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    Saluting Captain Fantastic - Steven Gerrard

    Inevitably, to some football fans, news of Steven Gerrard's retirement earlier today, was an opportunity to light up social media with meme posts of Luke Chadwick holding the premier league trophy - alluding to the fact that some painfully average players (that term maybe slightly kind to Luke) have won something that will forever be missing from the Liverpool legends trophy cabinet. Clearly such mockery is not meant sincerely and actually serves to hand the mocked player a back handed compliment - if Gerrard wasn't a great player rival fans wouldn't feel it necessary to post such memes. Furthermore even when genuine comparisons are made between footballers, it is often futile to largely base them upon the amount of trophies they have won. This is particularly the case with Steven Gerrard, whose modest total of 7 major honours from an 18 year career, doesn't do justice to a player who should be regarded by all football fans as one of the finest midfielders of his generation. 

    It could be argued that he has been the most complete midfielder of the premier league era. He consistently appeared to be capable of doing everything his contemporaries could do and then other things they couldn't. For example, was Roy Keane ever capable of hitting in a 35 yard screamer in the last minute of an FA Cup Final to save his team from the clutches of defeat? Could Frank Lampard have ably played the whole of extra time in a champions league final at right back with a severe case of cramp? Could Paul Scholes inspire and lead a team consisting of more average players than great players to champions league glory against all the odds? Could Patrick Vieria develop such a telepathic and incisive relationship offensively with players from the ilk of Suarez and Torres? Could any of Gerrard's aforesaid contemporaries have made anywhere near the same difference to an often painfully average Liverpool side as Gerrard did? 

    When reflecting on Gerrard's career, its worth focusing on two key elements he showed in abundance, which are to be found deep in the DNA of ant footballing great from Zidane to Messi, Pele to Maradona and so forth. Firstly time and again he turned up during the big moments for Liverpool. Even when the tide was going against his team, as it was most spectacularly in the Champions League and FA Cup Finals of 2005 and 2006 respectively (where Liverpool fell behind 3-0 and 2-0), something deep inside him was intent on changing the early narrative that had been established during those games. Secondly he made average players reach a level beyond their natural talents through his inspiring leadership and performances. Only truly special players are able to achieve this. 

    The only player to score in the finals of the FA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Cup and Champions League, Gerrard's performance in huge games for Liverpool was routinely fantastic. Perhaps his career highlight came in the 2005 Champions League Final when his Liverpool team trailed an outstanding AC Milan team 3-0 at half time, only to make the unlikeliest of comebacks in the second half. It was little surprise to anyone to see Gerrard at the centre of the comeback. His desire to gallop into the edge of Milan's box and place a perfect header into the corner of the net began Liverpool's fightback. Later at 3-2, Liverpool completed their comeback, when Xabi Alonso scored from a rebounded penalty kick which was earned from a trademark powerful run into the box by Gerrard. Milan's Gennnaro Gattuso couldn't physically match Gerrard and felt compelled to bring him down in the box before he penetrated the net. Gerrard further inspired his team during shaky moments in extra time, when he found the last sinues of energy reserves to fight severe cramp and calmly put in a good performance at right back. Liverpool duly won their fifth European Cup in a penalty shoot out.  

    A year after his champions league heroics, Gerrard put in another mesmerising performance in a major final - the kind that almost puts to bed the cliche that no team can be a one man team. Once again he saved his team from what looked like inevitable defeat, in the 2006 FA Cup Final. This time he saved his team twice. Firstly he leveled the scores at 2-2 after being 2-0 behind. Secondly, with his team behind yet again, the game entering its dying embers, Gerrard feeling exhausted after typically roaming the pitch frantically trying to change the narrative of the day yet again, the ball fell to him innocuously more than 35 yards from goal. He later suggested he only took a shot on from this distance because he was too exhausted to search for a pass. His shot duly rocketed into the bottom corner. Yet again his heroics continued deep into proceedings when he converted a penalty during the penalty shoot out which Liverpool won. Looking back on the Champions League and FA Cup Finals of 2005 and 2006 it almost seems surprising that they are not widely known as the Gerrard Final I and the Gerrard Final II, such was his influence on the outcomes of both matches. 

    Individually he has also been routinely recognised as one of the finest players of his generation and dare I say, any generation. Indeed he was voted by Liverpool fans as the Club's greatest ever player in  a 2013 poll. Something that really puts to bed the futile exercise of apportioning a player's worth largely from the trophies they have collected (Gerrard finished ahead of dozens of Liverpool players with multiple League winners medals). In Liverpool's Champions League winning season Gerrard won the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year. Further recognition has come in the form of domestic and worldwide teams of the year. During his career he was named in the PFA Team of the Year a record eight times and the FIFA World XI three times. 

    Of course some detractors, might point out, with some justification that he never quite delivered on the biggest of stages internationally. However he is not alone there, this is a problem that has affected the whole England team for decades. Further afield, even Lionel Messi has struggled to fully replicate his club form on the international stage. Moreover he was never helped by his managers failing to deploy him in the most effective way. Perhaps he also suffered more than most at summer tournaments, given he typically adopted a frantic playing style in the most physically demanding league in the world. Despite the fact that he never truly stamped his mark on an international tournament, it would still be remiss to ignore his achievements at international level, which compared to most, after all, were still pretty commendable. He represented England at a record equalling six major tournaments, captained them at three, is England's third most capped outfield player and despite playing a lot of minutes in withdrawn roles still managed to score 21 international goals. He played a critical role in England's 5-1 demolition of Germany - their most famous win of the last thirty years, scoring with a typically unerring strike from outside the box, he was named in the 2012 European Championship team of the year and upon his retirement from international football the England management team still wanted him to continue playing.   

    Whether saying it with sincere sympathy or outright mockery, it would be easy to focus any reflection of Gerrard's career on bringing up his inability to win the premier league and his fatal slip at the back end of the 2013/14 premier league season, which fatally cost his team the title. However this would do a massive injustice to one of the finest midfielders English football has ever seen. A player so great, his career deserves to be celebrated for all the things he did, rather than the one thing he didn't do. 

    When I think of Gerrard's career, I think the greatest summation of it concerns his influence on others. Gary Neville would happily admit that Roy Keane and Eric Cantona before him, helped him attain a level of performance beyond his natural talent. I'm sure Djimi Traore would agree the same about Steven Gerrard, especially when he looks at the Champions League winners medal he won playing alongside Steven Gerrard - a year later he started struggling to get into the Charlton side.           

    Alex Appleby
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    Item Reviewed: Saluting Captain Fantastic - Steven Gerrard Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Alex Appleby
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