It is often the players who seek the elusive who find the ‘what might have been’ in football. Some players are simply part of the wrong generation. This generation is one where club loyalty is a rarity and a nation’s World Cup hopes don’t hinge solely upon expectation, but rather continue to sway in the wind, dangling from the hangman’s noose. Steven Gerrard, the player, and Steven Gerrard, the captain, is one of this generation’s tragic heroes.
If football was a Greek tragedy, Gerrard would fit the classic characteristics of its tragic heroes. A tragic hero is not without his faults. Perfection is a myth and no man is perfect. Each is plagued by decision and indecision, haunted by their failures, tenants of the mind refusing to vacate the premises. Steven Gerrard fits the playbill.
He has hubris – the sense of extreme pride or self-confidence, which manifests into borderline arrogance resulting in decisions and actions that are deemed as an offence spoken or carried out against the Gods. The on-camera rallying call that seemed to offend football’s Gods after victory against Manchester City in 2014 comes to mind. These decisions are harshly punished. Football’s Gods made an example out of Steven Gerrard as the Premier League trophy slipped through his fingers like grains of sand from an ever-tightening fist.
The next characteristic of a tragic hero is arête; the insatiable pursuit of excellence wrapped in a notion a man must live up to his full potential. The Ancient Greeks held a belief that one’s mind, body and soul must each be developed and prepared for a man to live a life of arête – excellence. Gerrard’s form over the years, for both club and country, has given football’s audiences a display of this pursuit of excellence. Physically, Gerrard, a soldier clad in Liverpool red, through his relentless running, made bounding from box-to-box, putting in tackles, winning the ball, and delivering a perfect driven ball to switch the field of play a standard of his game, not the rare high point.
Such displays became the norm, all with a freakish sense of beauty and frequency that threatened to hide the complexity of his play. When many players seemed to shy away from striking the ball with conviction as the match hung in the balance, the Whiston-born midfielder arrived on the scene, after running 70 yards in transition to drive a shot through a tangled web of defenders and clinch the winner from outside the box.
Be it a surging run forward, or a simple pass that unlocked the most complex defences, Gerrard has played the match on his terms. Since 1998, countless displays of technical and physical brilliance have wowed the crowds from Anfield to Istanbul, spoiled his team-mates by making their lives on the pitch easier, and tormented opponents as the boy from Merseyside went on to become England’s fourth most capped player, but more importantly, its captain.
Like all tragic heroes, Steven Gerrard waded the murky waters of até; a moment of supreme madness stemming from hubris, ultimately leading to a hero’s downfall. Gerrard, the standard of consistency and commitment on the pitch, has faltered on and off it.
The flirtations with a move to Chelsea, a nightclub punch-up and, of course, the slip, are but a few of the moments that betrayed him. A career without a Premier League title to add to his collection of accolades combined with the ever-present pressure of playing for the Three Lions saw Gerrard become England’s Atlas, the man carrying the weight of perpetual disappointment for the national team.
The tireless fresh-faced boy the world saw take the pitch against Blackburn Rovers in 1998 has been replaced with the grizzled and weary countenance of a man who’s been to war and in so doing, become a battle-hardened general seeking victories threatening to remain elusive.
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And then there is nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution, the force of resolute and implacable justice from which no person escapes. Gerrard’s career is not without victory and excellence. He has certainly tasted the spoils of victory from many a chosen cup, but his nemesis may be that he could never recover the glories of the past his club and country so desperately crave. Domestic league titles remain unconquered for Liverpool. World and European Cup glory are lodged in England’s past and Gerrard’s legacy shouldn’t be tainted by these shortcomings. But football is filled with cynics and critics, and its players must accept criticism with plaudits.
Gerrard is a member of a select fraternity of players who were captains before receiving the armband. He led by example from his earliest days marauding up and down the pitch, leading the charge. I once wrote about the death of the on-field general, the player who lives and dies on the pitch every week for his club, his team-mates and his supporters. Gerrard embodies this ethos.
If the world of modern football could be given a novel’s title, Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age is fitting. Like the story, gilded is a word used to hide the underlying surface of something. One can paint over a baser metal with gold, creating the illusion of purity, but modern football is anything but a pure product. Steven Gerrard, however, is one of the rare exceptions. Players like him have become increasingly rare. It’s not so much that Gerrard failed to win the Premier League with Liverpool, but Liverpool through a myriad of poor ownership and buying decisions, failed Gerrard.
After he chose to stay at Liverpool instead of moving to Chelsea, where the skipper needed a worthwhile supporting cast, he received very little compared to players of his generation playing in teams regularly winning or challenging for the Premier League title.
A similar point can be made with regards to England. As its leader, when he needed the sum to be greater than the parts, they underperformed. Gerrard, as the skipper of two ill-fated sides, naturally takes the brunt of the criticism – the harshness of his own self-analysis – and has to live with the fact both sides he’s devoted himself to haven’t matched his level of intensity and application on a consistent enough basis.
The trade-off, however, is that Gerrard played for the club he loves and that loves him. Players like that are rare. Captains like Gerrard are a once-in-a-generation occurrence. For every stellar performance, match-saving tackle followed up by a match-winning goal, the likes of the next Gerrard has yet to appear from the tunnel leading to the pitch or emerge from the shadows. Where Gerrard is made of cast iron, the current generation of players seems to be made of glass.
When Liverpool needed a captain willing and able to be a tireless worker, talisman, hard man and consistent performer, and a leader of the people from the people, Steven Gerrard embraced that responsibility. Where England needed a skipper who wasn’t tainted with off-field incidents, hadn’t lost the respect of his team-mates and fans, and wasn’t distracted by celebrity status, it found Gerrard.
In football, players come and go. Some win everything, others go home to cabinets devoid of trophies, but full of what ifs. England’s former captain need not worry about this; he’s a proven winner. He is not defined by the absence of Premier League titles. Steven Gerrard’s story doesn’t end here, nor does his influence on English football. He just happens to be one of football’s gifts, tarnished through years of wear and tear but in those magical moments, is as good as ever.
There has finally come the day when the former Liverpool skipper has hung up his boots and walked off the pitch for the last time. But there will never come a day when he won’t be considered the players’ and the peoples’ captain.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3