Today marks the end of a footballing era. The conclusion of a sporting career without parallel or equal. Steven Gerrard, Liverpool FC captain and legend, has confirmed that he is leaving the club to move to America and finish his Premier League career.
Sports commentary is famously full of hyperbole, cliché and empty platitudes - perhaps nowhere more so than football. But LFC manager Brendan Rodgers seemed to put it near perfectly with his reaction to the news. “It is almost an impossible task to find the words to appropriately sum up Steven Gerrard and his importance to Liverpool. This is an era where the word ‘legend’ is vastly overused, but in his case it actually doesn't do him justice.”
A local lad done good, Gerrard was born in the Merseyside village of Whiston, joining Liverpool's academy when he was a kid. He made his first-team debut as a last-minute substitute against Blackburn Rovers in 1998.
Since then, he has gone on to lead a truly dazzling career, defined always by tireless hard work, talent and determination, selfless commitment to his club, and the remarkable ability to turn big games around, seizing victory from the jaws of defeat.
695 club appearances. 180 goals. The UEFA cup. Two FA Cups. Three League Cups. A Community Shield and two UEFA Super Cups. And, of course, that night in Istanbul, when Liverpool found themselves 3-0 down at half-time in the final of the 2005 Champions League. A night when Gerrard wrote himself into the annals of footballing history, inspiring his team to claw the score back to 3-3, and win the trophy on penalties.
But the statistics only tell part of the story. Every Liverpool fan has their own indelible memories of Gerrard, particularly those of us lucky enough to have seen the man play in the flesh, on the hallowed turf of Anfield. I’ll never forget the day me and my brother Sam, stood in the Kop, saw him fire one of his signature perfectly-placed penalty kicks past the keeper to put the Reds 3-2 up against Spurs in 2013. The admiration for his character, ability, flair and graft spreads far and wide. “He is the example of what all midfield players aspire to” said the Italian international de Rossi; “undoubtedly one of the best midfield players in the world” echoed Carlos Ancelotti. Luis Suarez has praised him, simply, as “the best player I have ever played with”. “Is he the best in world?” mused the great Zinedine Zidane. “He might not get the attention of Messi or Ronaldo but yes, I think he just might be”. Even Alex Ferguson has begrudgingly accepted Gerrard’s peerless class. “He has become the most influential player in England, bar none”. “Not that Vieira lacks anything”, the ex-United-manager added, “but Gerrard does more” – a statement with which Vieira himself was inclined to agree. “I can’t think of a striker in the world who has scored as many important goals” said Arsenal and Premier League wonder Thierry Henry, “never mind a midfielder. He, for me, is Liverpool”.
As part of Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’, Thierry Henry is of course himself a major contender for the greatest player of the Premier League era. But his claim that Gerrard IS Liverpool, that man and club are synonymous and deeply intertwined, is one which resonates not just with Reds fans but with any serious football follower, and which puts his Scouse contemporary at the very least his equal, and perhaps his better. While Henry, much like Vieira, Keane, Giggs, Scholes, Lampard and Terry, has been an incredible player among many at one of the most successful clubs of the modern era, the successes that Liverpool have enjoyed in the past decade are completely unimaginable without Steven Gerrard. Put simply, over a decade’s worth of Liverpool sides have thrived on his inclusion, and the Reds would not have won half of the trophies they have these recent years without him. Gerrard’s unfortunate slip against Chelsea last season, a cruel twist of fate that all but gifted a goal which led the Blues to a hard-fought, tense victory, was latched onto by critics and detractors as a decisive blow to Liverpool’s race for the 2013/4 Premier League title. But these comments overlooked the way that the incredible run of back-to-back victories preceding that moment had been marshalled by Gerrard, ever the talisman, captain and leader, without whom Liverpool would never have been in the position to realistically hope to lift their first top-division league title in 24 years.
In football, as in life, chance and happenstance can be harsh and cruel. But Gerrard is the kind of player who always makes you believe that with enough hard work, craft, belief and persistence, anything might be possible. That is why he has always cut a genuinely inspirational, honest figure in the often shallow-seeming, money-driven world of modern world-class football. It is also why, in the hearts and minds of so many, he is a true sporting legend.
The skipper has described his decision to leave Liverpool as “the toughest of his life”, and one which he has long agonised over. He is likely to play for a club in States, but wherever he moves, he will not play for any side that brings him into direct competition with Liverpool. More here, along with biographical and career facts here.