NOTHING LASTS FOREVER. If a footballer’s legacy to the game is to be summed up in their farewell match or testimonial, then they and the fans that try to imprint some lasting legacy on their beloved hero will always fall short.
Steven Gerrard fell short in more than one way in his send-off at the end of this season. Everyone wanted it to be perfect; most of all the man himself. It looked as though fate had glanced kindly and pityingly favourably on Steven Gerrard when a Luis Suárez-inspired 16 game winning streak look set to deliver Gerrard the holy grail that had eluded him his entire career: the Premier League.
But fate took a cruel and bitter turn for Gerrard. He slipped and fell short of the magical ending. When Gerrard lifted the UEFA Champions League trophy following that final, it all seemed like a hazy mirage, almost dreamlike. Who would believe it possible in the movie blockbuster-like career that was Liverpool’s enduring captain that he would be given the chance at 34-years old to finally lift the Premier League?
But expectations were not met and even the late nicotine-patch stand-in send off of an FA Cup title on his birthday was not delivered. Twelve months ago Gerrard looked set to be cast away to the shores of America with the momentous and enduring image of him lifting the Premier League to keep him warm at night.
But it was not to be. When we try too hard to paint an image of our heroes as something they are not in reality, then the cold grips of what really unfolds in front of our eyes can be horrific and truly unsettling.
Gerrard won’t have the spine-tingling afterthought of him as the final survivor of the institution of Liverpool Football Club lifting the Premier League, but instead will cast his mind back with reluctant horror to the piteous defending of Marc Muniesa – the Stoke defender – as he let Gerrard in on purpose to score his final goal for Liverpool.
It seems an almost American sporting cliché that the era-defining sports hero of a generation would go out in a heaving bellow of fire and victory. But in the more Anglo-centric football-focussed sporting agenda that has taken over this part of the world, our sports stars always seem to limp aimlessly and shamefully to their end.
This season saw the conclusion of four of the biggest names in world football’s careers (lets park their MLS and Qatar-flown sabbaticals aside): Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Xavi Hernández.
All reached their conclusion in completely different circumstances to each other – Gerrard we have already alluded to. Drogba’s was rather quite bizarre. It all felt a bit forced and crass. But it meant something to the Chelsea fans to see their hero chair-lifted off the pitch by his teammates. Maybe it was a contrived metaphor that Drogba, after seasons and seasons of hard work and goals and titles for Chelsea, simply did not have the legs or the strength to see himself off the pitch for the final time.
Perhaps it shows the debt that Chelsea Football Club owes Drogba, the man that dragged them from the gutter to win = the Champions League in 2012 with the last kick of the game. But hold on, Drogba already got his fairy-tale send-off in 2012. His final act for Chelsea was winning them their first ever Champions League. Why did he come back and have to do the farewell goodbye all over again?
It seems as though Frank Lampard is the one player that leaves with a heightened sense of dignity. His final act, rather than being brought on in the final minutes for the sake of the crowd’s applause, or be chair-lifted off in the duration of a game that was still being played, was to actually contribute a goal of note.
Lampard’s final act in the Premier League was to score the most Frank Lampard-esque goal imaginable. A late run into the box, perfect positional sense, stamina unknown to any other 36-year old, and the finish. His adopted-club Manchester City even acknowledged the career of Lampard to hoist him up and toss him into the air as if he had been a loyal servant of The Citizens for years.
The sad fact that we cannot avoid is that there are simply too many good players and too few titles for each and every one to get their adieu. What we have and may never see is a footballer retiring at their peak. Imagine if Steven Gerrard had retired following the 2006 FA Cup final.
His legend would have stayed intact and immovable forever; not questioned like some foolish souls choose to do now. His legacy would have endured. He would have been remembered even in his old age as a fresh-faced 25-year-old. The concept of stars retiring, or in untimely circumstances, dying, at their peak – in terms of ability, achievement, fame or prominence – is that they will forever be remembered as they were when they departed or left the public image.
James Dean, Princess Diana, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix – we remember these people party because of what they achieved in their short time on earth but always because we love to speculate on what could have been.
But footballers are never going to retire at their peak, largely because there is money to be made and challenges to try elsewhere. And secondly because it is impossible for anyone – fans and the media – let alone the players themselves to tell when they have hit, are passed, or are at their peak. It is only with the gift of hindsight that these things become apparent.
Some thought that Lionel Messi had hit his peak in 2012 when he scored 92 goals. Others might have thought that he was slowing down in 2014 during the World Cup, and may now think in the wake of Barcelona’s recent treble that he is now hitting his prime – but he and we will never know until the end of his career.
And this is why it is so hard to say goodbye. These players have given us so much joy, happy memories and sheer inspiration both as athletes and as people that we don’t want to come to grips with the idea that they may be coming to the end of their time.
In hindsight it might have been wise for Steven Gerrard to retire a year ago, or for Drogba to cancel his anticlimactic return to Stamford Bridge, or even for Xavi to take a good look at what being an ambassador for Qatari football really stands for. We want to imprint a final image of these players as they were during their prime. The image of Xavi lifting the UEFA Champions League on his final appearance for FC Barcelona is a glorious one, but it is flawed.
When we look back at the images of Xavi’s send-off, we won’t see the fact that he came on in the 78th minute and took two touches of the ball, compared with his 60 passes with Andrés Iniesta in the 2011 final. You also won’t see the fact that he has not yet retired but will leave Barça to become an ambassador for football in Qatar – a country famed for its slave-like working conditions in the build up to the 2022 World Cup.
So, like a good piece of art, we must stand back and admire our footballers and their respected send-off’s from a distance. We must accept that not all legends of the game can leave with their title, that not all fairy-tales come true, but most importantly accept the fact that footballers are not movie stars; that they are flawed and they are human.
They do not live their lives and play their game by a script. They must write the script themselves and sometimes improvise. We cannot gauge a footballer by their send-off; we must look at them in hindsight and look back on their happier days with awe and a warm sense of nostalgia, because nothing lasts forever. All good things must pass.
By Aaron Gallagher. Follow @AaronGallagher8