Our six year old son, Ezra, only pretends to watch Liverpool games with me. It is his way of indulging his father – or, more precisely, his father’s lifelong love for Liverpool Football Club (FC). For ten minutes, anyway, Ezra will sit next to me and make vague noises; for his troubles, Ezra already has an impressive array of number 8 Liverpool FC shirts. However, when it comes to Stevie Gerrard, Ezra knows that something of consequence is at stake. At the very least, this is what he has picked up from me. It is a source of tremendous pride to me, then, that when I say “Stevie,” Ezra has, since he was 3, been able to complete the trinity of proper nouns. “George Gerrard,” Ezra intones, looking earnestly for Stevie on the pitch, although Ezra’s favorite number is 10. “Steven George Gerrard,” my son knows what he means.
And this is what makes the announcement of his impending departure, most probably to the LA Galaxy of the US’s Major League Soccer the source of such profound difficulty for me. I must, of course, but I cannot, I (absolutely) will not, conceive of a Liverpool FC team without Stevie. It is possible to rationalize his decision to leave. The time is probably right; better for him to leave now than cut a lonely figure on the bench; the greats never do well on the sidelines, they do not like witnessing their own passing. It would be difficult, but not unbearable (given his love for Liverpool), for Stevie to watch the young bucks, Phil Coutinho (22; he wears Ezra’s favorite shirt), Raheem Sterling (20), Adam Lallana (admittedly, at 26 not young in the same way as Coutinho and Sterling, but Stevie is at least a generation Lallana’s senior) make the team in their image. Lazar Markovič (20), will form the final member of this new quartet of skill players led upfront by Daniel Sturridge (when he returns from injury) and marshaled in midfield by Jordan Henderson.
I have dubbed Coutinho, Sterling and Lallana, physically small players all, the “Little Three,” and I expect a few special things from them, technically gifted as they all are. And Marko is showing signs of coming into his own. Liverpool’s future is entrusted to these players. Add to them big Emre Can (pronounced “John”), who has been brave enough to take Scouser legend Jamie Carragher’s number 23, so I don’t think the Turkish German lad will wilt. And Martin Škrtel, as has for these many seasons, will soldier on is his own indomitable way; and Alberto Morreno may turn out to be a player yet. And . . . there may be others.
Still, Liverpool sans Stevie . . . how can that even be?
He is his own man
Stevie Gerrard is that rarest of contradictions. Steven George Gerrard: the local footballer who is entirely of his hometown team is the self-same footballer who stands apart, not only from that team but from his teammates, from everyone, it seems. He stands, in all the ways that matter, by himself, intensely by himself. He is the captain who leads through ferocious example, who gives his all but remains determinedly beyond our affective grasp. Stevie rarely yells, but he has lead Liverpool in a singular fashion since 2003, when he replaced Sami Hyppia. Stevie is always urging his team on, relying almost exclusively on his driving play, his biting tackles and, most imposingly, with that closed-face, set, visage. It is all in his eyes. Stevie Gerrard does not look at you or even through you: he is looking, it always seems to me, at something that is only visible to him. He is not implacable, he is simply unto himself. He shuts out the world with his eyes.
So much so that one can almost say that Steven Gerrard leads with his illegible face. Stevie’s brow is furrowed, his jaw, flecked with a few day or so’s worth of stubble for every match, is clenched, his eyes are narrowed and they look . . . well, the only message that can be detected is that you can’t possible imagine his thoughts. Stevie’s instructions are barked in clipped, precise phrases. It is a face that brooks no dissent. No one argues with a man who goes about his business with such an intimidating look of self-sufficiency. In the face of that, one can either wilt – as many have done (Gennaro Gattuso in that Champions League final in 2005, just for starters) – or look on in wonder, amazement, puzzlement and, yes, awe.
Stevie is entirely capable of letting his charges know when he is unhappy. Mainly, however, he allows no room, between those fiercely narrowed eyes and those rapid hand gestures (urging a teammate to take up his position this very instant), for disagreement. Steven George Gerrard does not ooze presence. He is presence, distilled to its most intense elements. His eyes, I have written elsewhere, are hooded. Stevie’s eyes are the visors through which he filters the world; his eyes are hooded against the world in a very telling way. Gerrard can face the world, answer its questions directly, but all the while he allows you no point of entry. His is fiercely unto himself; you feel his fierceness, even from the distance of the TV camera, but you can neither (ever) fully – which is to say, properly – comprehend it or account for it. It is not, I suspect, that he is impervious to the world. It is something altogether more than that: he has acquired that unique capacity to exclude the world on his terms, and his terms alone. The power of his eyes is that he looks you in the eye while forming the most impenetrable barrier against access. Stevie Gerrard never lets you in.
Stevie Gerrard is, before all else, together with everything else (Liverpool captain, England captain; one of the greatest players of his generation, arguably the second greatest Liverpool player of all time – Kenny Dalglish is the consensus number 1; and so on and so forth), his own man. He knows himself. Because of his supreme self-knowledge, he will allow you to know only what is appropriate. He gives everything. He asks, as Liverpool FC captain, nothing. And by “nothing” I mean that he expects those who wear our colors to match his commitment, even if his level of performance is beyond them. Stevie understands his job as bringing honor to the shirt he wears – to the shirt they are honored to wear. And what a job he has done these past 25 years.
There is something at once tragic and heroic about his intense self-remove. He has borne upon his shoulders the weight of Liverpool’s expectation and he has borne them with a singular determination. If history had appointed him, local lad from Huyton, a Scouser from his hair parting to the soles of his feet, to the task, he would accept it in the name of those in the stands and those who, before him, achieved for Liverpool. (His hair always, it seems, neatly clipped, never moves during his many exertions on the pitch.) It is only defeat, and then only for an instant, that the full weight of that burden is visible. Watch his eyes then, and you catch a glimpse of the deepest, most haunting sadness. It is not a look on which you wish to linger; nor do you wish to retain that image for too long, if at all. It is the look of a man shaken to his very core – you can, even from a distance, through the visor, sense the desolation and despair that is churning there.
Against Chelsea last April, that famous “Gerrard slip,” his shoulders slumped and, as is his wont, he looked, right hand running from his eyes to his chin, distraught. He looked, in that characteristic Gerrard pose, down, toward the ground; not to find answers on the Anfield turf, but as if he could have the briefest conversation with himself, in private, before the whole world that he had just shut out. In looking down, Stevie did not have to look at us – he kept himself, just for that moment, to himself. Truth is, moments of self-engagement such as these are as true of Gerrard in victory as they are in defeat. In the midst of the turbulence that was the 2005 Champions League final triumph, Stevie was alone – surrounded by but cut off (his act) from the tens of thousands who were cheering right before him, some of them his teammates right next to him.
Against Chelsea, he looked down, I would suggest, because that would allow him to face himself in his preferred Socratic mode. Socrates, we recall, argues that we are never alone, we are always in our own company. What powerfully alone company Stevie Gerrard keeps. There, on the ground, in his own reflection, he found what he was looking for: his own intense sense of responsibility. He had done this. His slip had allowed Demba Ba to score the goal. It was he, Stevie Gerrard, who had crushed Scouser dreams of a first Premier League title. And then, a moment later, poised, proud, but neither defiant nor defensive, he walked toward his teammates, he would face this. He looked the camera in the eye: he could, now, bear this indictment, as if he were a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions. Perhaps, I wondered, he could endure the condemnation because no public indictment – from the media, the bereft fans, the pundits – could match the sting of the judgment he had already issued against himself.
There was courage in that gesture. As there was sadness. But the sadness was ours, not his. Or, we would never know – we can speculate, but that is all we can do – because Stevie Gerrard never lets you in. Sadness bears within it a strange resonance. Sadness lingers, and infiltrates all our other affects. It stays with you, sadness, you can never quite rid yourself of it. There must be a deep well of sadness in Stevie Gerrard. But we will never know the depth of his sadness, or his joy, for that matter, because he has always, from the very first moment he burst on the scene in 1998, kept the world at the length he considers appropriate.
The remarkable thing about Gerrard’s reserve is that it never prevents him from protecting those whom he leads. He may be unto himself, but it he is never self-consumed. It may be why he is such an exceptional captain, why he has been able to get the most out of, frankly, speaking, a succession of mediocre teammates. Here one need only recall that Gerrard won a Champions League medal for Djimi Traore; or, if one was so inclined, one would have to admit that there cannot possibly be a player with both a Champions League and FA Cup winners medal more unworthy than Harry Kewell. Kewell “won” these medals for a combined 40 minutes of football, give or take, courtesy of Stevie. Of course.
When asked by a group of Scouser school children who his favorite footballer is, Gerrard’s most trusted lieutenant Jamie Carragher replied, in that unnaturally small Scouser voice of his, “Stevie Gerrard. Without him I wouldn’t have any medals.” Jamie earned his, unlike Kewell and Traore, unlike Djibril Cisse and . . .
When Liverpool squandered a 3 goal lead to Crystal Palace at the tail end of the 2013-14 season, Luis Suarez broke down and sobbed in the middle of pitch. Right there, in the blink of an eye, was Stevie: he put his hand in front of the cameras, shielding “Lou” (as manager Brendan Rodgers liked to call the mercurial Uruguyan), from intrusion. Suarez’s grief was taking place in public, but standing between Suarez and any broader exposure – TV cameras in particular – was Stevie’s right hand. In that moment, with his fingers spread, his right hand looked as big as a bear’s claw. And, it evinced a similar threat. He literally, if I might be permitted this odd turn of phrase, shoved people away from “Lou” without so much as laying a fingernail on them. That is the force of Stevie’s presence.
And then, in a touching moment, he escorted Suarez away from the camera and into a huddle of Liverpool players. He deposited the gutted Suarez into the arms of a veteran, Kolo Toure, and then Stevie took the cameras with him.
Whatever tragedy Gerrard had endured because of the slip, whatever demons haunted him, it was never allowed to interfere with the business of captaincy. Nothing would prevent him from being there for his teammates, for his club.
What a feat. To be a man apart in the midst of such responsibility, to have been that player, the local lad made good of whom everything is expected, since he was made skipper by his then-manager Gerard Houllier 2003, what a thing that must be. To understand that responsibility and, though he may have bent under its weight in the odd moment, he has never shirked it.
We can all complete the “trinity” . . .
Now he is leaving and he will take his enigmatic self with him. What am I left with?
He may have kept himself to himself even as he gave everything to the Liverpool cause, but I do not know how to watch Liverpool without him. Of course, one learns. Of course, one never learns. It matters, of course, that he has never allowed us to know beyond what he thought necessary.
However, what matters more is infinitely more revealing because it says so much about us, and our deep regard, affection and love for him. In the process of giving himself to us and keeping himself to himself, a strange thing happened: Steven George Gerrard took up permanent residence in our Liverpool FC hearts. And on that score, there are no, as it should be, absolutely no contradictions.
No matter the severe limits of his attention, no matter how peripatetic his Liverpool FC viewing is, our son Ezra knows this formula by heart.
I say “Stevie,” and we can all complete the “trinity” of proper nouns.