Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Gerrard & Carragher : Fans Relishing A Club Of Strangers Must Walk Alone

Sometimes it feels like football has just died; When plastic flags are handed out to fans before a European Cup semi-final. When music blares out of the stadium speakers after a goal. Any chant which begins with "he scores when he wants" or "we know what you are." Nani.

There are occasions when being a Liverpool fan feels like never-ending death, and this has nothing to do with trivial, incidental things like mid-table mediocrity, being played off the pitch by Swansea or a senior member of staff threatening to post shit through the letterbox of a fictional internet character. This is about something more than an element, more important than the next game or what January's transfer budget will be.

The cliche that there is no player bigger than the club may be true, but stick Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher side-by-side outside the Shankly Gates and the Anfield backdrop that was once a fortress that put the fear into even Jose Mourinho, begins to resemble the toilet Bill himself referred to upon his arrival in 1959.

They are not going to be around forever, and so many of you are missing out on them, perhaps too distracted by a Suarez nutmeg or a Sterling step-over, too busy comparing the net spends of our rivals or scouring Twitter to find out who has passed through John Lennon airport that day. Whatever the reason for the indifference, or even waves of criticism coming the way of the two most important players of this club from the past 15 years, some of it verging on abuse in Carra's case, it fills me with the disappointment of a thousand deadline days.

To a fan, successes and failures, elations and frustrations tend to go in cycles of varying lengths, whether its good or bad players, managers, executives or results. Some of us can handle the reality that five years of feasting in the Champions League were always likely to be followed by five of bedtime on an empty stomach after an unsatisfying Thursday 6pm kick off. Others, often those for whom Istanbul was the catalyst rather than the climax of their Lfc experience, tend to recycle their views on a match-by-match basis. They demand heads on sticks one week after an undeserved loss at home to United, then crow about a routine win at Norwich the next.

Whatever works for you. As Nick Hornby, author of 'Fever Pitch' said, "If you lose the final in May, there's the third round to look forward to in January. What's childish about that? Its actually pretty comforting when you think about it."

But when Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher leave Liverpool and retire from football altogether, whether we are closer to Champions League or Championship, it could leave this club permanently unrecognisable to a lot of us. There is nothing comfortable about that. When they are gone, who will take over the role as the worldwide faces of this club? Who are the fans' real representatives on the pitch? Who are the kids' heroes? Luis Suarez may have wooed you for now, but the law of averages suggests he'll be gone before too long, given that he's bloody brilliant, and we're not. Even Raheem Sterling, a magnificent 17-year old prospect just making the breakthrough, has turned down a £15,000-per-week contract as he (or whoever advises him) is aware that he will be interesting a host of clubs who can afford, financially and morally, to throw obscene money at a kid.

To make things worse, there is a desperate lack of patience, passion and pride amongst the fan-base these days for players who come through the academy. I'm not talking about the likes of Sterling, who the club, given his age, have already spent big money on to ensure he stayed out of the clutches of other big European teams. Fans grew tired of Jay Spearing quickly, even though Darren Fletcher spent several seasons being slaughtered as a functional midfielder at Old Trafford before proving his worth. They are bored of Martin Kelly and even teenager Jon Flanagan too, despite the promise both have shown at a young age. The attitude seems to be unless they arrive in the first team with a YouTube reputation, deemed 'good enough' to play in a title-winning team in the future, then they aren't encouraged, and replacements are demanded. Staggering and sad, not to mention naive when you consider the medal hauls of Phil Neville and Nicky Butt.

If Jamie Carragher had made his debut on Sunday against Newcastle, he'd have been torn apart by the majority within weeks. This was a player who, despite scoring a neat header on his league debut against Aston Villa over 15 years ago, barely resembled a footballer for three years, but a pissed giraffe looking for his dinner in the desert. Yet his worth ethic and studious approach to defending endeared him to Gerard Houllier, who eventually turned to Jamie to solve a long-standing left-back problem. Even the Frenchman, the ultimate function-over-finesse coach was convinced that more naturally gifted defenders existed on the circuit and made several moves to phase Carra out of his first eleven (Vignal, Riise, Xavier, Finnan). He then came to realise he simply could not do without him, shifting him through the positions until Benitez arrived and helped him become a genuinely world class centre-half.

It is easy to point out players who failed to live up to their early hype and to speculate over the reasons why, particularly in the modern era of fame and fortune for all. In Carragher's case, through some substantial sacrifices and a borderline unhealthy obsession with clean sheets, he became one of a handful who have comprehensively surpassed expectations. If he retired tomorrow, he could feel confident that he saturated his potential and rang himself bone-dry of every drop of promise. A European Cup winner, and a serial snuffer of world class forwards in the world's biggest club competition; Berbatov, Ibrahimovic, Drogba, Ronadinho, Eto'o, Messi, Raul - they all came in the Champions League, they all failed, leaving us dreaming of a team of Carragher's.

He may not be the player he was, but given his attitude, experience and achievements, how many better and more reliable 4th choice centre-backs are there in the Premier League? In a painfully thin squad, he remains an essential option across the back four, albeit not in the same way he was in 2005 when he was the continent's outstanding defender. He is also there to set an example to the younger players, to remind them of why representing Liverpool is different to being at any other club, something too often scoffed at by those who think that because they know Joe Allen's pass completion rate, that they know what this club is about.

As for Steven Gerrard, we are not just talking about a two-time footballer of the year who joined the club he supported as an eleven year old boy and is now approaching ten years as its captain. We are talking about arguably the greatest player that the greatest English club has ever seen. True, he hasn't been fortunate enough to play alongside the long list of famous Liverpool names of the seventies and eighties, which dominated the sport, and therefore he remains without the league titles he deserves. However, that he even remains at this club twelve years after he made his England debut, since when he could've had his pick of others (and admittedly nearly did) is a miracle in itself. 600 games, almost 150 goals from midfield and a share of Carra's medal collection, with both players representing the club on and off the pitch in impeccable manner, making us proud regardless of the missing league title.

He continues to perform with remarkable consistency and intelligence, if not with the same spectacular interventions as before, gradually altering his game each week as he comes to terms with his ageing body. In both the recent Merseyside Derby and at home to Newcastle, 100 mile-an-hour matches, he was able to play his own game, rarely looking rushed by the mayhem around him. The bursts forward into the box were few and far between but almost every one produced an opportunity for himself or a teammate, while for all Rodgers' pass-pass-pass philosophy, Steven's set-pieces remain our most likely goal source at the moment. He's also twice shown street smarts to ensure Sterling hasn't been sent off, protecting Liverpool's future while striving to improve the present, as he wears the burdens of the past more than any other player.

In trying to back-up an argument for benching Gerrard and retiring Carragher, plenty point out their respective salaries, and suggest that given our weak squad, a gaping hole in the wage bill could be filled by some of football's brightest young international talents, rather than blowing six-figure sums per week on footballers who are apparently not good enough anymore. The Football Manager approach. "Look at his stats!" they cry. Christ.

Not that its worth dignifying with a justification, but both rightly earn more than the majority because they have been at the club the longest and have contributed more to it, in football and beyond, than anyone else in our current squad has or in all likelihood ever will. There are several players at this club on substantial wages who have contributed very little positive, and we all know who they are, and they don't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as either Gerrard or Carragher. There are some very, very decent players too, one or two world class, and they're still miles away. Try sticking around for a decade first, to help the team improve rather than just yourselves, and then we'll start the debate.

It would also be incredibly obvious and easy to refer to Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs at this point, but I'm going to do it anyway, because it really is that bloody obvious. If you can't see the value of them in United's squad over the past 8-10 years, which is around the time that has passed since either player was at his peak, then stop reading. Rio Ferdinand too, like Carragher, is all but finished as an international force, and once Jones, Smalling and Vidic return, he'll drop down the pecking order. Most teams don't have a 5th choice specialist centre-back, let alone a multi-title winning one. Yes, I'm even referring to the qualities of that insufferable shithouse to back-up my point.

I'm making largely football defences here, but I shouldn't have to. We shouldn't feel comfortable about a club of strangers, which is what we'll become when these two unique servants leave us. Gerrard and Carragher have already done enough to demand the respect of any owner or manager that walks into this club, and any fan that watches on, whatever their standard of display that day. Yes, their inevitable 'decline' will have to be managed, and that will be a test for Rodgers, but blindly bombing them out the team or the club would be a catastrophic mistake, which is why its never entered the man's mind. Thankfully.

This club has had enough problems to deal with, whether it be the highest of high profile disciplinary cases, grossly unprofessional behaviour from some in suits and underwhelming results to boot. Carragher and Gerrard, as our most trusted representatives, whether it be at Anfield, Melwood, at a press conference or at a charity event, should remain our shining lights and not the scapegoats for the failings of those around them.

1 comment:

  1. Think about the great Liverpool players of the last 50 years who would not have made it because they did not provide the club, owners, players or fans instant gratification. Keegan, Rush, Hughes and the rest. Many of the latest over paid imports could not have laced their boots.


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