Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 April 2014

Gerrard's long wait for final at 'Anfield South' is over

The camera swept across of a row of middle-aged men in the directors' box – Ian Rush, Alan Hansen, Phil Thompson and Jan Molby. It says something for the cold, almost arrogant way they surveyed English football that the footballers around whom Kenny Dalglish built his Liverpool used to refer to Wembley as "Anfield South". Dalglish won his first trophy outside Scotland, the 1978 European Cup final beneath its towers and 11 years later he steered the club through its greatest trauma to win what became known as the Hillsborough Final.

Steven Gerrard has long been Dalglish's natural successor, not in terms of how he plays but in what he represents and how he inspires and yet it says something for Liverpool's relative decline that next month's final against Cardiff City will be his first taste of the rebuilt Empire Stadium in a Liverpool shirt.



Just as you reach Anfield's directors' seats there are photographs of Gerrard holding the European and FA Cups won in Istanbul and Cardiff. There has been nothing since and, lately, not even the suggestion of one. He said before scoring in his fourth successive semi-final – all of which Liverpool have won – that he would "drive himself crazy" if he thought of the resources that might have been made available to him at other clubs but he would scarcely have been human had he not paced his house on the Fylde coast and pondered Jose Mourinho's question whether he wanted to know what it was like to win a championship.



Now he has determined he will never leave Anfield by signing a fresh contract, it is unlikely he will ever be able to answer Mourinho's question, posed when the riches of Stamford Bridge were being dangled in front of him. Dalglish may have dragged Liverpool back from the desperate mediocrity into which they have sunk but they are not yet convincing Champions League contenders, let alone championship material as the way Edin Dzeko was allowed to stroke home Manchester City's second goal demonstrated.



With its banners, the overwhelming belief in its own history and its sheer noise, Anfield is perhaps Europe's most inspiring venue which may be why before tonight, Liverpool had lost only one of 30 semi-finals here. When Gerrard went up to take the penalty for an equaliser on a dramatic, breathless night, the stadium was filled by his name being chanted wave upon wave.



It is very hard to sing songs for Craig Bellamy and yet, perhaps more than Gerrard, he was the architect of this victory. When he shot left-footed to beat the massively impressive Joe Hart it provoked the sight of the night; thousands of red scarves hurled around the Kop.



For all its talk of "team spirit" and the tired adage of "playing together, losing together", football needs loners like Bellamy, whose upbringing in the Splott, a district of Cardiff as unlovely as it sounds, echoes Gerrard's in Huyton. Amid the debacle that overtook Liverpool at Bolton on Saturday night, Bellamy was the only one of Dalglish's players who visibly attempted to fight against the tide.



Margaret Rutherford, who was the original dotty Miss Marple, said of eccentrics that they "have their own quality of madness and that in the final analysis they will be the saints". She was talking of her cousin, Tony Benn, but Bellamy possesses a quality of madness that successive managers, including Roberto Mancini, have found it hard to harness and yet when they have kept faith with him the rewards have sometimes been immense.



A few days after he had taken a golf club to John Arne Riise on what was supposed to be a team-bonding excursion, Rafael Benitez picked Bellamy for Liverpool's Champions League encounter with Barcelona, saw him score and then slide across the soft earth of Catalonia. The grass of Anfield would have felt the same.