Only now, 15 years on, can Steven Gerrard just about manage a laugh about the story of how he encountered Kevin Campbell in the gents at an Albert Dock restaurant – and how a conversation ensued in which the then Everton striker said something to the effect of: “About your tackle…”
It was the autumn of 1999, Gerrard was a 19-year-old who had become so pumped up ahead of his second Anfield derby and so intent on proving that his manager, Gérard Houllier, had been wrong to keep him on the bench that he piled into Campbell with his studs up in the game’s closing stages. As Gerrard later put it in his autobiography, he had told himself to “belt” one of the Everton players if he got on – “Fucking belt a bluenose” – and duly went in high and late on Campbell.
His dismissal – which resulted in a tunnel conversation with Everton’s Franny Jeffers, who gleefully thanked Gerrard for taking the focus off his own sending off – might have faded out of memory were it not for Liverpool’s 1-0 loss.
A home defeat to Everton is agony, he reflects now – “a complete nightmare... it’s difficult to put into words that feeling you have…” – and it made it worse all those years ago that he had booked a table at the Albert Dock for after the match, convinced that Liverpool were going to win as usual. He then felt obliged to keep the reservation and not let his friends down.
“So I went, with a face on me, and the first person I bumped into in the toilet was Campbell,” he relates. “He dropped his keks and showed me the stud-marks I’d left on his thigh. When you’re 19 and there’s a man-mountain stood in front of you with a cob on there’s only one thing you can do, so I apologised for the tackle and shook his hand.”
Little did Gerrard realise that evening that Campbell’s goal in Everton’s win would become a museum piece. The neighbours have not won at Anfield since and Campbell is also the last Everton player to score during the first half of an Anfield derby, in October 2000, 12 games ago. But little did he realise, either, the damaging events that lay ahead of him at Anfield – namely the takeover of the club by George Gillett and Tom Hicks, which would bring Liverpool to the brink of financial Armageddon and consign them to three years outside of the Champions League.
It has meant endless blank autumn weeks devoid of continental travel – and derby fixtures in which the only material significance has been which of the two Merseyside sides would appear above the other in the wilderness. Yes, says Gerrard, the sense of fear in the pit of his stomach has always been the same on derby day: “The fear of losing, not nerves or a butterfly feeling, but it is there in the days leading up to the game.
“You’re lying in bed or driving the car and your mind wonders ‘what if…?’” But it has become tempered with the knowledge that the game is merely a local affair, signifying little else. Not tonight.
Both clubs lie within view of the promised land of the Champions League and with Manchester United also on the fringes, learning how it feels to bang on the door and struggle to be heard, Gerrard does not disguise that he feels energised in a way that he has not been for several years. He says that this is his biggest Premier League derby since 2001, when Liverpool had to win to get into the Champions League.
There is an acute knowledge around Melwood, where he sits down to talk, of what rides on seeing off the Everton challenge – commercial revenues, reputation and the ability to sign and keep the players Liverpool want. “But this is the tension we want,” he says. “I’ve sat and spoken to you fellas many times before, when we’ve been nowhere near a top four race in December and January, so this is the pressure you want to be under as a player.
“If you don’t like and revel in this pressure and tension you’re at the wrong football club.” That pressure is “probably even more so at Everton with their financial situation,” he adds – an entirely valid point.
“Yeah… I’d say so,” he replies to the notion that he is happier than he has been for a number of years. He also remembers the scepticism which greeted his own claim, before his pre-season testimonial, that the club’s manager, Brendan Rodgers, was on to something with his philosophy and about to put Liverpool back at Europe’s top table.
Gerrard recalls how that claim of his seemed an isolated opinion at the time. “It felt like that to me when I spoke to you,” he says. “When I was looking at you, when I was saying that, I don’t think you looked as if you believed me.”
A far more fundamental struggle which has become a part of him – the one for justice for those 96 who died at Hillsborough, including Gerrard’s 10-year-old cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley, the tragedy’s youngest victim – will also reach a new threshold this spring, when the new inquests are held.
Gerrard has made a £96,000 donation to the Hillsborough Family Support Group and, as part of this interview, agreed for the gesture to be made public, to remind the world that the families are still campaigning and still in need of support.
“I didn’t think [the awareness] was needed when [Hillsborough] was [back] on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s minds,” he says. “But I think now it’s gone a little bit quiet the last couple of weeks and [it is time] to get it back out there, sending another message out about how we really want this justice.”
The way he values Everton fans’ support for the campaign is unmistakable: “I’m not saying that to try and get in any Everton fan’s good books because I understand my own personal rivalry with them. But it’s there for everyone to see.”
And the exceptional football rivalry continues tonight. Gerrard implied a narrow Everton mindset when he said last May that “if we finish above Everton there will be no celebrating or anything around here, because it’s nothing really. It’s no big deal. No big deal.” But Europe is at stake, this time around. Everything has changed.