Gerard Houllier isn’t always remembered fondly by Liverpool fans. His time in charge wasn’t exactly a happy time. The style of football he played was dull but effective, though not quite effective enough. His signings were haphazard, sometimes done without scouting and his man-management was such that he drove away club icon Robbie Fowler.
But, there are a few things that Houllier will be remembered fondly for. The treble Liverpool won in 2001, which included the UEFA Cup. Or the fact that he recovered from a near-fatal heart condition to manage the club again. However, Houllier’s biggest legacy to Liverpool was the young player who, under his tutelage, transformed from a raw, over-exuberant kid into one of the best, if not the best, players Liverpool have ever had. That player is Steven Gerrard.
Today, it will be the end of an era as Steven Gerrard plays for what could well be the very last time for Liverpool before he moves on to play for LA Galaxy. Gerrard will leave Liverpool having played over 700 games for the club and being fifth on the club’s all-time top-scorers list; a huge feat for a midfielder.
Ever since he announced his decision to leave Liverpool there has been an attempt to try and define Gerrard’s legacy.
A legacy is what you leave behind. In a footballer’s case, they leave behind memories.
Gerrard’s had the misfortune to play in an era where too many fans are of the mistaken belief that supporting their club means it’s their duty to be hostile towards other clubs, and the star players of those clubs.
That’s certainly been the case with Gerrard. Fans sing disparaging songs about Gerrard even when neither he nor Liverpool are there. As Gerrard was substituted recently in a game at Chelsea you could clearly see two middle-aged women booing him. I’d bet that if at that moment you’d have asked those ladies why, they wouldn’t have been able to answer. It’s just the way a lot of fans think they should behave.
Gerrard also plays in the age of schadenfreude around football. Everything is there to be mocked. Every mistake, every failure and every time someone falls short of perfection is to be laughed at. In talking of his legacy, some talk with undisguised glee of the fact that Gerrard has permanently damaged that legacy over the past year or so, with the slip, the red card against Man United. Or the fact that he leaves English football without a league winner’s medal.
If that’s the way you want to remember him then fine, but that’s not the way he’ll be remembered by all.
It should be pointed out here that there have been plenty of warm and generous receptions for Gerrard from opposition fans, fans who appreciated the fact that it may be the last time they get to see such a special player.
For years he was Liverpool’s talisman and their best player. At one point you could have made a real case for him being the best player in the world, and many of the other players you could make a case for being the best in the world at that time have said Gerrard was the best. He was the ultimate box-to-box midfielder, equally capable of making a goal-saving tackle as he was of scoring from 30 yards. He had a tremendous range of passing in an era where English midfielders were more ball-winners than ball-players.
I’ve seen him carry the team on his back on several occasions. I’ve seen him put in performances so masterful that he’s been given a standing ovation by the opposition fans.
Gerrard came through on the big occasions too. He is the only English player to have scored in the final of the League Cup, the FA Cup, the UEFA Cup (now called the Europa League) and the Champions League.
For most Liverpool fans, especially those of a certain age, Gerrard won’t just be remembered as a great player, but he’ll also be remembered for his part in the memories of many Liverpool fans and the part he’s unwittingly played in their lives.
In my case, I was still in high school when Gerrard made his debut. I’d just completed my first year of university when he scored in the UEFA cup final. I graduated more than ten years ago and Gerrard is only now about to fade into the background. It’s fair to say that if a film was made about my adult life, boring a film as it would be, Gerrard would be a big part of the backdrop. Most Liverpool fans would tell you a similar story.
Gerrard leaving is especially poignant as he was the link between the old and new Liverpool. During Gerrard’s time as a player, Liverpool as a club has changed dramatically from being a club that thrived on local support and had a lot of Liverpool-born players to a global entity that leaves the impression here in Liverpool than local fans aren’t needed or wanted. Gerrard’s departure leaves no Liverpool-born players in the first-team, and only a handful in the squad.
Liverpool’s not always an easy place to be a footballer. Especially for a local player who becomes the star of one of the city’s teams, which immediately makes you a lightning rod for the enmity of fans of the other side. Make no mistake, Steven Gerrard has been the subject of some truly vile abuse for most of his career.
Gerrard’s really been in unchartered territory in terms of his off-pitch life for most of his career. He’s had to deal with attention on a global scale, where rumours about his personal life, and there were rumours about him or his family on almost a weekly basis, are no longer confined to a few people chatting in a Liverpool pub, but are spread all over the world.
Gerrard’s been assaulted on the street and had his home invaded while he and his family were asleep. There’s a police officer currently in jail for trying to illegally obtain CCTV footage with the intent of using it to blackmail him.
That’s not to say that Gerrard’s an angel. Gerrard has many flaws, like all of us. He’s made mistakes on and off the pitch. Sometimes the recklessness that was exhibited during his early career still comes out. Off the pitch, he’s had brushes with the law. He got himself involved in a situation where he was being threatened by one gangster and ended up getting an even scarier gangster to chase him off.
Since Gerrard, a lot of people have asked why Liverpool are allowing him to leave. The truth is it’s Gerrard’s decision to go, not Liverpool’s, who wanted him to stay. He’s leaving because he wants to play football on a regular basis, and knows at Liverpool he’d only be a bit-part player.
Unfortunately, time has not been kind to Steven Gerrard. It’s been obvious for the past few seasons that Gerrard is rapidly declining as a player, as his pace and mobility have started to desert him. Gerrard was an exceptional player who in the last few years has become merely ordinary.
Where Gerrard used to be at the centre of Liverpool’s attacking, he’s now become more of a hindrance as he can’t play the quick-passing game Brendan Rodgers likes his teams to play, and the frustration at his performances in the games he has played has been written all over his face
Whereas Gerrard used to be a force in defence, he’s now become the weak link that opposing teams target as they know he can be easily passed around or ran past. Many of Liverpool’s defensive problems this season lie in the poor performance of the midfield in front of them, a problem which seems all the worse when Gerrard plays.
Brendan Rodgers has tried to manage his decline, trying Gerrard out in a number of different positions and midfield roles as well as resting Gerrard in order to try and get something out of his final years as a player. Gerrard had some success playing as a regista last season, but teams worked out quite quickly how to shut him down.
However, put him in a league which isn’t as fast-paced, or physically demanding as the Premier League and he still has a lot to offer. He’s still a fierce competitor. He can still complete passes most other players don’t see to attempt. If the Galaxy put Gerrard in a role where he can sit deep, pick passes, let the ball do the work and have other players who can do the running for him in midfield and he’ll be fine.
Even though his contributions on the pitch have lessened over the past few seasons; Gerrard’s departure will still leave a hole in the Liverpool team. Not only will his leadership will be missed, both on and off the pitch.
Hopefully, he’ll be back in some kind of coaching role in the future, and he has spoke to both Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool’s owners about that possibility. It’s also not out of the question that he may return on loan during the MLS off-season.
But for now, it’s goodbye Steven Gerrard. He’ll be missed.