Steven Gerrard's Story Is the Story of Modern Football
At the beginning of Stevie G's career, money took hold of British football – but he always stayed true to himself and his city.
Left: Steven Gerrard at the 2001 UEFA Cup final (Photo: Kolvenbach / Alamy Stock Photo); Right: Gerrard at a 2014 UEFA Cup match (Photo: Aflo Co. Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo).
When the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club in the summer of 2003, Steven Gerrard was 23 years old. He had won the FA Cup, the League Cup and the UEFA Cup with Liverpool, a club he joined when he was eight years old. He was already a hero to his people, but the pressure of representing them and of bringing them back the trophies they longed for – the Champions League and, particularly, the Premier League – weighed heavily on him.
The next season, Jose Mourinho arrives as Chelsea manager and, in a few short words, sums up a new world: "Football changed. Society changed. World changed." Money dominates football. Clubs want success in correlation with the money they spend. Players with talent want trophies and riches to match. Chelsea have money and Mourinho wants Gerrard. Gerrard wants titles, but he's a Liverpool boy.
The battle between personal ambition and loyalty to your hometown – and the wider battle that represents, between global capitalism and a more socially orientated way of life – is at the heart of Make Us Dream, a revealing new film from the makers of Amy and Senna; a film that tells the story of Steven Gerard's life as a Liverpool player and as the emotional talisman of an emotional city, a hero who plays for his people but who feels that responsibility as a great burden, as well as a joy.
In the beginning, there is just football. "It was all just fun to me," Gerrard says, as we watch flickering footage of a gangling boy skipping round opponent after opponent, scoring goals and lifting trophies, that hairline impossibly low, the look in the eyes focused and determined. His coaches say he'll go all the way, but for a while he's oblivious of that.
Gerrard's cousin Jon-Paul is killed in the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, alongside 95 other Liverpool fans. The city is rocked to its foundations and the disaster turns out to be one of the catalysts for a new age of commercialisation. The Premier League comes into being in 1992 aboard a tidal wave of TV money. Sky Sports dominates. Football has changed and Manchester United are at the vanguard of that change. Liverpool can't win the league.
Gerrard is a youth team player. He tackles like he wants to kill, but off the pitch he keeps his emotions to himself. He identifies the opposition's main threat and flies into them early. "If I flatten him early, the rest of his teammates will know what I'm about.: He comes through the ranks with Michael Owen, the two of them connected by virtue of their incredible talent.
In 1998, at the age of 18, Gerrard makes his debut. "A sea of people… Your heart pumping… Fucking scary." It's fast and it's physical, the film using archive footage of the games well, coming down to pitch level, showing the pace, the tackles flying in – these are adult men and they aren't fucking about. "There's a hatred there," Gerrard says of the opposition.
The years pass and Gerrard wonders how he's going to win "all these leagues and champions leagues" if Liverpool don't quite have the money to compete. "It used to kill me," he says. Anxiety hangs over him. His connection to his city, his talent, is a blessing and a curse.
In Mourinho's first season as Chelsea manager, the press peddles the same story: he wants Gerrard at Chelsea and, given that he'd almost be guaranteed a league title if he went, surely Gerrard will go.
But there is the run to the 2005 Champions League final and the incredible final itself. Gerrard speaks of "lifting the burden" by winning the competition. In the first half, he feels lost as Liverpool sink to a three-goal deficit. But in the second half, who else but Stevie Gerrard scores the first goal. As he runs back to the centre circle, he turns to the crowd and raises his hands, exhorts them to bring the noise, tells them that we are all still in this and that a miracle is possible.
The miracle happens and the "frightening" weight of responsibility lifts from his shoulders. In Make Us Dream, we see pictures of Gerrard that night in Istanbul. He is with the crowd, his arms round them, theirs round his.
The look on Gerrard's face is extraordinary: he is "gone", he says, his eyes rolled back in his head, the release of emotion religious. He is being delivered into the arms of God in the form of his supporters. "I don’t think anyone on the planet has felt what I felt that night," he says, and it's hard to disagree, even when John Arne Riise jumps on him shouting, "I fucking love you."
But then, money is back and at the centre of things. Gerrard feels like his manager Rafa Benitez wants to cash in on him. Chelsea and Mourinho are waiting. Gerrard announces that he'll leave, and some of his people turn on him, calling him a traitor, a scab, Judas. His shirt is burned and he's threatened. Talk radio culture has permeated football. Emotions run high. Anger is a currency.
Gerrard's agent, an engagingly no-bullshit Scot called Struan Marshall, tells us he wouldn't swap places with his client, even though Steven has lifted the Champions League trophy – something Marshall would love to do. "And that's what I've thought as I've sat with him watching his shirt being burned on telly."
Steven's father Paul reminds his son who he is and where he's from. He’s a scouser and he won't be loved in the same way elsewhere. Gerrard stays, signs a contract with Liverpool, thanking his father for snapping him out of it.
A pattern has been established, one that will run through Gerrard's life at the football club. Liverpool: a town with emotion running through it, full of people who think of themselves as emotional. Liverpool Football Club: a vessel for that emotion, a place for it to be released and shared. Steven Gerrard: the man charged with bringing his people the things they dream of, a man full of emotions that build up and up and up until they threaten to consume him.
The seasons pass. Gerrard is brilliant. He picks up injuries. He is in pain. He feels the burden still. Manchester City are bought by billionaires from Abu Dhabi. It looks as though the chance of winning the title has gone forever, but then Gerrard finds himself the talisman for a brilliant young side under Brendan Rodgers.
In the 2013/14 season it all begins to look as though it might happen, and Gerrard is gone again, the emotion pouring out of him, obsessed with winning the one trophy he's never won, the one his team's fans have coveted for over two decades. Liverpool beat Manchester City and he gathers his players together: "This does not fucking slip," he tells them. He is their hero and their inspiration. They are his way to casting the final weight from his shoulders.
He is playing through the pain to make it happen. Two days before a crucial game with Chelsea, he can’t move. He has an epidural in his back and takes a bath-load of painkillers. During the game, the ball comes to him, he slips and Chelsea score.
"I just thought, 'My god, it's the end,'" his wife Alex says. "He just didn't speak." For a long time, Gerrard thought about this moment every day. Now, he just thinks about it most days. Manchester City win the title. Liverpool come second. Gerrard moves to Los Angeles.
In the end, a final word of sorts comes from Mourinho, the man who tried to take Gerrard to Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, the man who held money and glory up in front of a Liverpool icon and said, "Leave your people and come to me." But at the final reckoning, Mourinho knows why Gerrard did what he did. "He's had an amazing career and has amazing feeling with his people," Mourinho says. "I think this is a feeling that stays forever."
And so Make Us Dream, a powerfully emotional film about powerful emotions, leaves us with the sense that it was worth it; that the few prizes you win for your people are worth more than the many prizes you might win elsewhere. If only he was still with us, Liverpool fans think, still driving us forward, still raising his arms to the crowd, calling out to his people, making us believe.