league or his falling short would define the failure.  You suspect it mattered little to him whether it was won or lost with dignity.  If the end came with Gerrard flat on his front, mouthful of turf, staring back in horror at his own goal, so be it.  Having thrown absolutely everything at the cause, perhaps this was the only place to end up.  One-man bands never win the league.  It’s impossible.  Here was Gerrard proving the rule but also showing us how close one man’s brilliance could get.


Gerrard stuck around for a further season.  A red card against Manchester United that year, 38 seconds after coming onto the pitch, giving more insight into Gerrard’s psyche than 12 months’ unrestricted access to the man would have.  A final act that revealed a certain insecurity: not just an inability to leave the stage but an unwillingness, a fear even, of passing the mantel on.  After all, who else could be trusted to with it?


As others have noted, when Ryan Giggs’ wife divorced him and took half of everything, she ended up with 6 1/2 premier league medals more than Gerrard.  Mourinho’s thrown more league medals into the crowd than Gerrard has around his neck.  Cheap reductive shots, of course, but it’s impossible not to wonder what might have been if fate had dealt different cards.  What if he had gone to Chelsea?  What if, instead of Huyton, Gerrard was born fifteen miles east in the Greater Manchester catchment?  Instead of ploughing a lonely furrow at Anfield, what if he’d spent his formative years under the wing of Roy Keane, emerging with a fully-fledged understanding of what it means to play in a cohesive unit, contribute to a greater cause?  Was it nature or nurture that moulded Gerrard?  Would he have been a different player, or would Fergie have ultimately grown frustrated with a player who thought with his legs rather than his head and for himself rather than the collective?

We got a fascinating insight into Gerrard’s own view on the matter only this week.  Gerrard was one of Channel 4’s punditry team for the Italy v England Euros qualifier, in which Harry Kane became England’s outright highest goalscorer.  As is the current trend, for no obvious reason, the three pundits were forced to stand on the pitch to give their analysis, rather than deliver it from the comfort of a warm studio.  Full of praise for Kane and his feat, Gerrard stopped dead in the midst of the superlatives and announced “maybe it’s time, maybe it’s time for him to move on”.  It was a jarring moment – not least because no-one had asked him for his views on Kane’s club situation – but much more so because of the window it provided into Gerrard himself; a moment of quiet self-reflection leaking out seven years after his own retirement.  The man best placed of all of us to advise Harry Kane thought it was time for him to jump ship.  Not have his career tapered by blind loyalty as Gerrard ultimately did.  It was quite a moment.  The volume of unspoken regret was so deafening, so uncomfortable, you could actually see Joe Cole cautiously edging behind Jill Scott.


Whatever the case – for good or bad – Gerrard will be remembered as a player rather than his Liverpool side as a team.  A helluva player at that; one of the best five English players this millennium.  A match-winning force of nature who, on a given day, could beat any team in the world all by himself.  The nickname “Stevie Me” was a barb from opposition fans, but it’s difficult not to see it as a bit of a compliment as well.  There’s never jealousy where there’s not also strong regard.  The me time, after all, could be quite something.

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Gerrard, there, pathos at the ready.

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