It’s going to be a long goodbye. Steven Gerrard made sure of that first by telling interviewers two months ago that he intended to play on whether Liverpool gave him a new contract or not, and then by confirming last week that he indeed hankered for pastures new, which would have to be overseas because he could not contemplate lining up against the Anfield club.
The obituaries of his one-club English career began, and predictably they were as emotionally charged as much of the football he has provided. He has often been compared with Roy Of The Rovers, the fabulous footballer of comic-strip fame, but Gerrard has been, if anything, an even more flamboyant performer than Roy Race on occasions such as the 2004/5 Champions League group match against Olympiacos, or the final flourish of that glorious campaign against Milan in Istanbul.
He has certainly celebrated more expansively than Roy ever did – as least when I used to follow the Melchester maestro’s exploits in the Tiger – but self-effacement was more fashionable in those days and, in any case, Gerrard saw his obligation as being one of leading from the front.
He was right to do so in the club’s interests, because, unlike such previous Liverpool heroes as Kenny Dalglish, he tended to be in the company of largely inferior – in other words, merely competent at Premier League level – players. So he overcame his natural introversion to the extent that, if a film were to be made of his football life in a red shirt, the lead role would have to be played by Mel Gibson in Braveheart mode.
Gerrard’s decision to quit the Premier League came halfway through the season, leaving at least four months for tributes to what he has brought the English game. Because he retired from England duty after a mundane World Cup most memorable for the unlucky error that set up Luis Suarez to score for Uruguay, they concentrated on his massive contribution to Liverpool and many of them concluded that he was the club’s greatest player of all time.
They went too far, too soon, and rather exemplified the inability of many contemporary writers and pundits to put their foot on the ball.
They made the point, as I did earlier in this piece, that he was often the most potent force in a Liverpool team, but without recognising the exceptions, such as last season, when Suarez shouldered that responsibility with Daniel Sturridge at his side as well as Gerrard behind, or 2008/9, when Liverpool finished second – only four points behind champions Manchester United – thanks equally to Fernando Torres in his prime and the midfield axis of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano.
These were players of the class Dalglish enjoyed. Torres was even more penetrative (if a shade less team-oriented) than Ian Rush, while Alonso had all the attributes of Graeme Souness (updated to comply with modern refereeing).
Nor were other items of light and shade mentioned. Rightly Gerrard was lauded for his part in the winning of the FA Cup in 2006 – but it was as if he had done it alone, rather than been obliged to leave the final heroics to Pepe Reina, who saved three West Ham penalties. And what about Istanbul? The substitution that introduced Didi Hamann was overlooked along with the fact that Gerrard had played in the first half, when Milan ran up a three-goal lead, as well as the second, when they were relieved of it.
Yes, Gerrard has been a truly great Premier League player, and an often superb one in the Champions League too. But Liverpool’s best ever? Let’s take all the time Gerrard has given us to decide. My first instinct, since soon after Dalglish arrived at Anfield from Celtic, has always been King Kenny, and only Gerrard questioned it until the peak year of Suarez, when the Uruguayan affected the fortunes of a Premier League club more radically than anyone I can remember, including Eric Cantona or even Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford. There’s no need to rush and, anyway, it’s fun to savour.