Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Supreme battler Steve Gerrard is desperate to end career on high at World Cup

Talisman: Steven Gerrard hopes to fire England to World Cup glory

Steven Gerrard may well be in the last-chance saloon, but no one can deny he has been impressively emphatic while placing his order. Rarely, surely, has anyone in such a perilous place ever said, 'Set 'em up Joe,' with quite such ferocious optimism.

With his spot in the Brazilian World Cup finally booked, and with Liverpool, who travel to Newcastle United on Saturday, headily occupying joint leadership of the Premier League, he concedes readily enough that he is charging into the fading light of a career still besieged by more questions than answers.

Yet if the deepest argument about Gerrard's true status in the game remains unresolved – was he, is he, a truly significant player or merely the carrier of great but ultimately undelivered promise? – there are times when the player, who has now won more England caps (107) than the legendary Bobby Charlton, does claim a unique distinction.

It is as the owner, deep into his 34th year, of a passionate belief that if you fight and run hard enough, long enough, you might just get to the place for where you have always yearned.

You might be able to say that you made it in the end, that you did all you could, sometimes in the most unpromising circumstances, and that if you didn't win that elusive title for the only club you have ever known, or taken England a little way back to their old status as a serious national side, it wasn't because there was a moment when you didn't care.

That certainly was the Gerrard who inflicted himself again at Wembley this week when, with just a few minutes to go, he produced the momentum to guarantee passage to Brazil.

Before the victory over Polish visitors who at times were conspicuously more coherent in his own area of the pitch, Gerrard spoke of the haunting memory of the defeat by Croatia in the same stadium which so shockingly denied England a place in the 2008 Euro finals.

"It is a memory," he said, "that I will have to take to the grave – the lowest point in my international journey. Getting to Brazil, doing the job asked of me by Roy Hodgson, will help a lot."

Short of that achievement there would, of course, have been other points of weighty consolation.

Anyone who saw him celebrate Liverpool's 2005 Champions League triumph – his medal was still around his neck with the arrival of the Istanbul dawn – has the unshakeable memory of a young sportsman awash with bliss.

And when, a few years later, Rafa Benitez got his closest to a Premier League title, there was no question that of all his assets the most consistent was the blazing commitment of Gerrard.

Nor are two FA Cup medals, three League Cup wins and a Uefa Cup title exactly the baggage of a serial loser.

Yet it is not hard to understand what appears to be the relentless nagging of Gerrard's need to end his career on at least one point of substantial achievement.

A title win, so soon after Brendan Rodgers' discovery that his job was not to improve the Liverpool team but remake it, is maybe asking too much when you consider the more established strength of such as Manchester City and Chelsea and the rediscovered vigour of Arsenal.

"No one needs to tell us how much work there is to do," Gerrard says, "and while I wouldn't say we will not give the title challenge a real go, maybe a top-four place is a more realistic ambition.

"But then after some tough times, there is a real feeling that we are on the way back. I've devoted a lot of years to Liverpool and this is a great feeling to have at this point in my career."

With the creativity of playmaker Philippe Coutinho about to be restored after shoulder surgery and Jordan Henderson beginning to provide hints on why he cost so much when he left Sunderland, Liverpool's dependence on Gerrard in midfield has become less marked, which may ultimately prove both good for the player and the team.

To tolerate such an idea has been grounds for heresy charges in the past.

It offended the belief that Gerrard was not only a key member of England's mythical golden generation, but also one of the world's most outstanding midfielders.

Time has, though, perhaps lent a degree of perspective.

Never in question has been the explosive quality of Gerrard, his capacity for volcanic eruption, the game-changing strike, the relentless, ambitious run that ultimately put the Poles to the sword.

Yet did Gerrard ever display the consistent craft and subtlety of the transforming Mesut Ozil at Arsenal? Did he ever pick open a defence with the sweet nuances of a natural-born creator?

No, that cannot be claimed on his behalf.

While it is true he led England with a fine combative zeal in last year's Euros – and delivered the extraordinary cross which allowed his erstwhile Liverpool team-mate Andy Carroll to head home against Sweden – he was not, and never has been, the classic midfield general.

Now he heads back to football's biggest stage – he missed the 2002 finals with injury – with the old implacable belief that something might just turn up.

No doubt he will contribute to Liverpool's renaissance in precisely the same battling spirit.

It is simply the way he is and the way he should be judged.

However deep the assessment, it is at least one indelible mark of his greatness.

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