Friday, 2 January 2015

Dissecting the Opposition's Gerrard Obsession

After sixteen years and almost 700 games, Steven Gerrard knows the script. If you aren't familiar, take the time to peruse your fan song-sheet on the back of your seat and locate track two, just after the compulsory post kick-off rendition of "your support is fucking shit." Welcome to your average English football stadium - you'll find more original versions at a Westlife concert.

On this occasion, a match at Anfield between Liverpool and those bitter rivals from...erm...Swansea City, he wasn't even playing. Yet while going through first-half stretching exercises as a substitute, Gerrard generously offered a smile of acknowledgement to those who'd spent upwards of a ton to travel to Merseyside on a chilly post-Christmas night, to sing about him slipping over in a football match that had absolutely no impact on them whatsoever.

Gerrard is used to the 'que sera sera' adaptations by strangers supporting stranger clubs, and not least because its the tune of one our own songs for the captain. Whether its about his passing, his better than Frank Lampard-ness, his wife, children, birthplace or falling over, and whether he or Liverpool are even playing that day, you will hear it being sung at some point on Match of the Day each Saturday.

The nature of the opposition's obsession with Gerrard is a curiously negative one. He's been a great player, even a captain of England and a relatively inoffensive one. There's been the odd transgression, but he's never bitten an opponent or fly-kicked a paying supporter in the face, nor he is he a particularly serial simulator, adultorer, or one to tediously feign an injury.

His brilliance with a football means he'll score against you quite a lot, although I wasn't aware that this alone was something to hate so enduringly. Furthermore, unless you dish out some severe stick to him first and you happen to be one of Liverpool's historical rivals (sorry, Swansea), then despite a thirty-yard thunderbolt in the last minute you're unlikely to face an ear-cupping or a 'ssshhhh.' He'll be too busy running to his own adoring supporters. The way it should be

So why the negative obsession? Why will 2nd January 2015 go down as the best day to be a shareholder in the meme business, in stark contrast to the week of deserved eulogies we witnessed for Thierry Henry recently?

There is this:

Liverpool have rarely been very good of late. Since 1990, in fact. You've probably noticed. Since Liverpool were last kings of English football, sixteen different teams have finished above us. Even now the top division has split into tightly concealed mini-leagues, entry to which clubs risk their future existence and prioritise above winning cups, Newcastle (where Gerrard is routinely booed) have finished above LFC in a quarter of Premier League seasons. Last term's second place halted a run of four consecutive summers looking up at Spurs. QPR, Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham - even Everton have managed it three times.

There are plenty of teams who feel, and perhaps rightly, that they've been toe-to-toe with Liverpool for long enough to demand some respect, a share of column inches and some complimentary midfielder comparisons. Some have got the better of us enough times to warrant consideration as our equals.

But then, there is this:

When a team loses fourteen league games in a season, yet comes from 0-3 down to snatch the most magical of European Cup victories - WHEN DJIMI TRAORE TOOK ON PAOLO MALDINI AND WON - it is Liverpool.

When a team is outplayed in the FA Cup Final and throws on Jan Krompamp as its final roll of the dice, but still comes from two goals down to win on penalties - it is Liverpool.

When a team not good enough to challenge for their own league title wins three cup competitions in the same season, something you've never seen before and likely won't again - it is Liverpool.

When that mediocre bunch finishes seventh, then wallops top-of-the-league FIVE-ONE, scores 100 goals, wins 11 straight through the business end of the season to go within a whisker of being the first team in 30 years to win the league after finishing outside the top-six - it is, somehow, Liverpool.

It can only be Liverpool - and it can only be Steven Gerrard.

Even Arsenal, despite two league and cup doubles and an unbeaten (unbeaten!) season, have been unable to shake us off, and have taken an increasing and unreciprocated dislike to us and Gerrard. Seeing Igor Biscan's Liverpool finish 25 points below but win the Champions League they've had 17 consecutive pops at, as our hero remains loyal while theirs routinely join Barcelona or one of the Manchester clubs, has taken its toll.

Steven Gerrard has allowed us to see glories that fans of so many other teams feel they are entitled to, and cannot comprehend how Liverpool have pulled it off again.

However, for two weeks in the spring of 2014, something bizarre happened; Liverpool and Gerrard very briefly ceased to be the laughing stock of English football.

The image of the number 8 urging his teammates in an impromptu huddle to "go again" at Norwich after a sanity-sapping win over Man City, is now the backdrop to football's recycled joke circuit. However, at that precise moment, fans all over the country (with the obvious exceptions) wanted that to be their captain, doing that on their pitch.  For a fortnight, Gerrard could've walked into any stadium in the country to a standing ovation. He was English football's saviour, its darling, and we shared him with you for a touch over 300 hours.

When the final whistle blew against City, Gerrard abandoned football's PR rulebook and became exactly how we, as fans, envisage we would behave on the pitch at that moment. Sobbing into his red sleeve, he put his reputation on the line with the on-camera rallying cry. The official message may be one game at a time, that the title wasn't a consideration for a team that failed to qualify for Europe 11 months earlier - but with 44,000 other fans going bananas around him, Gerrard only knew one way.

He represented everything that fans yearn to see each week, even more than the goals and the performances, the Istanbul 05s and Cardiff 06s; turning down wealthier contracts from better teams to withstand wretched owners, bitter infighting, biting, beach balls, outrageous signings and defeats ranging from the agonising to embarrassing and beyond. All this, for the love and honour of playing for the team he supported as a boy.

In the next 13 days, my phone and social media were awash with messages of support for the Reds, and in particular admissions that Steven Gerrard deserved this league title. They hoped we won it for him. Unfortunately cruel fate determined it wasn't to be, and never would be, and most of those supporters quickly reverted to type.

Not winning the league was a low point for Gerrard. For all of us. But at this juncture, his leaving of Liverpool, it only adds to his legend. The slip against Chelsea can happen to anyone, anywhere. Just ask John Terry. But the 13 goals and 13 assists from a defensive midfield position that preceded the cruel misfortune, that is a different story.

Liverpool thrilled us during 13-14; Suarez' pre-Christmas form was absurd, Sturridge consistently found the net with Fowleresque hunger and precision, and Sterling came of age - but it was Gerrard who dared to take Liverpool over the top. He knew time was running out for him. He knew City and Chelsea would be back to spend bigger still, United too, and that Suarez would likely be off to Spain and that we were punching gloriously above our weight all year. It was now or never. The odds were stacked against and the pain of getting close but missing out would be too much to bear - but he took us all there anyway. One last time. Craven Cottage, Upton Park, Old Trafford - penalties despatched to keep the dream on life support - then Sunderland, City, Norwich, carrying the team on his back over one marathon finishing line and onto the next.

Even in the darkest moments when the salt was being rubbed into the wounds, he was lifting a dejected Luis Suarez onto his feet at Selhurst Park rather than feeling sorry for himself. What a captain. What a privilege to watch him living our dreams and helping us get through the nightmares.

Finally, before I am battered with questions about seeing "Slippy G winning the league," remember that he is not finished just yet. If he does, as most suspect, join the MLS, hopefully he can win five successive league titles and finally be considered on a par with John O'Shea before he hits 40. Then he will command some modicum of begrudging respect from those who have written the criteria on judging greatness.

But if you are unable to muster any admiration, then I can only sympathise. You've missed out on something really special, something that will become increasingly rare in football, to the point you may not ever see it again.

As he would say with a squeak, sniffle and a shrug - "all the best."

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