From the sport which has been devoured by money and by its own raging ego comes the latest chapter in what might be a story of beautiful virtue.
Liverpool Football Club are this weekend seeking to stay on course to become English champions for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, just as a reckoning is coming for the 96 lives that were lost at Hillsborough in that same era.
The circularity of it all is made even finer by the club’s captain, who draws the two strands together. Steven Gerrard lived Hillsborough in the raw. His cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley, with whom he embarked on many a game on Huyton’s Bluebell estate in Liverpool’s eastern overspill – Gilhooley in his Liverpool shirt, Gerrard in his Paul Gascoigne England replica – was the stadium disaster’s youngest victim: 10 years old when he died. Football has its fill of fake emotion, crocodile tears and “kissing the badge”. But when a tear-streaked Gerrard emerged from the euphoria of Liverpool’s victory over Manchester City last Sunday, the cause of the emotion, 48 hours before Anfield’s 25th anniversary Hillsborough commemoration, barely needed inquiring about.
Gerrard, who is 33, is a throwback to older, simpler times, too: a one-club, home-club player who belongs to a diminishing breed of footballer disinclined to communicate his injuries, world views and the merit of his commercial sponsors through Twitter. He is a national leader now – captain of the England team which competes in Brazil in six weeks’ time – yet remains an introspective, sometimes tortured soul who wears a deeply furrowed brow and could never bring himself to leave his club and his home city.
A first England call-up, 14 years ago, left him so nervous that he nearly turned over the Honda his father had lent him for the occasion; his homesickness when called up for Kevin Keegan’s Euro 2000 squad was so profound that he initially resolved to pack up his bags and fly home.
It was an insecurity born of rejection. Gerrard’s failure to make the Football Association’s old Lilleshall academy – where his infinitely more extrovert friend and former teammate Jamie Carragher earned a place – was a source of devastation, for which a kind of catharsis came seven months later when a Lilleshall XI played the Liverpool Academy, for whom he played. In his own words, Gerrard “battered” them. “I smashed Lilleshall’s midfield to pieces, absolutely shredded them,” he said years later. “Into every tackle I poured all my frustration at being ignored.”
Therein lies the raw, survivor’s instinct, equally evident when he was charged with affray over a punch-up in a Southport bar, five years ago, for which he was acquitted. Only recently did he tell the full story of being sent off in one of his first Merseyside derbies, after taking out the frustration of being a mere substitute on Everton’s striker Kevin Campbell – piling into him with his studs up, when finally sent on to play. The then 19-year-old Gerrard was excruciated later that day to bump into Campbell in the gents at an Albert Dock restaurant, where – as Gerrard told it in memorable Liverpool vernacular – “he dropped his keks and showed me the stud-marks I’d left on his thigh”. Gerrard’s apology was accepted.
Reconciliation has not always been so easy to find. Though the city’s other club, Everton, embraced the Hillsborough tragedy more than ever at this week’s commemoration, Gerrard has taken the worst of the vitriol from that team’s fans. Their chants about his wife Alex – the mother of their three daughters, whom he met on a night out in Liverpool 12 years ago – have been vindictive and disgusting.
For all that, Gerrard decided long ago that he would never play anywhere else – though the two angst-ridden summers he spent agonising over that decision said more about his complex mind. The stagnation of outdated, family-owned Liverpool became the problem. The 2003/4 Premier League table, which left Liverpool 30 points behind champions Arsenal, devastated him and the speculation that he would leave in the ensuing summer for a Chelsea newly enriched by Roman Abramovich was a source of desperate worry. The Manchester United player who came knocking on his door at England’s European Championships base in Lisbon didn’t help. “Come and join us at Old Trafford,” said Gary Neville.
The rumour which has stuck stubbornly ever since is that death threats received by Gerrard’s father, Paul, kept him out of Chelsea’s hands. Gerrard has always denied that, though the instructions he received from his father revealed what an inward-looking republic Liverpool can be at times. “Steven. You are not going anywhere. I don’t want you to go.”
The lure of London was even stronger when, after the delirium of leading his club to their most incredible triumph – against AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul – Liverpool decided to make his new contract negotiations a drawn-out game of cat and mouse. Gerrard tabled a transfer request to shake the club out of their inertia but, characteristically, he was the one who suffered because of it. Traumatised by TV pictures of fans burning a replica shirt with his name on it, he had to summon the family doctor, who arrived to find Gerrard in his bedroom, being helped through a state of distress by his father and paracetamol. Gerrard stayed.
More disappointments were to follow, including American owners who almost took Liverpool into insolvency and the failed managerial comeback of Kenny Dalglish – a huge image of whom Gerrard’s father once heaved up to the family home at Ironside Road, on the Bluebell, and handed over for the boy’s bedroom wall.
And then came reward for all the years of waiting: the resuscitation of Gerrard’s once-great club by Brendan Rodgers, a young, modern manager from Northern Ireland who has used his considerable powers of motivation to put Liverpool together again. Gerrard’s recent articulation of how Rodgers, only eight years his senior, had helped him, revealed the value of having a boss who understood the contours of his complex mind. “His one-to-one management is the best I have known. He makes you go out on to the pitch feeling a million dollars,” Gerrard said. Rodgers’ use of Dr Steve Peters, a successful sports psychiatrist, is something Gerrard gratefully seized upon.
Liverpool’s game at Norwich City tomorrow is only a preface to Chelsea’s arrival at the old Anfield stadium next weekend for an occasion of greater significance. But Gerrard memorably declared this week that East Anglia is Liverpool’s new Istanbul. And beyond all of it lies Brazil – where the Football Association has decided to take Dr Peters. Liverpool, England and Gerrard dare to dream.
A life in brief
Born: 30 May 1980, Whiston, Merseyside.
Family: Parents are Paul and Julie Gerrard. Married to model Alex Curran, with whom he has three daughters.
Education: Attended St Michael’s Primary School, Huyton, and Cardinal Heenan High School, West Derby.
Career: Liverpool debut in 1998, so far making 471 appearances, scoring 111 goals, and winning League Cup, FA Cup and European Cup winners’ medals. He has won 109 England caps, making his debut in 2000 and will captain the team in this summer’s World Cup.