FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

Sports

The Rise and Fall of English Soccer Star Steven Gerrard

Will Gerrard be remembered as a star, or as a tired man who fell over once?
January 5, 2015, 5:00pm

(Images by the author)

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

There would be no build-up play. It did not start with an intricate passing move. It was not a slow and careful deconstruction of the opposition. It was a detonation. He would receive the ball 30 yards out and then bang. The window pane had blown in and piss was running down your leg. To those watching on television, his surname would sound out like an air-raid siren. It was the only thing they could hear above the screams of thousands.

Advertisement

This was Steven Gerrard. He was an explosive player, running on seething rage, radiating everything your stomach spits up when it's not sure of its survival. His trademark long-range strikes, often executed in a match's dying moments, went down like a shot of nitroglycerine.

It was in these moments that he built his name, and as they grew in number, their sense of boyish effrontery was replaced by one of crushing inevitability. Each of these strikes was a reminder of the sport's stinking, primal base. Each one told you that your double pivots and high presses cannot always overcome pure, raw, visceral energy. There are no aesthetes in injury time. There is no enganche in the 89th minute.

He was, briefly, the continent's best midfielder. He was this despite criticism for playing like an impatient egomaniac, sometimes to the detriment of the team. Ask his critics, however, about the last time they watched their 11 players struggling to string a pass to one another. Ask them if, in that moment, they wanted one of their number to sniff blood, bypass their teammates and spank one into the top right-hand corner. They will either say yes or they will lie.

Steven Gerrard was power, dynamism, and deliverance. He was, simply, a superman. And yet, this is all past tense now. There's a fine line between a superman and somebody who wears pants on the outside of their trousers.

§

Whereas most players in the elite bracket become imitations of their former selves, Gerrard has become a parody of a lesser player. He is a pound-shop Andrea Pirlo. An incontinent water-carrier. He sits in front of the defense, in his seat of power, shuttling the ball between whichever of Liverpool's center-halves are tripping over each other that week, having little impact on open play other than the occasional long ball. He scores still, but only really from set-pieces; the co-ordinated rather than the chaotic.

His "quarterback role," if that really is what we are calling it, requires a light touch. Yet when Gerrard attempts to control a match with anything but iron will, it's awkward. The style does not come naturally. The bombast eventually rises from beneath. After all, nobody who's refined and discerning drives to work listening to No Jacket Required.

When the Liverpool captain was emerging on the scene, Sir Alex Ferguson described him as "physically and technically precocious;" a quote that is perhaps most interesting because of the area it omits. Mentally, there was less that seemed extraordinary about Gerrard at first. He seemed like a typically ambitious but shy young player; he was sure he had ability, but unsure where it would take him. As a 17-year-old, he was asked to fill out a self-assessment by Liverpool's academy directors. "I am easily approachable but not the best at conversation although I do try and I am improving. Try to get on with everyone," he wrote. "Do tend to worry about certain things."

Advertisement

In those early days, if he made a mistake during a match, it brought out a bad habit. When he misplaced a simple pass, even if the ball was still only yards away from him, he would stop dead in his tracks and put his heads in his hands. No matter how many times, no matter how much spit and speckle would land on him from stands, he would stand there for a few seconds, gormless, telling himself that he's still just a skinny lad from the Bluebell.

It was a tic that he eventually suppressed, and it seems unkind in the extreme to doubt the mental credentials of a man who went on to single-handedly haul his team to victory in the best final in Champions League history, but as other aspects of his game developed exponentially, this anxiousness was a constant. It is consistent with his self-absorption, which many thoughtlessly interpret as egotism. It is certainly visible in his near-pathological tendency to self-criticize, to turn up at post-match press conferences with three-day stubble and a thousand-yard stare. It has always been there, daring him to attempt the audacious, reminding him of every failure's consequence. The only time it is not present is when he runs off in a random direction, beating his chest and screaming while the ball nestles in the back of the net.

Each of those strikes, each net-busting, bloodletting surge of brilliance, is a brief release. All that nervous energy explodes in an earth-flattening crescendo. He would temporarily spin the globe back on its axis; allow himself some small respite. This is why, when Liverpool beat Manchester City at the end of last season, he looked as if he had achieved religious transcendence rather than merely opened up a two-point gap at the top.

Advertisement

That year, with his legs tired and his average position behind the halfway line, those explosive moments had been harder to come by, but the anxiousness, the restlessness, the impulse to put things right seemed to be receding. It was not only on him if the team were to succeed any more. For the first time since his emergence, he had teammates who were better than him. It was nearly over. He had almost won. But in the end he didn't and the neuroses remain. They are stronger than ever.

§

The slip will always be with him. It came against the club he could have joined to win the title, after he'd demanded that Liverpool's challenge should "not fuckin' slip," to the direct benefit of a player whose name fits perfectly into the meter of "Que Sera Sera." That cliché, "you couldn't write it," does not apply. You could write it and you would write it. It will most likely, one day, play as an endless .gif loop in a Barclays Museum of #EPLBanter, clocking up more views than "Gangnam Style" and the Zapruder footage combined.

But if the irony is irresistible then Gerrard's agony is insurmountable. His need to atone for the error is the reason why he did not retire at the end of last season. His inability to atone for it is, you imagine, the underlying reason why he has decided to leave Liverpool when his contract expires this summer.

At Anfield, sentimentality comes with the ticket stub. He will always be their irrational, feverish romanticism incarnate. Those saliva-boiling long-rangers and scruff-of-the-neck salvations are too numerous and too emotive to be dominated by any single memory.

To the rest of us, however, and most likely in the mind of Steven Gerrard himself, it seems that a spring afternoon late last April will outweigh them all, and a career that lived on immense and devastating moments will die by one.

Follow Mark on Twitter.