Football, in a broader sense, is a sport of tug of war between the needs of many and the needs of one, even though they need not be mutually-exclusive all the time. Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s in Malaysia, very few people my age at that time knew of clubs beyond Real Madrid, Manchester United and Liverpool. Undoubtedly, however, the sport is blessed with wildly talented players that go on to make a name for themselves, even more so than the clubs that hold the titles and silverwares.
David Beckham was the go-to player you name when talking about football, given his massive following and the path he took by building a football career and a personal brand simultaneously. His name was quickly followed by names like Ronaldinho, the Brazilian Ronaldo and Michael Owen whenever football was the topic at the table. It was in 2006 when the infamous head-butt occurred in the final of the World Cup that Zidane and Materazzi became well known, yet very few at my age knew which nations they even played for.
Ironic isn’t it – an 11-man, team-based sport that is better recognised by the individuals instead. I basically grew up thinking that football was all about the individuals; why else would these names be on the lips of people who don’t even watch football, myself included?
In 2007, at the age of 13, I started following football and, in particular, Liverpool Football Club a lot more closely as I began watching the sport with my father every weekend, given that it was routine for him. It was also in 2007 that the Reds signed a Spanish star-to-be from Atlético Madrid, whereby his partnership with the club’s captain was widely touted to be one of the best ever seen by the Anfield faithful.
Needless to say, this was when my perception about football being dominated by individuals changed.
It takes two to tango
Fernando Torres arrived on Merseyside with a great deal of hope and promise. The Spaniard had burst through the youth ranks at Atlético Madrid to become one of the most promising stars in Europe. Being your club’s top goal-scorer in each of your five seasons in La Liga means high expectations will inevitably follow.
Steady streams of double-digit goals in top-flight Spanish football for five seasons in a row while wearing the club’s armband in three of them painted a football career everyone dreams of, but to achieve such a feat by the age of 22 means Torres clearly radiated the aura of a player with ludicrous talent.
Leaving behind his childhood club, where he flourished as a footballer, a captain and, most importantly, a local hero, was no easy feat but he was stepping foot into a footballing dynasty – an opportunity he dubbed as a “train that comes along only once in your life” that one should board when given the chance. While stating that it was a difficult decision to leave his “all-time club”, little did he know that he was going to be adored by fans all the same, just that of a different club and country.
Trading the red and white of Atlético for the red of Liverpool also entailed a change of hierarchy for the once-upon-a-time headliner. He, like many others before and after him, was always going to be second fiddle to the main man at Liverpool. As one of England’s most talented players, that man was already dubbed as Captain Marvel at the club with an FA Cup and the club’s fifth European Cup under his belt in the same period of time as when Torres wore the armband back in Spain.
Read | Fernando Torres and the cyclical journey of a cult hero
That man was Steven Gerrard – undoubtedly the key player at Liverpool who was the individual named when the club comes into discussion. His leadership came not in the form of shouting and finger-pointing but by way of placing the club on his back and carrying them to victory.
Simply put, Gerrard was the icon and the face of Liverpool, but a young, hungry Fernando Torres was never going to play second fiddle when he had the ability to be Gerrard’s partner in his endeavours on the pitch. What transpired took the Premier League by storm.
Rise of the dynamic duo
The concept of ‘Premier League-proven’ players stemmed from the theory that players from abroad will need time to adapt to the well-known tenacity and tempo of top-flight football in England, which is why clubs buy from within the Premier League to avoid having players that require bedding-in periods.
Remember the notion of Fernando Torres being a player of ludicrous talent? Well, his level of skill and ability allowed him to not only become an exception to the downward deviation caused by the Premier League, but he even forged a partnership with Gerrard in the process.
It didn’t take long for the English midfielder and the Spanish striker to spark the start of what would soon become a lethal partnership. In Torres’ second game for the Reds, and his debut game in the fortress that is Anfield – a game against the club’s heated-rivals Chelsea – Gerrard played a magnificent outside-of-the-boot through-ball which swerved right into Torres’ path before the Spaniard dribbled past Chelsea defender Tal Ben Haim and finished the chance past Petr Čech.
The duo didn’t even display any hints of slowing down. While Gerrard continued to play his part by adding attacking potency and goals from midfield, Torres set the Premier League alight in record-breaking fashion. From records revolving around hat-tricks scored by Liverpool players and records on scoring goals in consecutive games, to becoming the foreign player to have scored the most goals in his debut season in the Premier League as the cherry on top, Torres broke it all with the help of Gerrard.
Catalysed by the quick curb of the learning curve, the partnership’s combined 54 goals – 35 of them coming in the Premier League alone. It was merely a warning shot to oppositions and a sign of greater things to come. Converting their individual numbers into contributions to the team as a whole, Gerrard and Torres saw a much more fruitful outcome from their partnership, which was pushed to full throttle in the following season.
Between nervy wins against Wigan, Middlesbrough and Portsmouth and marvellous victories against Real Madrid, Manchester United and Aston Villa, Torres and Gerrard were crucial components of a roller-coaster of a Liverpool side that was nothing short of thrills. Their combined efforts pushed Liverpool to look like a club worthy of being called a dynasty once again – a club worthy of the Champions League just four years prior.
A highly successful but ultimately heart-breaking campaign in the 2008-09 season seemed like the revitalising force for a fourth-place-ridden Liverpool side. Most predicted that the club would have gone out with all guns blazing in the 2009-10 season of the Premier League, looking for revenge for their narrowly-lost title run.
However, instead of building on the silver linings of the season prior, the title run was the beginning of the end.
All good things must come to an end
The core of the team was pretty much intact along with the prospect of the Gerrard-Torres partnership being relatively untouched, but with injuries slowing down the two peas in a pod, however, the Gerrard-Torres combination became a rarer sight than fans were accustomed to.
Despite finishing as the club’s goalscorer in the 2009-10 season, a knee injury reduced the Spaniard to lesser games in that season; a similar twist of fate to the 2008-09 season where an injury ruled Torres out towards the end of 2008. They say that lightning doesn’t strike twice but when it does to Liverpool, it meant that Steven Gerrard had to carry the team once again in familiar fashion, only this time it was one straw too many for him.
The extra weight on Gerrard’s back along with a multitude of reasons resulted in the club failing to the build on one of the best seasons in recent times as the coffin that is a seventh-place finish was nailed with the absence of Champions League football in the following season.
Since then, things never been the same.
Rafa Benítez, the man who took Fernando Torres to new heights in his career, departed the club when the curtain came down to close off a disappointing 2009-10 season for the Reds. Steven Gerrard was the next victim to succumb to injuries, which effectively nullified his ability on the pitch, and if it wasn’t bad enough for Torres to be lacing up Gerrard’s shoes and carrying a depleted Liverpool side, that little extra nudge pushed him out the window.
In 2016, Fernando Torres finally spilt the beans: a change in management and their plans did not sit right with him. With one change too many, Torres sought a change of his own. Referencing his age and the timing of such a shift in the club’s focus to “bring in young players and to build something new”, the then-27-year-old star decided he wanted no part in being involved in a rebuilding phase. He “wanted to win”.
Cue a January transfer window of anxiousness amongst fans as Torres got his wish. Just as easy as it appeared to be despite Liverpool playing semi-hard to get, Fernando Torres moved from the red of Merseyside to experience the blue London. The partnership that once dominated England’s top-flight football, as well as that of Europe, was no more. Andy Carroll was acquired via a club-record transfer fee, the transfer window shut, and Torres was Judas.
Read | Steven Gerrard: the captain before and beyond the armband
To some, Fernando Torres will always be dubbed a traitor; to others, he will always be loved. Steven Gerrard, on the other hand, never truly recovered following his injuries in 2010, while he yet again saw another Premier League title run fall short of the grand prize; that would be the last time he’d ever have the chance to lift the trophy missing from his CV.
A happier ending than expected was achieved, however. Appearing in Gerrard’s testimonial several years later seemed to be the final step for the hatchet to be buried. Now, with hard feelings swept under the rug for most, there is nothing else to be done other than to reminisce.
It’s been almost a decade since Fernando Torres signed for Liverpool, holding up a You’ll Never Walk Alone scarf high and proud above his head as the camera flash kicks in. Yet to this day, both he and Gerrard have not stopped talking about the memories of playing with each other. Guess the saying holds true that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Despite a somewhat bitter end to the Gerrard-Torres partnership, to say that it left much to be desired would be to dismiss one of the greatest Premier League duos of all time. To younger Liverpool fans, who were unfortunate enough to miss out on watching the greats like Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush and John Barnes, what Gerrard and Torres displayed on the pitch was more than just a mere consolation; they were their Dalglish, Rush, and Barnes.
Call the Gerrard-Torres partnership at its peak what you like – lethal, potent, extraordinary – but “telepathic” was the adjective that seemed timeless and uncontested. Among Gerrard’s key traits were his passing, vision and execution, yet it was always different when it came to threading a pass to Torres who has since claimed that he “will never find a player like Gerrard who understands his game like he did”. How could he though, when Gerrard, in his own words, “always knew where he was, where he was going to move next”?
Many would associate the pair by way of numbers by pointing out the number of goals they’ve scored with assists coming from the other, yet the dynamic duo’s partnership goes way beyond just delivering one-two punches. I mean, in two different tones, who could forget Fernando Torres cheekily doing an in-air back-heel to set Gerrard free to score against Everton, or the time Gerrard looked in disbelief as Torres was substituted against Birmingham?
However, despite Torres never being the best player Steven Gerrard has ever played with – that title falling to the player signed to partner the Spaniard who left in the same window, Luis Suárez – it is without any hints of doubt that he was the best player Gerrard ever partnered with on the pitch. “Heartbroken” and “gutted” were all that filled Gerrard when Torres departed the club: “I built up a relationship with Fernando and became his friend.” A feeling mutually-shared by the one who left.
“I’ve missed playing with him every single game to today,” proclaimed Fernando Torres in an interview in 2015, perhaps echoing what hundreds upon thousands feel as well. Liverpool, the Premier League and football fans alike may or may not ever witness the brilliance being portrayed by two individuals who possessed a near-telepathic connection between each other ever again.
By Leroy Mah @LFCImpulse