Belfast Telegraph

Steven Gerrard: Liverpool legend leaves with pride intact

Declining influence threatened to tarnish Reds captain’s legacy

By Vincent Hogan

Maybe this is what he needs to escape now, the roiling chorus of the blind.

Steven Gerrard is down on one knee, stretching. He is 20 yards from them but his proximity stirs up sparks of ridicule among the Stoke City supporters.

They sing about him being "sat on his a*** in the stand" and Gerrard smiles.

This is the sound of his new world. Peter Crouch hunkers down next to him and they chat amiably, enemy lines momentarily suspended. But Gerrard's eyes keep sliding towards that bristling corner of Anfield.

Because some have begun barking at him like deranged yaks now and one semi-functioning idiot in a replica shirt has rushed to the front, giving him the finger.

Why? For much the same reason grown men will stand next to their sons, making offensive gestures at an opposition player taking a corner. No reason.

Anger doesn't need an explanation here.

Gerrard waves before retreating quickly to a seat in the stand. It is the last Saturday in November and he has become expendable to Liverpool.

They win by the only goal of a wretchedly poor game, the club captain used only in the closing flurries.

And leaving the stadium, you have to remind yourself that the day's struggle has been against Stoke.

That the wilful derision of, arguably, Liverpool's finest player has come from supporters with no history of enmity in these parts.

He has been fair game simply because he is Steven Gerrard. A god of the game declining.

Perhaps yesterday's announcement will soften that impulse to goad, but would you bet on it?

Gerrard, somehow, polarises opinion. To Liverpool supporters, he will forever be revered for dragging unexceptional teams to extravagant heights. But to opponents, he often seemed to be seen as some kind of Pound Shop superhero, an imitation of the real thing.

He was never a conventional central midfielder, something only Rafa Benitez seemed to fully comprehend.

It was under the Spaniard that his talent found truest expression, playing just behind a lone striker, the red-hot Fernando Torres.

That was Gerrard in his pomp, running, gazelle-like, between the lines in support of a player blessed with similar virtues.

Athleticism was fundamental of the Gerrard-Torres (pictured) partnership and its slow diminishment demanded a re-invention of both.

Torres has not looked like a serious player since leaving Liverpool, but Gerrard's sheer competitive integrity could never countenance that kind of fade-out and he has managed to remain a compelling Premier League force, towing Liverpool around by the heart even when being played in roles at odds with his natural game.

His spirit has been magnificent even if the great fire of his talent began to leave little more on the big games than the faintest residues of ash.

For Brendan Rodgers, the hardest thing has surely been in striking a balance between recognition of what was unfolding before him and paying due respect to a man who gave his soul to the club.

Some of what unfolded yesterday was a little mawkish, a little over-egged.

Twenty six of Gerrard's team-mates posted tributes to him on the club's website as if he had been suddenly struck down with chronic illness rather than simply chosen to end his professional career in some gentle, convalescent home like Major League Soccer in the US.

Jamie Carragher, a fellow club favourite and one of Gerrard's closest friends, argued that Liverpool might have done more to keep him at Anfield.

But to what end exactly? As a ghost of himself? As some grand gesture of denial, his legs gone but his past still casting that great, imperious shadow?

The worry for Rodgers of course is that Gerrard, even the pale imitation he has become, remains the one, authentically talismanic presence in the current Liverpool dressing-room.

He alone took the fight to Basel when their Champions League status was on the line last month because he alone seemed technically equipped to do so.

Take him out of that dressing-room and around who, exactly, will Rodgers's team be glued?

Worse, without him to sell the idea of a glorious Anfield future looming, who will now shield someone like Raheem Sterling from those fluttering Madrid eyelids?

Rodgers is immersed in crisis management and he knows the decision to allow Gerrard to leave will add to the rap sheet against him should, as seems likely now, Liverpool lose the riches of top four status.

But if he could not guarantee anything more than a future of touchline warm-ups in front of the mob, what decision was there really left to make?

Gerrard will leave, but he will - in time - return too, dignity intact.

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