The end of a great Liverpool career is nigh. Steven Gerrard, who couldn’t sound more Anfield if he tried – “Course” – has announced his departure from the club he has been with since Primary School. As is customary these days, high-profile players make a media event out of their retirement, international withdrawal, new haircut or the latest line in their burgeoning cosmetic range. Good luck to Gerrard, nobody can accuse him of not giving his all in the cause of “the redmen”.
But closure on a long Liverpool career is symbolic in many ways. It’s the end of an era for Gerrard, but also for a club that has struggled for almost a quarter of a century to live up to the incredibly high standards set by the Shankly-Paisley-Dalglish triumvirate that spanned just as long as the relatively barren spell currently being endured by Koppites.
Gerrard could well be the last of his kind. Who will ever stay as long at Liverpool, indeed any Premier club, for as long as Whiston’s favourite son has suffered. There are a few comparisons: Giggs and his kind at United; Terry at Chelsea; but can you seriously name anyone else? The word “stalwart”, often seen as a byword for a lack of ambition or a career characterised by mediocrity, has been consigned to the past.
As John Aldridge said in the many TV interviews surrounding Gerrard’s announcement, the midfielder has played alongside average players for many of the years he has appeared in the Liverpool first team. The anvil of comparison gets in the way of judgement with Liverpool, however. Gerrard has won the Champions League, two FA Cups, three Football League Cups and one UEFA Cup. And on top of that, an inflated 114 England caps. Not a bad haul by anyone’s standards.
Gerrard had longer Liverpool careers than Anfield legends like Keegan, Barnes and Rush. Arguably, only Tommy Smith was as durable as Gerrard at the top with the club and he won nine major prizes versus Gerrard’s seven (community shields and super cups do not count!). Any player who turned-out in the club’s golden period will have accumulated a lot of medals, but that doesn’t mean they were better players than Gerrard. Phil Neal, for example, won something like 19 major prizes in his Liverpool career. A whole generation of players, many of whom epitomised the theory, “greater than the sum of its parts”, benefitted from an outstanding team made up of effective and cohesive components. Of course, players like the classy Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish and Keegan himself are exceptions.
In most cases, you cannot expect a 16-year career to yield much more than Gerrard’s trophy cabinet – there are thousands of players who would welcome a sniff of a fraction of his collection!
Where Gerrard differs from many of his predecessors is that he played at a time when Liverpool – and indeed, England – were in decline. Gerrard often dragged Liverpool out of the mire and provided the inspiration needed to try to look the club’s history in the face. Because he stayed for so long, at a club that had disappeared from the radar screen for long periods, his domestic contribution will not be immediately obvious when being assessed on the global stage. He’s not alone, because fellow Anfield legends Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler won even less than Gerrard while with Liverpool.
The missing link is the Premier title. Liverpool’s decline since 1990 gathered momentum during Gerrard’s career, notably in the past six or seven years. Before last season’s flourish and unfortunate climax, Liverpool had finished seventh, sixth, eighth and seventh. They were in danger of being exiled to the also-ran category – some might say they have spent too long mourning their past. The dyed-in-the-wool Liverpool fans say that Gerrard deserved a Premier medal. That may be true by some criteria, but Liverpool have rarely deserved a title since 1990.
As some newspapers have pointed out, Gerrard’s departure will also sever a genealogical line that dates back to the immediate post-WW2 years- a baton that has been passed from Billy Liddell to Ian Callaghan and along the chain to Gerrard. In many ways, it is the dying of the light, and that’s why Gerrard’s announcement means much more than the end of a “people’s champion”. As he walks away from Anfield Road – undoubtedly NOT for the last time – they might consider putting up some posters: “WANTED…A NEW LOCAL HERO”.