Liverpool legend and former England captain Steven Gerrard hung up his boots on Thursday, and I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t expected. As was evident from his last season at Merseyside and his time with Major League Soccer club Los Angeles Galaxy, age was catching up with Gerrard, now 36.
Statistics from the last two seasons showed an obvious dip in form and influence. His trademark lung-bursting runs from deep inside his own half and his 30-yard screamers were few and far in between. His keen eye for an inch-perfect through-ball still existed, but even the most passionate fan would agree that Stevie G was a shadow of his former self.
Having been a loyal servant to Anfield in a glittering career spanning 17 years, Gerrard won numerous club honours and almost single-handedly took his team to the summit of European football. His ability to lead from the front and, most importantly, delivering when it mattered most, is what made him, at least in my eyes, a modern great of the game.
But critics, rival fans and the media have often noted how his trophy cabinet doesn’t have that Premier League winner’s medal, and that this leaves his legacy incomplete. If that is so, why is Gerrard adored and revered the world over?
Big player for the big occasion
Stevie G never boasted of the flair that Ronaldinho was known for, nor the elegance of Zinedine Zidane, leave alone the superhuman skills that made stars out of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But what the boy from Whiston, Merseyside, lacked in flair, he made up in passion and determination.
Few players have the ability to take a game by the scruff of the neck and dictate terms the way Gerrard could in his prime. It was this talent that helped him become one of the most influential football captains of his generation.
Take, for instance, this amazing statistic: Gerrard is the only player to have scored in the finals of the FA Cup, the League Cup, the Uefa Cup and the Uefa Champions League. It must take an especially cool head to not just soak in the pressure of a final, but to revel in it – and Gerrard has done it several times over.
The greatest hits
Having played in virtually every outfield position for Liverpool over the course of his career, Gerrard has bailed the team out on more than one occasion. Here are some of the instances that would probably define his highlights reel:
UEFA Champions League final, Liverpool vs AC Milan, 2005
The game dubbed the “Miracle of Istanbul” was perhaps the finest display of leadership and determination in football in recent times. After going 3-0 down to an AC Milan side boasting of Kaka, Andrea Pirlo and Paolo Maldini, it was Gerrard who dragged Liverpool from the brink of an embarrassing defeat to score one, set up another, and eventually help finish the game tied at three goals apiece. As Liverpool won the European Cup on penalties, it was Gerrard whose name was hailed as legend.
FA Cup final, Liverpool vs West Ham, 2006
Widely known as The Gerrard Final, this one involved an even better footballing display from the Liverpool captain. Many forget that it was Gerrard who set up his side’s first equaliser after Liverpool were trailing 2-1. Why? Because of what came after. Having fallen behind at 3-2, the ball dropped to Gerrard 30 yards from goal, deep into extra time. The thunderous volley that followed didn’t just make for an extraordinary goal, but took the game to extra time and penalties. Just like in Istanbul, Liverpool won the game on penalties, showing once again that Gerrard could make history repeat itself.
UEFA Champions League group stage, Liverpool vs Olympiacos, 2004-’05
The path to the Champions League final that Liverpool won in Istanbul was equally dramatic. Having fared poorly in the group stages of the competition, the Reds hosted Greek side Olympicos in a game they had to win by two goals or more. And when Rivaldo converted a free-kick for the visitors, the task of scoring three seemed gigantic. Not for Gerrard, whose all-round play helped the Reds score two towards the closing stages of the game. Still needing a goal to qualify, it was Stevie G who stepped up, scoring an unstoppable volley that still counts as one of the finest strikes in the competition.
Premier League, Liverpool vs Manchester United, 2001
Gerrard has scored a number of goals against Liverpool’s fierce rivals from Manchester, but the first of these was a wonder strike that was as good as any he scored in the years to come. A young Gerrard collected a loose ball about 40 yards from goal, advanced a few steps and unleashed a rocket of a strike past the hapless Fabian Barthez. United won the league that year, but Gerrard’s strike indicated his special talent and helped Liverpool complete its first league double over United in 22 years.
Premier League, Liverpool vs Everton, 2012
That Gerrard’s 400th appearance for Liverpool was to be the Merseyside derby against Everton was ominous. Add to that the brute force with which he approached the game and it is hardly a surprise that he scored three. Assisted by the tireless Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard showed a masterclass in passing and positioning to score the first Merseyside derby hat-trick since Ian Rush in 1985. In an interview, a few years ago, Gerrard had confirmed this to be his favourite memory in a Liverpool shirt, second only to Istanbul, and everyone can see why.
Greatest player to not win the Premier League?
During his time with Liverpool, Gerrard made 710 appearances, scoring 186 goals and winning two FA Cups, three League Cups, one Champions League, a UEFA Cup and a UEFA Super Cup. Yet, this illustrious career is marred by the absence of a Premier League title. And that is the statistic that rivals use to show him second to the likes of other illustrious midfielders such a Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Frank Lampard and Patrick Vieira.
But if you compare the quality of players that Gerrard had to play alongside, not to mention the influence he had on them regardless, it makes one thing very clear: league medal or not, Gerrard’s achievements with Liverpool and his contribution to the game mean he cannot be kept away from the pantheon of football gods.
While announcing his retirement from competitive football, Gerrard confirmed news reports that he had turned down the opportunity to manage League One side MK Dons. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp hinted that he’d welcome Gerrard in a coaching capacity in the near future, but whatever comes next, he can take heart from the fact that his legacy is safe. He represented a rare class of player and the game is definitely poorer without him.