I give you Steven Gerrard in the 91st minute of an FA Cup final that will one day bear his name, in the yellow light of memory, in the dying seconds of a 62-game season, Liverpool down three to two, ten red shirts riddled with cramp, and Steven Gerrard’s waiting for the ball to break, limping to it like a thirst-blinded traveller in a desert mirage, thinking I have nothing left, but swishing his right foot anyway, the ball charged by some electric power he’ll never quite explain, thirty-seven yards eaten up in a single held breath, the net rippling like water, the TV screaming: 3 - 3.
I give you Steven Gerrard on the banks of the Bosporus, sitting in the quiet sadness of the dressing room, three goals lost before half time, saying to himself: I’ll be in tears before the end of tonight, but soon enough he’s back in that fragrant Turkish dusk, and just nine minutes later meets a Hail Mary cross with his desperate head, and as the ball arches in, and the goalkeeper grasps at nothing, Gerrard turns to the Liverpool fans and thrusts his arms in adrenaline-driven circles, as if telling them: believe in me, believe in miracles because I do.
I give you Steven Gerrard in the hostile cities of England – in Manchester and London, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, Goodison Park and those famous nights abroad – on the radio, on television, in the newspapers, in person, the beating heart of a club made real, always central to the story whether good or bad, wanting the ball, wanting responsibility, wanting to pass, tackle, shoot, save if he could, and on some days really doing them all, kissing the badge, living his dream, Steven Gerrard, playing a game.
I give you a boy twenty-five years earlier on a scruffy grey expanse of the Bluebell Estate in Huyton, the ball at his feet, five-a-side, ten-a-side, twenty-a-side, shootie, World Cup, just a scrap of skin and bones, playing hour after hour until his mum shouts, Stevie, time’s up, come in. The boy, now a man, looks back at that square of tarmac outside ten Ironside Road, and can’t help but think it was put there for a reason. He’s convinced of it. That someone was showing him the way, a silent voice high above his Merseyside cul-de-sac, saying, go on lad, make football your life.
So that’s where the fire first burned, and now the boy is playing with a new pack of boys – all three years older – and everyone can see he’s different, special. He’s tiny, but they all want him on their side. It’s the end of the day and the sunlight is falling behind the red terraced houses. The boy gets the ball, and BANG, he’s on the floor. He’s younger, but the other boys don’t hold back. They crunch him again and again until it’s not a game anymore. They keep going as the street lights flicker like sparklers. Later, the boy hobbles back into number ten covered in grazes and cuts, and his mum takes one look and asks why he can’t stop smiling.
I give you that same boy, Steven Gerrard, in the Vernon Sangster Sports Centre, eight years old, side-stepping tackles, driving forward, getting in shots at goal, and Steve Heighway, director of Liverpool’s academy, looking on. Heighway stares at the boy and then at his coaches and doesn’t say a thing. Sometimes a kid comes in and the talent just smacks him in the face. He never has a doubt - the boy’s gift is too big. They don’t come along very often, but Heighway knows this one will make it.
And he does: Steven Gerrard, eighteen years old and playing for Liverpool. Steven Gerrard, walking out in front of forty-thousand fans, touching the This is Anfield sign like it gives him power. He takes a starting place in Liverpool’s midfield from Paul Ince and stays there for the next seventeen years. He’s named captain at twenty-three and plays in front of the Kop with an unrelenting fury not even his father can explain. He wins the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup in 2001, and is named PFA Young Player of the Year, but still some days he has to stop his car and shake his head and repeat to himself: I’m captain of Liverpool Football Club. He helps lead the team to a fifth European Cup in 2005 and in six second-half minutes runs and harries with such intensity that he seems possessed by all the history that came before him: Rome 77, Wembley 78, Paris 81, Rome 84. The match ends and he has nothing left to give. He’s white as a sheet and shaking uncontrollably. Grown men cry in the stands. He is one of them. A bridge. Walk across him. Cut him and see. Open a vein and watch him bleed Liverpool red.
And he keeps winning: the UEFA Super Cup in 2005, another FA Cup in 2006, the League Cup in 2012. He captains England. Plays with the same fire in white as he does in red. The years pass and the personal accolades keep rolling in. UEFA Club Footballer of the Year in 2005, PFA Player of the Year in 2006, England Player of the Year in 2007 and 2012. Even the Queen puts a medal over his shoulders in 2007 - an MBE, Steven Gerrard, that working class lad from Huyton, Member of the Order of the British Empire.
But there’s always one thing just out of reach, the thing he wants most, the league title, been twenty-five years and counting, not since 1990 have Liverpool fans been able to call themselves champions of England. And as his goodbye draws close, his commitment grows into a kind of mania, Steven Gerrard, a man out of time, Steven Gerrard, looking at the clock, Steven Gerrard raging at teammates, fans, the media, anyone close enough to hear him, Steven Gerrard, raging against the dying of the light.
And for a moment, it all comes together. The twenty-fifth anniversary of Hillsborough. Liverpool three Manchester City two. This is a man that writes his own scripts. He leads a huddle in front of the Kop. Has to wipe away the tears before he speaks. LISTEN, LISTEN, THIS IS GONE NOW, he says. EVERY GAME THE SAME. EVERY. GAME. THE. SAME. THIS DOES NOT FUCKING SLIP. Only it does. He does. There’s a door and someone on the other side waiting, and he can’t quite reach them without losing his balance. Liverpool nil Chelsea two. The dream dies. Mourinho runs across the pitch. The next home game, when his name is announced and Steven Gerrard steels himself for a smattering of boos, the fans stand up and applaud - they give him the same ovation as always.
See why? Winner or loser, the man cares. Steven Gerrard cares. Never backed down from anyone in his life - not a tackle, not Patrick Vieira, not Roy Keane, not Zinedine Zidane, not Alex Ferguson, not seventy-thousand fans calling for his head. And they love him for it. They hang pictures of him in barbers and restaurants and on bedroom walls all over Liverpool - all over the country. A Steven Gerrard cult. Hundreds of thousands of people that will bawl the day he retires.
So, I give you a boy – me – and a group of boys from my neighbourhood – Mark, Mike, Chris, the two Garys. All of us – each of us - pretending to be someone else: David Beckham passing to Eric Cantona, or Paul Gascoigne dribbling past Roy Keane, or Michael Owen bearing down on Peter Schmeichel in the final minute of a hot summer evening in suburban Somerset as the light turns timid over freshly-cut lawns.
In our town’s football league, I play central midfield. I wear a shirt two sizes too big and socks covered in tape. The tape is meant to keep them up, but it does more than that. It says, watch out, this boy is serious, and I am, I’m committed. It’s all I have, really. A bit of pace, a good engine, and an ability to run and run. When the team starts out shaky or concedes an early goal – the manager calls us back together, kicks the mud in frustration, passes round the Lucozade. Do you bloody want it? he says, I don’t think you want it. SHOW ME YOU WANT IT! So I do. The whistle goes and I throw myself into challenges, churn that pitch up like a German panzer. I’m not big, but kids bounce off me like I’m repelling magnets. We always stop at McDonalds on the way home, and sometimes, as I sit with my sisters eating, my knees a muddy, crusted grey, I wonder where this switch inside me comes from.
So, naturally, my man is Steven Gerrard. How could it not be? How could a skinny, lonely twelve-year-old boy not identify with another skinny kid just six years older, playing with Fowler, McManaman, James, Redknapp, Owen, all my heroes, and doing it with the same serious, pained expression I’d been wearing in the Yeovil and District league for years? Just playing in Steven Gerrard’s position bestows some of his magic on me. Each wild lunge, each technicolour bruise, is in honour of Steven Gerrard. Each 50-50 committed to without fear brings a boy closer to a dream already being lived 220 miles away. Each raking long pass that finds its target says: wait a minute, me and Gerrard, we’re not so different are we?
On special nights during these long years of youth, my friends and I watch Liverpool on television. When Gerrard takes the field and shakes hands without blinking, or when he steps up for a penalty and not a single breath seems to escape his lips, we watch. We watch him excavate earth like a drill, arms and rangy legs driving backwards and forwards as pistons, eyes always hard and squinting, yet further down his feet light and agile, like a ballerina’s, like how you see yourself in a dream. And when Liverpool really need him, he appears. He can see things happen before they happen, like he’s empty and these moments make him whole. Predestined, in a way. And when I went to bed, ecstatic with victory, I could never sleep - would be up for hours in my room, alone, my teenage brain thinking: what is it that I’m predestined for?
And there is one magnificent night – December 8, 2004 – when I am much older, seventeen now, when Steven Gerrard has another vision, everything stopping around him, the background melting into a blur, and the same voice saying, keep your head still, weight over the ball, make good contact, and there’s never any doubt, the ball explodes away in certainty, an arrow from the heavens, and Liverpool beat Olympiakos by two clear goals, against all odds they are through. At the stadium, there is nothing but bedlam. OOOOHYYYYYAAAABEAUTY, WHAT A HIT SON, WHAT A HIT, the TV says, and in this terraced council house, where the fire is brown and electric and burning in an early winter chill, a boy is off the sofa, two beers to the wind, pumping his fists and laughing at the beauty. They show it again and again, and by the end, I’m certain, there’s no other explanation for it: the man’s something holy.
So I give you a boy and a neighbourhood of boys and a town full of boys. I give you them growing up and moving away, their friendships weakening, cracking, life moving on. A decade passes in a flash. Old memories that were once so bright now stand in the mind like photographs, only a single frame viewable at a time. Steven Gerrard’s still there when he’s needed, but he means less. The boys have reached a new part of lives, where they can resurrect themselves as the people they most want to be. They are now teachers and firemen, warehouse workers and drivers. Some are buried too soon, others are fathers, or fathers to be, or have dreams of kids. I live somewhere else, and sometimes I want to go back, but I know there’s nothing left for me.
I’m not sure how I heard the news – maybe it came on the radio, or I read it in a newspaper. I was sad he was leaving, but it didn’t really register. It wasn’t until the last home game at Anfield that the feelings came to me like a bullet through the chest. The truth is I’ve only had one hero in my life, and his small death signals a hundred other little deaths – of childhood, the noughties, an era in football, of that silly belief that death is something for other people.
So what do you do when your hero suddenly stands in front of the Kop, three daughters in his arms, and waves goodbye?
You go after him.
You enter your own late twenties and you go back and try to piece together the man behind the myth you’ve created.
So I give you a boy and a man, a son and a father. I give you Steven Gerrard, eighteen years old, not nerveless on his debut, but shitting himself. Only five minutes left and he’s playing right-back. Liverpool two nil up and Steven Gerrard’s looking at the crowd and can almost hear them asking: who’s that skinny little twat. He touches the ball once, heart jumping out of his skin, and looks at the ref. Blow the fucking whistle, he thinks. Blow it. And he does. But not before he’s been played in down the right, set up perfectly, the ball gagging to be crossed. Forty-thousand pairs of eyes burn into him. He’s trained his whole life for this moment, and Steven Gerrard always delivers. He takes a deep breath, says a little prayer, and hits the cross so hard and high the ball almost clears the Century Stand. Shit.
So I give you Steven Gerrard, 709 appearances for Liverpool, 118 caps for England, but still crippled by homesickness, sitting alone in a hotel room near a forest in Spa, Belgium, staring deep into that thick fir darkness and doing all he can to stop himself from screaming. He wants to be home, wants to get on a plane and sit back down on the sofa at ten Ironside Road, watch Mum get tea, talk to Dad about football, muck about with Paul, his best mate and brother. He’s a homebody, and that never changes. Days later he comes on against Germany with England winning one nil, spends thirty minutes snarling, eyes lit up, letting the old enemy have it - England’s future, the papers call him - but as soon as he’s back in his hotel room, the black hole opens again, and he wants to pack his bags and run.
If you think about it, that anxiety defines his career. It’s the bile rising in the pit of his stomach when he’s substituted. It’s the nights before the games where he can’t sleep for thinking about tomorrow. It’s that relentless urge to stay in the glare a little longer when all around him are burning. It’s in the knowledge that all of this shouldn’t have been possible, not a second of it, and if he lets up for even a single minute, the whole world will stop spinning, and he’ll be asked to get off. Even on May 17 2015, when it seems like half the city has squeezed into Anfield to say goodbye, when all the songs and banners are just for him, even then he’s afraid of breaking down and showing too much. He talks of dread and devastation and doesn’t cry, though everybody else does.
So I give you Steven Gerrard, picking himself up in the half-light of injury time, looking at the fans and thinking, never, ever let them down. I give you Steven Gerrard, the weight of a city on his shoulders, so hyped before a game he can’t tie his shoelaces. I give you Steven Gerrard in the house alone, fidgeting, restless, reaching for the phone, anything to stop the heaviness creeping in. I give you Steven Gerrard holding tiny hands, tiny feet – Lexi, Lilly-Ella and Lourdes - and nothing on the pitch ever matching that feeling.
I give you a man more like me than I’d ever realised. Not a hero, not a punchline, but a man. Not good, not bad, but a man.
A man finally walking on (through the storm, with his head held high…), football his air, but gone now (seeing a golden sky, with hope in his heart) and somehow still breathing.