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Steven Gerrard: The rare captain

Who is the greatest captain of all time? From Aug. 18-29, ESPN FC will reveal its 10-man shortlist of the finest skippers to have graced the game, before conducting a vote for the winner. The result will be revealed on Sept. 1.

Steven Gerrard was typically fronting up, taking it all on. As the Liverpool captain sat down for his first public media appearance since a profoundly disappointing 2014 World Cup, the club press officer interjected with a quick question.

"Anything you don't especially want to talk about?" Gerrard was quietly asked. "No," was the immediate and emphatic answer. What Gerrard did talk about gained a lot of attention, as it was in that news conference that he frankly discussed how he had just endured what were probably "the worst three months of my life."

Steven Gerrard

Teams captained: Liverpool, England.

Trophies won: FA Cup (2001, 2006); League Cup (2001, 2003, 2012); Champions League (2005); UEFA Cup (2001); UEFA Super Cup (2001, 2005).

Beyond the headlines, though, there was one largely overlooked comment that said much more about the 11 excellent years that preceded those three months and why exactly the recent disappointments hurt so much.

Gerrard was trying to rationalise the slip against Chelsea, and then the disappointing World Cup that followed, but actually displayed his rationale toward the role of wearing a team's armband.

"When you're captain, you can't afford to be down, feel sorry for yourself and mope around," Gerrard said. "Everyone in this group looks to me to see what mood I'm in, so I have to shake it off quick."

It is quite a burden to put upon yourself, all things considered. Many might see a trace of ego in those words, but they also reveal the responsibility Gerrard feels in his role as captain. Ken Early made precisely that point in his excellent profile of the 34-year-old, that Gerrard has always been driven by a sense of anxiety about not letting others down, as much as the arrogance of furthering his own career.

If so, it's difficult to divorce that sense of responsibility from the player's own personal history. As a modern football captain, Gerrard is also that rare old-fashioned example of a local lad leading out the team he has always loved. The people he doesn't want to let down are the ones in the city in which he has grown up. There is a telling quote from his 2006 autobiography.

"Sometimes I stop on the drive home from Melwood and just sit in the car and tell myself, 'I'm captain of Liverpool football club.' For a kid who grew up in Huyton, who stood on the Kop, being Liverpool captain is an unbelievable honour. I think of all the greats who have led out Liverpool, real leaders like Ron Yeats, Emlyn Hughes, Thommo [Phil Thompson], Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen. And now me."

All-time greatest captains

Tony Adams - Aug. 18
Franco Baresi - Aug. 19
Franz Beckenbauer - Aug. 20
Francisco Gento - Aug. 21
Steven Gerrard - Aug. 22
Roy Keane - Aug. 25
Bobby Moore - Aug. 26
Carles Puyol - Aug. 27
Obdulio Varela - Aug. 28
Dino Zoff - Aug. 29

Vote: Aug. 29
Result: Sept. 1

It is possible that Gerrard feels the role of captain more deeply than pretty much anyone else in the modern game, precisely because he is so conscious and appreciative of the lineage he follows and the dimensions it involves. The depth of feeling is evident when he discusses the day in October 2003 when former manager Gerard Houllier told him the armband would be passed on to him from Sami Hyypia.

"It can't be nice to have such an honour taken away," Gerrard said, as he agonised about meeting the centre-half next. "I'd be devastated."

Houllier passed the captaincy to the player for whom it meant the most, but who also meant the most in the role. For his part, Hyypia recognised all of that, the importance of making a local lad -- and especially one with such obvious talents -- the team leader.

"You deserve the captaincy," the Finn told Gerrard. "It was only a matter of time."

Since then, it seems as if Gerrard has strived to live up to a timeless ideal of what exactly that armband means; an ideal collectively fostered by the feats of individual captains like Thompson and Hansen. He desires to lead by example, and has offered so many examples of doing precisely that.

"Steven Gerrard has carried Liverpool on his shoulders for years," argues Thompson, Liverpool's former assistant manager. "It's hard to dispute all that has contributed to the hero complex he has always displayed, but that also so often delivers.

Even in trying times like April's slip versus Chelsea, Steven Gerrard has never shirked from wearing the captain's armband for Liverpool.
Even in trying times like April's slip versus Chelsea, Steven Gerrard has never shirked from wearing the captain's armband for Liverpool.

"Sometimes Stevie went into areas I didn't want him to go," former teammate Didi Hamann said recently. "But you had to let him have that freedom, because two minutes later he would be crossing the ball or scoring a goal from that position, and turning the whole game on its head."

In the 2005 Champions League final, most famously, Gerrard turned that game with his head. It is only the most famous of countless similar cases, from the 2004 Champions League group stage strike against Olympiakos to the hat trick in the victorious 2006 FA Cup final against West Ham United. Just as indicative of his leadership qualities, though, are some of the less celebrated incidents around those moments of glory. Take all that happened in Istanbul around that header to make it 3-1 against Milan.

Before it, there was the very particular rallying call. It wasn't about winning club football's greatest prize, but winning for the fans, all those people he didn't want to let down.

"Look how much this means to them. It means the world. Don't f---ing well let them down."

During it, Gerrard ended up making tackles at right-back, setting the tone of defiance that was so defining. After it, he offered to take the potentially decisive fifth penalty, simply because he felt his role demanded it. "As captain, I must take responsibility," Gerrard said. "I must step up."

Again, he was striving to live up to an ideal.

Gerrard spearheaded Liverpool's memorable comeback in the 2005 Champions League final.
Gerrard spearheaded Liverpool's memorable comeback in the 2005 Champions League final.

It has of course frequently been argued that Gerrard himself represents another ideal of English football: the "Roy of the Rovers" personality, the individual determined to decide a game with that individual moment of brilliance. In that, he was arguably a perfect candidate for the national captaincy once former England coach Fabio Capello had to select a successor to John Terry in 2010, but current England boss Roy Hodgson has always railed against certain stereotypes surrounding Gerrard.

"The leaders we often think about are people who go around screaming and shouting, who have got 101 strong opinions about everything," Hodgson said last year. "My idea of a leader is someone like Steven Gerrard. Someone who has got clear opinions, is strong in his opinions, but all of his work he does on the field of play, in the dressing room with the players."

It is a description that tallies with all of those from the young players at Liverpool.

"I couldn't ask for a better captain," Raheem Sterling said of Gerrard.

Liverpool couldn't ask for someone who better understood the role. England could struggle to find a replacement that comes close.

Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.


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