O Captain my captain!
I love him and I hate him, I sing his praises and berate him.
He’s one of my favourite players yet one of the most frustrating I’ve seen. He’s one of the most complete footballers ever. How many others could almost single-handedly drag an inferior team back into a European cup final from three nil down as an attacking midfielder…and then help batten down the hatches as a right back? How many other players have put in match winning performances from every possible position in midfield? His completeness has almost been his undoing – he’s the epitome of trying too hard, of aiming for the impossible when the simple would have done, of taking upon his own shoulders what needs to be delegated. And those slips! This does not slip – and then another gift at the crucial moment.
Ultimately, he personifies my experience of watching football – the frustration and the fantasy, the glory and the gory, the humble and the hubris.
I’ll be glad when he isn’t Liverpool anymore, but there’s never going to be another one like him, and I’ll miss him when
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Next season though eh?
I find it difficult to conjure any particular memories of Steven Gerrard.
When I think of Gerrard I recall two generic, largely unspecific images, both of which, to my mind, date from the Benitez era. The first is Gerrard, symbolic of the kind of berserker attitude that won Liverpool the Champions League, thumping his chest, shouting at team mates – running the side. This is the Gerrard of the popular imagination, I’d venture – typifying the ‘passion’ for the club that only locals can supposedly bring. This vision of Gerrard goes along with commitment – Gerrard the one-club man, a whey-faced, ghostly apparition of the lost figure of the local hero.
The second is the Gerrard of the through-ball and the looping pass to feet, head down, visualising accuracy like an earnest golfer, with a still-potent Fernando Torres ahead of him.
These visions of Gerrard have persisted, but been slightly worn through overuse. Under Rodgers, they’ve been given a lick of paint, rehabilitated in a side whose attacking threat recalls the best of Benitez, but whose defensive frailty reminds me of the 4-4 Merseyside derby that saw Dalglish leave the manager’s job for the first time and signalled Liverpool’s slump into the shadow of Manchester United.
The emergence of Gerrard in the late 90s promised a better future for Liverpool. His 2013/14 season at the club recalls both the best and, in his title-deciding slip against Chelsea, the worst of Liverpool’s last twenty years. The World Cup could well enable him to cast off the gloom thrown by his last few league games upon his successful year.
Aristotle once wrote that “A man cannot become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall”. Last season, Steven Gerrard became that “hero”. In finally identifying that he was no longer capable of playing the gung-ho, box-to-box, Roy of the Rovers position, Gerrard found a new lease of life in a deeper defensive role. That this proved so successful is no real surprise as part of his longstanding allure is in his vital contradiction of being the second best player in every position.
It is interesting that Roy Hodgson has placed so much faith in Gerrard, given their brief and turbulent time together at Liverpool. In a wonderfully cinematic moment, Gerrard took his club’s future into his own hands against Blackburn. Stepping up to take a penalty, Gerrard rubs the Liver bird on his chest, takes one bitter look towards the bench, before blazing the ball over. A revolutionary act, but the only way he could stop the collision course on which Hodgson was taking Liverpool.
Having only rarely watched him play, and only having a vague idea of the essence of the man, I can only look at Steven Gerrard in terms of what how he’s described tells us about the glorious City of Liverpool, where I spent some fantastic years at the end of the 1990s. Equally, since I have a somewhat blinkered frame of reference, presently looking up from the nameless relegation void between the EPL and the old second division, I’m going to conduct my analysis by means of the complex but narrow prism of what we can learn about Liverpool by watching Cardiff City, which offers two valuable source texts.
Text one is Anthony Gerrard, Steven’s centre half cousin. Signed for Cardiff by Dave Jones in 2009 and sold by St. Mackay in 2012. Ant quickly developed a ‘bants-tastic’ reputation, was ‘great’ to have around the club and was a real ‘character’. As a result, Tony swiftly became somewhat of a ‘fans favourite’, mostly because he was often photographed pulling an angry face, pumping his fist as a display of his ‘passion’ or being caught swearing on television cameras. This reached a zenith when, after being dropped to the bench by Mackay, he spent his half-time warm-ups at away games taking potshots at the mascots:
Things, however, quickly slid and we all began to realise that being a real ‘character’ can also mean being a first class knob head. Gerrard started calling out fans on the Twitterverse, and being outspoken (and not a little vulgar) in response to their (justified) criticisms of the team. Fans also slowly began to realise that he wasn’t very good. It was, then, with particular trepidation that we watched ‘our Ant’, reportedly a lifelong Reds’ fan, step up to take the Bluebirds’ final penalty in the 2012 Carling Cup Final, playing against his big cuz. Of course he pulled it laughably wide: we all knew he would. As a result of his miss, the cup went to Merseyside. We all know he didn’t do it on purpose, but the nagging suspicion is still there with many fans (‘cheating scouser’), and the speculation that he celebrated with ‘the scousers’ on the bus home effectively put an end to his Cardiff career there and then.
Text two for consideration is Craig Noone. Soon after the Bluebirds signed the nihilistically-named tricky winger, we learned that (as well as a penchant for #bants) he was, in fact, an ex-roofer who came into the game relatively late and once worked on Steven Gerrard’s roof. Since then, this factoid has been repeated ad infinitum by all football correspondents and commentators whenever he has made the first team to an extent it has become evident that there is some legal obligation for the media to follow every mention of Craig by the affirmation that ‘he once worked on Steven Gerrard’s roof, y’know’.
So, what, then, do we learn about big Steve and the City of Liverpool by watching Cardiff City? Of course, Anthony and Craig’s repeated association with big Steve is as inevitable as it is lazy, due to his stature in the game. In many ways, though, Noone and the Gerrards (what an awful band name that would make) are made, in something approaching the social deterministic vision of Emile Zola, to propagate to at least some extent the myth of the ‘cheeky scouser’, loveable but none too bright, and possibly even violent, working classers for whom football offers the only chance of salvation from squalor. However, unlike Stephen, or so this logic goes, most Liverpudlians are doomed to never make it, destined instead to wallow, in resentment or spite, their ‘cheeky’ humour a vent for bitterness. In a similar way, Nooney represents the projected media ideal of the scouser ‘saved’ from his roofing hell by football but who ultimately cannot escape his destiny: he’ll never quite make it. Steven, of course, is the exception that proves the rule.
Maybe this myth is also played out on a macro level with Steven G. as a perennial, and flawed, nearly man. There is certainly, if not precisely or explicitly, an anti-Liverpool discourse here, one that revels in the city’s ‘nearly’ status and its perennial failure to emerge, in footballing and prestige terms, out of the shadow of Mancunia. How we loved it when Livepool threw away the title. Will Gerrard’s trend be continued in Brazil? For this correspondent at least, it’s a shame cousin Anthony won’t be getting on the plane.
The above picture, a still from Sky Sports footage taken after Liverpool more or less relinquished their claim to the Premier League title after a zany 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace, emblematises Steven Gerrard’s sixteen-year professional career for me. The image shows him consoling a distraught Luis Suarez, shooing away a television camera attempting to film the tears of the Uruguayan striker. It captures Gerrard’s essential double bind, by which he is at once an astounding captain, a leader and motivator par excellence with genuine concern for his charges, and a simulacrum of that thing. As I wrote in 2012, Gerrard – like John Terry and Wayne Rooney – wears the ‘mask of indomitability’ masterfully; we’re left wondering constantly if there is any real to his ‘passion’ or if it is a pure mediatisation of that emotion.
As Gerrard wards the camera off, it’s possible that he’s also soliciting it. Protecting Suarez from the intrusive glare of the media is clearly the responsible thing for a captain to do, and one’s immediate response here is to think that the act denotes Gerrard’s fundamental human decency. However, a suspicion also lingers that he is comprehensively aware of this denotation, and that he needs to be seen not wanting to be seen.
Gerrard’s career is almost coterminous with the political episteme constituted by the Blair-Brown-Cameron continuum. In this period, the affective aspect of politics has intensified in precise counterpoint to a more generalised waning of affect: being seen to ‘care’, or to share in spuriously ‘common’ desires which have replaced genuine collectivity, seems to be regarded as a far safer bet electorally than possessing either proven competence or the potential for it. Simultaneously with this, the tenor of branding has shifted fundamentally, with the governing maxim no longer ‘this product is great’ but ‘this product is invested with passion’. We’re passionate about conservatories! We’re passionate about crisps! We’re passionate about dog food! However much it cloys, it is hard to believe in an individual who is not to some extent invested in aspects of these values, for who would want not to care? The ubiquity of passion is not something one can objectively decry; rather, it is key to neoliberal, or more properly late-neoliberal, interpellation. It would be too easy to say, then, that Gerrard has agency in a simulation of emotional investment: it is more accurate to admit, after Flaubert, Steven Gerrard, c’est moi.
Ask any Liverpool fan eighteen months ago what their thoughts were on Steven Gerrard, and their reply would most probably have been a heavy-hearted assertion that the club’s captain was a player out of time. Gerrard’s subsequent late-career renaissance may force us to re-examine the term, but it does retain validity, albeit with a shift of context.
If Gerrard does remain a player out of time, it is because he is an anachronism. Not in style, per se, as much as in the disparity of his talent when viewed within the prism of Liverpool’s ailing aspirations throughout the breadth of his career. Posing the question “what if Gerrard had played in the Liverpool teams of the 70s and 80s” is a seductive counterfactual, and not just for the beguiling image of Gerrard churning through the mud – all elbows and waist-high tackles – another in the contemporaneous lineage of alpha-footballers. Those decades look now, societally and sportingly, a more collective age. A time in which The Team outshone The Individual, before the post-Thatcher cult of personality that would proliferate and subsequently define the pre and postmillennial decades. A time to which Gerrard, it is fair to speculate, would have been far more suited.
Liverpool and England’s captain is often accused of rampant egoism; assigned the banter-tinged sobriquet “Stevie Me”, and cast as a committed self-mythologist flaying ‘Hollywood balls’ into touch. Yet this is a fallacy, and a lazy one at that. Despite the highlights showreels, Gerrard – his perma-crumpled brow so often giving the game away – seemingly derives little pleasure from his enforced totemism. A self-confessed worrier, bearing the expectational weight of an institution mired in habitual mediocrity has, rather than fuelling a Big-Fish ego, served only to undermine Gerrard’s game. “Give the ball to Stevie” has been a cry heard endlessly throughout the last decade and half at Anfield, Gerrard coerced into a path of relentless individualism by the lack of faith in the likes of Phillip Degen. It’s no coincidence that the two managers who bowed to this populist desire to make Gerrard the literal focal point of the team, Hodgson and Dalglish, secured the poorest return. Meanwhile, any attempts to lift this burden – most notably Rafael Benitez’s characteristically wilful iconoclasm in shifting Gerrard to the wing for a season and a half – have been met with hostility from a press and fanbase resolutely determined on lurching into Jungian archetype.
For all the spectacular moments throughout his career, it is this aspect of Gerrard that is perhaps the most intriguing. Whilst his playing style fits the modern Sky Sports paradigm of superstardom, Gerrard’s personality – burdened by introspection – resonates more closely with post-war existentialism than latter-day individualism. That this pressure manifests itself in both club and international is a particular cruelty. Had Gerrard been born in Leipzig or Livorno, for example, then the encumbering responsibility would at least have been restricted. As England captain, however, he is both symptom and exemplar of that deeply-ingrained trait within the national, as well as football, psyche: the steadfast refusal to trust the collective in a crisis. The scrambling, knee-jerk messianism that has consistently undermined the England national team for all but a brief window of its history.
Already destined to be remembered as one of the defining players of his generation, it is hard to fathom quite what Gerrard could have achieved if freed from the shackling weight of individual expectation. The late-career loss of mobility, and much vaunted work of Steve Peters (whose counter-intuitive work with Gerrard seems increasingly about psychological deprogramming) may have gone some way to precipitating a degree of enforced recalibration, but the performative Sisypheanism of an England World Cup campaign will doubtless rekindle old habits. Reluctant yet recursive, Gerrard may not be the perfect player – far from it – but he is, at least, the perfect embodiment of the travails of this England team.
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