Gerrard should have left Liverpool years ago
He was a local hero, yes. But he fell short of greatness.
I loved how Crystal Palace pissed on Steven Gerrard’s farewell parade last Saturday. Loved every minute of it. I loved how the so-called best fans in the world – as Gerrard described them – were comprehensively outsung by 2,000 travelling Palace supporters. The Kop has long since lost its mythical ability to ‘suck the ball into the net’. On Saturday, the fans were hushed – as though observing a 90-minute silence, a mark of respect for their departing captain.
The dewy-eyed, sycophantic media came to scatter rose petals at Gerrard’s feet. They desperately wanted Liverpool’s captain to score the winner with a glorious, trademark piledriver. But Palace hadn’t read the script. Nor, it seems, had Gerrard himself, who was largely anonymous in midfield. Tickets for the match were reportedly changing hands for up to £1,300. Really? Imagine shelling out £1,300 just to watch Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie boss the game? Priceless.
Why do I take such pleasure in spoiling Stevie G’s party? Well, for a start, I didn’t want Palace dutifully to fulfil the role of sacrificial lamb. But mainly it’s because I couldn’t stomach the elephantine sentimentality of the whole occasion. It was utterly nauseating. I entirely understand why Liverpool fans should want to pay a heartfelt tribute to their talismanic captain. He’s an Anfield legend. No question about it. But one of the greats? Do me a favour. Look away now if you want journalistic detachment, but I think Gerrard is massively overrated. Sir Alex Ferguson upset the red half of Merseyside when he said that Stevie G was ‘not a top, top player’. But, harsh as it might sound, I think Fergie was bang on the money.
Look, I’m not trying to suggest that Stevie G was little better than a pub footballer. There’s plenty to admire about Gerrard. He was comfortably Liverpool’s best player for a decade. He was one of the best English players of his era. He was an all-action player who could lead by example. He could impose his will on a game. He could drag his team back into matches single-handedly. He was a game-changer. A match-winner. A player who could conjure an often-spectacular goal out of nothing.
But he wasn’t a great player. Like all talented English footballers, Gerrard was over-hyped. Just like Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Joe Cole, Jack Wilshere, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane have been over-hyped. These are all very good footballers who have had messiah status projected on to them. It’s a typically English disease: a tendency prematurely to bestow greatness on players who are merely very good. Was Gerrard the greatest midfielder of his generation? I’m not sure he’d make the top 20. He’s not in the same league as Messi, Iniesta, Zidane or Pirlo. If we compare Gerrard to his Premier League contemporaries, I’d rank Scholes, Vieira, Keane and Hazard above him. Gerrard is a dynamic, attacking midfielder, but he’s not an artist. He’s often lauded for his range of passing techniques, but I reckon Modrić, Xavi, Fabregas or David Silva are far better at unlocking a well-drilled defence with a killer pass.
As I said, Gerrard had many wonderful qualities – not least his surging runs and long-range shooting. But he also had his flaws. I’m not talking about That Slip against Chelsea last season, which allowed Demba Ba to score. Anyone can lose their footing. Nor am I talking about that disastrous injury-time back pass in Euro 2004, which gifted France an undeserved winner. Accidents will happen. No, I’m talking about perennial flaws which resurfaced time and again, particularly when Gerrard was wearing the England jersey. Firstly, there were the Hollywood balls. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for a driven 40-yard pass. Occasionally, it would come off for Gerrard. But too often, when things weren’t going right, his raking long balls became the lazy default option. This invariably led to a second chronic flaw – a tendency to give the ball away. He’s not the only England player guilty of this particular vice. With the exception of Paul Scholes, English footballers are very poor at playing keep-ball, particularly under pressure. Gerrard’s third trademark flaw was his loss of discipline. This was the downside of his all-action style. When things weren’t going to plan, in his desire to make things happen Gerrard simply went hounding after the ball like a kid in a school playground. The end result was invariably that the team lost its shape and cohesion.
Gerrard is an old-fashioned football hero, a Roy of the Rovers figure. He’s a Scouser who played his entire career for the club he supported. In this respect, he’s one of a dying breed of local heroes. The fact that he resisted the temptation to leave Anfield for a shot at a title-winner’s medal endears him to those who regard modern footballers as footloose mercenaries. This partly explains the mawkish Stevie G love-in we witnessed last Saturday. I understand why Gerrard couldn’t bring himself to play for one of Liverpool’s rivals. But maybe he would have developed into a more complete footballer if he’d moved abroad. If he’d gone to ply his trade in Spain or Italy he might have developed his tactical nous. He might have cut out the headless chicken routine and learned the art of keeping possession. We’ll never know, but I can’t help thinking that, by sticking with Liverpool, Gerrard’s potential was never completely fulfilled.
‘Have you ever seen Gerrard win the league?’, taunted the Palace fans. But after mocking him throughout the game, the visiting fans stood to applaud at the final whistle. That’s how it should be. He was a fantastic servant to club and country. Of course we should applaud him. But we shouldn’t revere him or canonise him. Steven Gerrard was a very good footballer. But, like many of the so-called Golden Generation, he fell short of greatness.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @DuleepOffside
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.