"Cut my veins open and I bleed Liverpool red"- Steven Gerrard, 2006.
As news of Steven Gerrard’s planned Liverpool retirement trickled in, the enormity of his achievements at one of football's iconic clubs slowly began to sink in to minds of football fans. Gerrard, even fans blinded by rivalries and loyalties would agree, has been a credit to himself, his country, Liverpool FC and the game of football.
Explaining his decision, captain of the Anfield club said in a statement: “This has been the toughest decision of my life and one which both me and my family have agonised over for a good deal of time.”
Of course, bidding goodbye to a club you have supported as a kid and gone on to represent for 16 years, 11 as captain, has to be a tough decision. But Stevie G had now entered that phase of his career when tough decisions needed to be taken.
Gerrard has been synonymous with Liverpool FC, like Ryan Giggs with Manchester United, Paolo Maldini with AC Milan and Francesco Totti with AS Roma – a one-club man, a rare gem in modern football where agents dictate the best interest of their players
But, at 35, the midfielder is no longer the first name on the Liverpool team-sheet week-in, week-out, as has been the case for a large part of his career. In professional football, numbers not nostalgia govern team composition and strategy.
And the numbers suggest Gerrard is no longer Mr. Liverpool. A new order of midfielders has grown around his towering presence in Jordan Hendersen, Joe Allen, Lucas, Raheem Sterling with Brendan Rodgers injecting more young talent into the squad with Adam Lallana and Emre Can.
He knows it better than anybody else of course, which is why he felt the decision of leaving Liverpool in the summer was in the best interests of all involved, including his family and the club itself.
Over the years, some of Gerrard’s most memorable displays have come when he has made runs from the deep, arrived late in the box and struck the ball with ferocious power and unerring accuracy. He has thrived when granted freedom in his favorite attacking role.
But the football life of a box-to-box midfield general like Gerrard hinges on age and fitness. As the legs began to give way, the Liverpool skipper’s darting runs became rare, accompanied by a dip in the number of shots on goal. The exertions of over a decade as one of Premier League’s best midfielder had began to show.
Gerrard has always been a proud footballer and his decision to walk into the sunset of his Liverpool career is about not wanting to hang on to his place based on prestige. He would want to command a place in the side based on performance.
Possessing all attributes of the ideal midfielder, Gerrard was destined for great things. Yet, as he called time on his Liverpool career, his trophy cabinet is devoid of a Premier League winner’s medal, the absence of which will forever be an albatross around his neck.
However, during that famous Istanbul night in 2005, Gerrard almost single-handedly won the European Cup for Liverpool. In one of the most inspired displays of leadership, passion and commitment world football has ever seen, the midfielder led a second half revival after AC Milan nearly decimated Liverpool 3-0 in the first half.
Gerrard has time and again picked up his club from the ruins of destruction, be it against West Ham in the FA Cup or against Olympiakos in the Champions League. He has pulled his team through, but with limited talent around him, failed to cross the finish line on most occasions.
Like any footballer with a winner’s mentality, Gerrard was seduced by Chelsea’s ambition and the prospect of winning the league when the Blues came calling with a £32m bid in 2005. After a long drawn out saga, Gerrard made a dramatic overnight U-turn to stay at Liverpool.
Unlike Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard, Gerrard paid the ultimate price for club loyalty. His selflessness resulted in him sacrificing the glory of silverware at Liverpool. Pascal Cygan, Anderson and Paulo Ferreira boasting of symbols of Premier League excellence are testimony to this fact. Gerrard will end his career without one.
Unfortunately, in his case, the disappointments at club level couldn’t be camouflaged by success of playing for and captaining England. Because Gerrard, despite being part of English football’s golden generation, was also part of a national side that collectively and spectacularly capitulated and underperformed at major tournaments.
Steven Gerrard could have had the perfect club career scoring goals galore and hoisting Premier League trophies year after year. But he chose not to.
The following except from his retirement statement sums up the man and his priorities aptly.
“I'm going to carry on playing and although I can't confirm at this stage where that will be, I can say it will be somewhere that means I won't be playing for a competing club and will not therefore be lining up against Liverpool - that is something I could never contemplate.”
After the confirmation of his Liverpool retirement, Major League Soccer clubs will probably fight over the signature of one of world football's greats. He is he best Liverpool player of his generation and in his pomp could have walked into any team in the world.
The Steven Gerrard cake may not have icing on top, but it is beautiful nonetheless. He will have to live with that without any regrets.