Steven Gerrard: a life and a career on the edge

THERE’s a tendency for football supporters to deify their heroes, to bestow supernatural powers on them and place them on the highest of pedestals. Take the honorifics bestowed on them by their admirers, such as King or even God, and you begin to see my point.

In the case of Steven Gerrard, supporters on the Kop could not be more effusive in their praise of him. One banner declared him to be ‘the best there is, the best there was and the best there will ever be.’

To be fair, the Kop are not alone in dishing out such praise to the Reds’ former captain. Ex-players and peers often agree with the supporters’ assessment. Jamie Carragher has described him as “superman,” John Barnes called him the “most important midfielder in European football,” and Terry McDermott rated him as “the finest midfielder to ever play for Liverpool Football Club.”

His record in a Liverpool shirt tells its own story. Only one trophy has eluded him. The agony of that ‘failure’ haunts him still. Rival fans taunt him to this day. They do it, despite the fact his playing days are over, and even when their teams aren’t facing Liverpool.

It’s a strange obsession. I can think of no other example of rival fans singling out a player from their opponents past for special abuse, week in week out. It’s a bit like when you’ve been bin-bagged by the love of your life and you spend every waking moment telling anybody who will listen that she was no good anyway.

It also says something about the player himself, that those taunts do bother him. The fact that not even his European, FA  and League Cups can’t salve the burning pain of that ‘slip’ against Chelsea, that would see his dream of Premier league glory transformed into the most horrifying nightmare, is testament to a man driven as much by self-doubt as a relentless pursuit of perfection.

You get a sense of just how traumatic that experience was for the player, when reading Gerrard’s book ‘My Story’.

Footballer’s autobiographies can be hit and miss. Often ghost written and sometimes sanitised or sensationalised, they can leave you feeling cold. You put them down and feel you’ve paid for a magical mystery tour, only to find yourself being driven around all the old familiar haunts, and not a mystery in sight. Not so Steven Gerrard’s.

Steven’s book opens with a detailed and very honest description of a player crushed by the weight of his own impossibly high standards, and a deep sense that he had let his people down. He was of course describing the aftermath of the 2-0 defeat to Chelsea, at Anfield, that effectively ended Liverpool’s title challenge.

Gerrard talks of sitting, slumped in the back of his car, tears streaming down his cheeks and wishing he could be anywhere on the planet, but Liverpool. After all he had achieved, was this how he was going to be remembered? Was his fall on a football pitch going to be his epitaph?

The book is a brutally honest portrait of a player and a career frequently spent on the edge. Of a man who rarely enjoyed a sense of self-satisfaction, and who battled with the demons of anxiety and depression throughout a life laden with silverware and personal accolades. For Gerrard, it seems, there is no okay or alright, only extremes.

It’s at the edges of those extremes where the roots of Gerrard’s defining moments can be found. Whether it’s the gnawing fear of failure that pushed him to score his “beauty” at the Kop end, dragging the Reds out of the group stage and onto the road to Istanbul, or the feeling of being unwanted, that almost saw him leave the club altogether.

When Rick Parry dithered in offering him a contract, after the magic of the Istanbul final, Gerrard took that as a sign he was no longer valued by the club, that somehow, they were looking to offload him. The warm embrace of Houllier had been replaced by the cold logic of the Benitez era, and Steven no longer felt loved.

What followed was a maelstrom of emotion that almost swept the Reds skipper out of the door and into the arms of Jose Mourinho and Chelsea. When Sky Sports News coaxed a few idiots outside Anfield to burn replicas of his shirt on camera, the effect on the player was profound. This is how he described his reaction:

“Panic breakdown, complete mess. Some force raced around my body, turning off the lights, closing me down and plunging me into darkness.”

These are the words of someone who feels deeply, and experiences life in a very intense way. They reveal a hero often balanced precariously between stratospheric highs and low points, filled with despair, and all of it driven by success or failure related to football.

These words reveal Gerrard as a man, an extraordinary one, but a man nonetheless. Yet somehow his achievements are even more impressive for reading them. Rather than view his frailty as a form of weakness, it’s helpful to see it as the engine that drives him on. Surely, the origins of his relentless quest for greatness, his obsession with being the best, lie somewhere among the words above.

Gerrard’s profound understanding of the all-consuming desire for success, experienced by the world’s greatest sportsmen, would also come in useful in 2013, when the Reds came close to losing another superstar to Arsenal. It would enable him to relate to the wantaway Luis Suarez in a way that Brendan Rodgers couldn’t.

Steven’s insight into the turbulent psyche of a genuine superstar, enabled him to get inside Suarez’ head and broker peace talks between the number seven and his manager. After a flurry of text messages and a face to face meeting, Gerrard was able to convince Suarez that he understood his desire to move to a “mega club,” and convince him that Arsenal weren’t it.

For Gerrard though, it was different. He would tell Suarez, he could never leave, even for a Madrid or a Barcelona. After all, he was playing for his people. Winning things in front of them would mean more than silverware on another continent. It was their approval, and only theirs, that could settle the self-doubt, make him feel loved and wanted.

His intervention with Suarez meant that the Kop would witness the Uruguayan’s genius for one more season, and see their club go closer to a Premier League title than at any point since they last won the league. It also meant that in Gerrard, Suarez had found a kindred spirit, an equal and someone he could trust. It would prove critical, as Luis had felt his manager was lying to him.

In the end, Gerrard is neither a king or a God. He is decidedly and reassuringly a very mortal hero, complete with all the same imperfections, frailties and weaknesses as the rest of us. Somehow that makes his achievements even more admirable.

Perhaps it’s how he uses his moments of doubt and anxiety, fear and self-loathing as the fuel for his obsession with success, that sets him apart as a player. As he moves into management, Gerrard will carry all that baggage with him. If it serves him half as well as it did during his playing career, he’s going to be some manager.

By Jeff Goulding with artwork by Marcus Marritt

If you enjoyed this from Jeff, which I’m sure you did, his book entitled: Red Odyssey: Liverpool FC 1892-2017 is available here. A deeply moving history of a football club steeped in emotion and passion. 

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