Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure once claimed to be “trying to solve the mysteries of football” just as physicists attempt to demystify the universe; a towering Ivorian in an ivory tower. The ultimate goal of such efforts, Toure went on to claim, is “to leave no room for doubt or chance” on the football pitch. It is curious, therefore, that the very footballer who at his peak arguably most resembled Toure in style, should be renowned so greatly for both his insecurity and his impulsiveness. At a time when, like Toure, sport constantly seeks to narrow the margins using statistics, conditioning and simulations, Steven Gerrard’s departure from the limelight feels like one of the dying embers of a bygone, markedly more romantic sporting age.
In talking of Gerrard, we are talking of someone who claims he was “born to steam into tackles”; an approach to tackling as emotive as it is unashamedly amateurish. There is no apparent consideration of wider tactics here from Gerrard, no Toure-esque desire to eliminate chance from the footballing picture. Rather, it is tackling for the sheer joy of tackling, ‘amateurish’ in the literal sense of the term. Granted, from the perspective of the Liverpool teams Gerrard has played for, this approach has been far from ideal. Indeed, Gerrard’s tackling indiscipline in his early Anfield days was a genuine source of worry for his coaches. An angry cloud of red-card red-mist briefly threatened to derail a career that was otherwise on-track and brimming with nuggets of gold, including a truly memorable first Liverpool goal against Sheffield Wednesday.
The point here, though, is that the golden moments that have so illuminated Gerrard’s career could not have occurred without this tendency to self-destruct. Both the implosive rash tackles and the explosive moments of brilliance have derived from a seemingly insatiable wish to prove himself. In his autobiography, he recounts a game for the Liverpool academy versus Lilleshall, the national academy who rejected him. The line “’This will show them what they rejected’ as I crunched another set of shin-pads” just about sums up several pages devoted to the fixture and his feelings towards it. Yet his emotion was not just channelled negatively: Gerrard had played well enough that “every one of their players ran over at the end to shake my hand”.
Later on, doubts over his future at Liverpool while still in the academy made him feel “my head was about to explode”, and that receiving his consequent professional contract was like “emerging from a dark tunnel”. He states that, prior to the 2000/2001 season, “the pressure was on, big-time. I had to produce”. Of the 2004/2005 Champions League group stages, his attitude was “I had to get the team there (to the next round). Can’t let the team down”. Of the final against Milan, simply “I must take responsibility. I must step up”. The picture emerging is of a sportsman ruled predominantly by emotion; an old-school romantic in an era where science has never held more sway in sport. His game is fuelled by self-doubt and self-imposed responsibility. The very first time Rafael Benitez met Gerrard, he told him “Your problem is you run around too much”. Jamie Carragher, present in the room, recalls that he “stared at Stevie and could see the deflation”.
Indeed, when one looks back closely over Gerrard’s career, the several infamous errors in big games all seem to stem from this very problem. There was the misplaced back-pass to Thierry Henry at Euro 2004 that handed France opening-game victory, where victory had been England’s only minutes earlier. The own-goal against Chelsea in the 2005 League Cup final that proved the winner, for Chelsea. The slip against the same club which arguably cost Liverpool the league title Gerrard has so openly craved, and which, to much internet mirth, imbued the otherwise tired footballing cliché of the ‘fall guy’ with surprising substance. And, of course, the header at last year’s World Cup that landed, an occurrence lashed with irony, at the feet of his then-clubmate Luis Suarez. In all four cases, Gerrard adopts the position of a central defender with defenders nevertheless present, taking up a mantle which, tactically and positionally speaking, really doesn’t need taking up at all. In this way, Gerrard is not merely a Romantic sporting hero who bears the burden of extreme responsibility. He is also a tragic sporting hero – hugely gifted, yet possessive of an occasionally fatal flaw.
For better and for worse, then, Gerrard has been a relentless, rampaging field marshal amidst a modern sporting culture of squad rotation and strict positional discipline. His decision to leave Liverpool comes at a time when the speed of sport has never been greater, aided by ever-more advanced physical conditioning. It is no coincidence that as Gerrard’s on-pitch influence at Liverpool has slowly descended from his 2005/2006 peak, Premier League football has supposedly quickened by 20%. As the speed of elite-level sport continues to rise, the scope for elite-level sportspeople to compete with the same omnipresent wanderlust as Gerrard will only continue to narrow. Where economy of movement is becoming key, the all-action chivalry of Gerrard’s peak years is being rendered merely quixotic.
Of course, insofar as sport is about winning, there is nothing wrong with eschewing romanticism for science. Statistics, conditioning, nutrition, simulations – they can all help gain the edge over opponents. The main reason Yaya Toure sits up in his ivory tower, after all, is to gain a better view of the enemy down on the field. Indeed, Toure deserves great credit for his willingness to think about sport in more depth than most. But sport is also, primarily, about entertainment. And, with all his insecurity, impulsiveness and sheer romantic inspiration, there is arguably no other sportsperson in the world who provides the same entertainment Gerrard has over the last 17 years. Come the summer, and his Stateside sojourn to LA, he will be missed.