24 November 2016 saw the curtain come down on what had been a fantastic career for football star Steven Gerrard, just a few days short of the 18th anniversary of his professional football debut.
A part of England’s so-called ‘Golden Generation’, Gerrard amassed 114 appearances for the national team, which puts him in fourth place, behind only David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Peter Shilton, in the Three Lions’ all-time most appearances list.
Despite completing close to 15 years as an international regular, Gerrard and his England hopefuls were never able to live up to expectations. However, his performances in a Liverpool shirt were noticeably better.
Throughout his time at Liverpool, Gerrard guided the the club to numerous FA Cup and League Cup victories, as well as the 2004/05 Champions League title. While the Premier League trophy always evaded him, he earned a number of personal honours, such as the Premier League Player of the Year award and numerous FIFA World XI inclusions, as well as the respect of greats such as Pelé and Zinedine Zidane, who once selected him to be the best player in the world.
Alongside the highs, there were also plenty of lows throughout his lengthy career. That infamous slip in 2013/14, in particular, will go down in football’s history. However, Gerrard will be best remembered as a Liverpool and England great, who inspired his teams to victory on numerous occasions.
From Bluebell to Anfield
Gerrard was born in the close-knit, yet often tough community of Huyton, Merseyside, back in 1980, where he honed his abilities playing football on the patch of concrete known to the locals as ‘The Happy Street’, which Gerrard described as ‘Anfield, Goodison and Wembley all rolled into one’.
Much of Gerrard’s brilliance was down to the fact that he never gave up - he was always fighting to win battles and games, which the midfielder believes if the result of serving as his brothers punchbag for so many years.
By the age of six, Gerrard was recognised on the Bluebell Estate, where he grew up, as a real talent, who was capable of holding his own against boys much older than him. The death of his cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley, who was one of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, a few years later only added to his mental toughness.
A year later Gerrard joined local youth team Whiston Juniors, playing alongside youngsters that were a few years his senior. The Liverpool legend revealed that his father would often pressure the coach, Ben McIntyre, to play him, which ultimately worked out in Gerrard’s favour.
McIntyre recognised that he has unearthed something special and within a year he had contacted Liverpool youth coach Dave Shannon to arrange a viewing. A handful of Liverpool’s scouts turned up to Whiston Juniors’ next match and it was down to 9-year-old Gerrard to impress the crowd.
He did just that, leaving a lasting impression on Shannon which would earn him a glowing report and an eventual place at Liverpool’s Centre of Excellence.
“You could see straight away that he was immensely talented. He had a fantastic desire to play and compete,” Shannon recalled some years later. “He wanted to be the best at everything. He was just born to be what he is. You could instantly see he was something special. He even trained with the older boys - he was fearless.”
However, his future as a professional footballer was still far from certain. With seven years ahead of him before the club needed to decide whether to offer Gerrard a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) contract, there was plenty of time ahead for Gerrard to develop his talent and subsequently make it in the world of football, or regress and miss out on a place at his dream club. For a while it seemed like it might have been the later.
His biggest disappointment came when Gerrard failed to make it into the Football Association’s England schoolboys’ team. While the likes of childhood friend Tom Culshaw and fellow Liverpool trainee Michael Owen went off to the famed Lilleshall Hall, which was home to the FA’s School of Excellence in the 1980s and 90s, Gerrard was forced to stay at home.
At the age of 13, fearing that he wouldn’t have a future at Liverpool beyond a few more years, Gerrard decided to go on trial with Manchester United. According to the former England captain, despite Sir Alex Ferguson’s later claims that Gerrard was never a ‘top, top player’, he was offered a seven year deal by Ferguson’s Red Devils.
Liverpool’s former Academy chief Steve Highway revealed that the next few years were defining moments in Gerrard’s career, as the fear of losing him to their domestic rivals prompted them to take him along on a tour of Spain with the Under 18s side, which ultimately convinced the club that Gerrard had what it took to become a professional footballer.
Aged 14, Gerrard put pen to paper on a schoolboy contract, which promised a three-year professional deal following his 17th birthday. There was still a long road ahead for the rising talent, but he was a step closer to achieving his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
Taking to the Field
Gerrard signed his professional contract a few months after his 17th birthday and within a year he was taking to the Anfield pitch to make his first ever senior appearance for Liverpool, in a Premier League game against Blackburn Rovers that would end in success for Gerard Houllier’s side, courtesy of goals from Michael Owen and Paul Ince.
Gerrard would make 12 more appearances for Liverpool throughout the remainder of the 1998/99 season. While his impact was somewhat small, he did enough to convince those in charge that he had what it takes to make it at such a historic club.
1999/2000 would be Gerrard’s year, as he stepped into the void left by Steve McManaman’s departure to Real Madrid during the summer break. Despite making 29 appearances throughout the season, niggling injuries started to hinder Gerrard’s progress. A consultation with famed sports doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, best known for his time with Bayern Munich and the German national team, revealed that Gerrard’s problems were a result of rapid growth and a strain on his bones due to over-exercising, following a childhood spent with a ball at his feet.
Muller-Wohlfahrt’s methods are often viewed as controversial, but whatever he did seemingly worked, as Gerrard was fit and ready to play in 43 Liverpool games the following season, in which he scored nine goals and provided two assists to help the club to claim the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup. His feats that season thrust him into the spotlight and earned him the PFA Young Player of the Year award.
With his first senior honours under his belt, Gerrard continued to push on over the next few years. He claimed his second League Cup winners’ medal in three years in the 2002/03 season and soon after replaced experienced defender Sami Hyypia as the club’s captain.
Aged just 23, Gerrard was was still young and largely inexperienced. However, Houllier recognised the future England captain’s leadership potential and believed that the responsibility of the job would help him to mature. His plan seemingly worked - Gerrard had committed four red card offences in his first five years as a senior Liverpool player. However, another decade in the Premier League would see him receive his marching orders on just two more occasions.
However, despite making a name for himself as a star man at Anfield, a disappointing season, which proved to be Houllier’s last in charge of the club, would cause Gerrard’s head to be turned.
A call from Mourinho
The summer of 2004 saw famed boss and recent Champions League victor Jose Mourinho arrive at Chelsea. The ‘Special One’ soon began splashing Russian owner Roman Abramovich’s many millions in the transfer market, bringing in the likes of Petr Cech, Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho - players who became vital cogs in the Chelsea machine that went on to break numerous Premier League records in what was a title-winning campaign. Although, despite their success, Mourinho’s perfect team wasn’t complete.
The Portuguese manager wanted Gerrard to line up alongside Frank Lampard and Claude Makélélé in his midfield. However, a talk with the club’s new manager, Rafa Benitez ultimately convinced him to turn down a big money move to the Blues and stay on at the club.
Liverpool went on to have one of their best seasons in recent years, as they clinched the 2005 Champions League trophy. AC Milan appeared to be running away with the cup, pulling three goals ahead by half-time. However, a goal from Gerrard in the 54th minute prompted two more in the space of six minutes to take the game to penalties, which eventually saw the tie go Liverpool’s way.
It was a historic night for the Reds, yet Gerrard struggled to ignore their poor position in the Premier League, in which they had finished in fifth place. Despite insisting that he would be staying at the club following the Istanbul final, July 5th 2005 saw the Liverpool skipper hand in a transfer record after the club rejected a £32 million offer from Chelsea.
Red shirts were burned and protests were held. However, Liverpool chiefs accepted that they had lost their star midfielder and Mourinho was odd-on to complete his dream team that summer.
Liverpool through and through
Although, Gerrard has since insisted that the request was a well-timed ploy to get the club to prove their love for their captain, as he swiftly rescinded the request and put pen to paper on a new £100,000-a-week deal with his boyhood club. While he undoubtedly toyed with the idea of switching to the London club, his love for Liverpool couldn’t be broken.
Gerrard rewarded the club the following season by putting in a PFA Player of the Year award-winning performance. While they weren’t able to wrestle the Premier League title away from Mourinho’s Chelsea side, they did end the season with silverware, having claimed the FA Cup and UEFA Super Cup. Those trophies would prove to be the club’s last for some time - they went without until 2012, when they beat Cardiff City on penalties to lift the League Cup.
By then, Gerrard had reached the age of 32 and his playing career was beginning to draw to a close. With few years at the highest level left in him, he has little time left to add the only trophy that he had failed to win to his bulky collection - the Premier League.
It seemed that the fairytale ending would come true for Gerrard after all, as a Liverpool side powered by the formidable trio of Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez formed one of the greatest attacking units that the competition has ever seen.With just three matches left to play, Liverpool topped the table and were in control of their own destiny. Only Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Newcastle stood in their way and if they could keep Chelsea out, the title would surely be theirs.
However, Gerrard would suffer one of the worst moments in his careers in that game, as he slipped over while receiving a back pass, which allowed Demba Ba to steal possession and race through on goal, before putting Chelsea ahead. That moment ultimately cost Liverpool the title and Gerrard the opportunity to add the only trophy that was missing to his collection.
A disappointing final campaign with Liverpool was followed by two years in Major League Soccer with LA Galaxy before Gerrard finally hung up his boots.
The Premier League title may have evaded him, and there is surely still a niggling thought in the back of his mind that he should have taken up Jose Mourinho’s tempting offer. Yet, regardless of what he didn’t do, Gerrard will go down in history as one of Liverpool’s greatest ever players for what he did do throughout his brilliant career.