Top Tenner: The 10 best moments of Steven Gerrard's Liverpool career
On the back of the announcement that this is to be the final season of Steven Gerrard's Liverpool career, Top Tenner gathers his 10 greatest moments at the Anfield club.
10. The debut
As ever with these things, we should start at the beginning. For Gerrard at Anfield, the beginning was very low-key, shuffling on as an 89th-minute substitute for Vegard Heggem in a routine 2-0 win over a Blackburn side heading for relegation in 1998.
"All the subs were applauded when Gerard Houllier sent us to warm up," Gerrard said later. "Well, nearly all. When I ran towards the Kop I could almost hear them saying: 'Who's this skinny little t--t?' "
Gerrard would be given his full debut a week later at Tottenham, on the right of a three-man midfield. He was given a largely defensive brief, detailed to double-up on David Ginola, the winger in the middle of a season that would see him crowned Footballer of the Year, and it's fair to say it didn't go brilliantly for the 18-year-old.
He said, years later: " 'Go away, little boy,' Ginola seemed to be saying, 'you are not good enough. Get away. Come back when you can live with someone as brilliant as me.' I stumbled through a nightmare ... It was an onslaught. I was a bag of nerves, terrified when the ball came near me. I panicked. I gave a few passes away ... I was out of position and out of my depth."
He was hooked after just 55 minutes, but even that substitution held some significance. Replacing him was David Thompson, a youngster of a similar generation and of whom high things were also thought. Unlike Gerrard, though, his career would peter out; he toured assorted midlevel clubs before retiring at age 30 due to chronic knee problems.
9. Beating Manchester City and coming so close
"This does not f---ing slip" has become a punchline; at best, an unfortunate foreshadowing of what would occur shortly afterward against Chelsea. Yet it's not a massive stretch to include Liverpool's 3-2 win over Manchester City last season, a victory that left the Premier League title briefly in their hands, as a great and glorious moment for Gerrard, regardless of what came next.
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While there will be plenty of opportunities in the rest of his final season to change this, one could argue that it was his last real glory moment in a Liverpool shirt. You only had to watch his postmatch interview to see how much that victory meant to Gerrard, the Liverpool skipper looking close to being emotionally washed-out following a game and win of that magnitude.
"It was emotional, very emotional," he said after the game, virtually in tears. "That was the longest 90 minutes I've probably ever played in. I kept flashing back to how long the clock was taking in cup finals and in big games I've played in before. It felt like the clock was going backwards in some parts of the game. I'm a little bit lost for words at the moment because that is such a big result for us."
8. Being made Liverpool captain
Captaincy in football shouldn't really matter. There is no tactical significance to the role, and an inspirational player should be able to lead even without a piece of cloth around his arm. In reality, though, it does matter -- to those who play the game, at least.
It really, really matters to Gerrard, as he said in his 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."
Gerrard was appointed Liverpool's captain in 2003, when he was just 23 years old. He was given the armband by Houllier to replace Sami Hyypia, to whom Gerrard apologised for taking the honour. There were others ahead of him in the queue, most obviously the likes of Hyypia, Jamie Carragher and even Michael Owen, but it was Gerrard who was chosen, and it's difficult to think of a player to whom the captaincy of his club would mean more.
It's easy to forget the UEFA Cup when totting up the achievements in a career like Gerrard's, but his goal in the 2001 final as Liverpool overcame Alaves was hugely significant. As much as anything, it would represent a big moment in Gerrard's education in what was basically his first full season as a regular and central part of the Liverpool team, learning alongside Gary McAllister in midfield
While the ultimate meaning of records such as these are in truth rather ephemeral, Gerrard remains the only player to have scored in the finals of the FA Cup, the League Cup, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup/Europa League, which is a testament to his longevity as much as anything else. It was a typically Gerrard goal, too, running from midfield onto a pass from Michael Owen and rifling the ball low into the bottom corner. We'd see that many more times in the following years.
6. The 2008-09 season
It's often said about utility players that their adaptability almost harms them, that their ability to perform in a number of different positions makes it more difficult for them to nail down a clear role within a side. While you'd hardly describe Gerrard as a jack-of-all-trades type, he certainly seemed to suffer from being shunted around the pitch in the first half of his career, playing at various times as a winger, a defensive midfielder, an attacking midfielder and occasionally even a full-back.
However, arguably his best season came in 2008-09, the other time he came so close to winning the Premier League. Manager Rafa Benitez struck gold with a slightly unlikely forward pairing that saw Gerrard tucked just behind Fernando Torres. The combination powered the Reds to give Manchester United a fearful run for their money, even though the actual end to the season wasn't quite as close as some recall it.
Gerrard scored 24 goals that campaign, the best tally of his career and earning him the FWA Player of the Year award. But it was his role driving the rest of the side that is perhaps the lasting legacy of that season.
Gerrard seemed to enjoy playing against Manchester United. As the years went on he appeared to be one of the few players left who truly got the rivalry.
Gerrard has scored nine times against United in his career, perhaps the most memorable being a penalty at Old Trafford in a 4-1 win and more importantly, gave them an exhilarating whiff of the league title. However, the goal that most summed up the game and the young Gerrard's muscular, battering-ram style of play came in 2001. Latching onto a flick from Robbie Fowler, Gerrard thundered the sort of strike that, even from about 30 yards out, tested the structural integrity of the goal as it ripped into the net.
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).
The Gerrard of those early years was all about controlled violence. That's not to say he didn't have his share of skill, but the way he could power through teams in such a visceral manner was what made him such an exciting player to watch.
4. Staying at Liverpool
Of course, few of the moments on this list would have happened if Gerrard had made some different choices in both 2004 and 2005. In those consecutive summers he came within a hair of leaving Anfield for -- in theory, at least -- greener grass.
The first time, after receiving an offer from Chelsea and new manager Jose Mourinho, all that was required to persuade Gerrard to stay was a conversation with Liverpool's own new trophy-winning boss, Rafa Benitez. It was altogether trickier a year later, when even after saying "How could I leave after a night like this?" following the Champions League final, he announced his intentions to do exactly that, deciding that the offer of a new contract from Liverpool was not good enough.
Effigies and shirts were burned, posters were torn down, lamentations were wailed and it looked like a move to London was inevitable. That was until the very last moment, when Gerrard told Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry that he wanted to stay.
In a parallel universe, Chelsea's Steven Gerrard is announcing his departure from the club he served for a decade, winning league titles and the Champions League and forming a formidable midfield partnership with Frank Lampard. The question Gerrard will wrestle with is whether any of those potential glories at a club his head told him to join would have been better than ones with a club his heart told him to remain.
If Gerrard was an American sportsman, for at least a couple of years he would have been called "clutch." He was a man who could be relied upon to come through when the pressure was at its highest and when his team most needed him. Gerrard missed much of autumn 2004 with a foot injury, including Liverpool's first four Champions League group games, which is at least partly why, in their final match against Olympiakos, they faced elimination from the competition.
"I'd be lying if I thought we were going through when we were losing at halftime," Gerrard said after the game that Liverpool needed to win by two goals. But in that second period he inspired his team to come back, first with goals from Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Neil Mellor, before the ball fell to Gerrard on the edge of the box in the 86th minute. The magnitude of the goal was obviously the most important thing, but the quality of it shouldn't be downplayed.
Gerrard said after the game that he "caught it sweet, I haven't caught one like that for ages." That's the essence of what makes great sportsmen -- not just being able to do things that few others could, but doing them when few others could, when the pressure and the stakes are at their very highest.
It was a similar story 18 months later, a Liverpool team underperforming and on their way to failing at the last, only for the captain to find the net at the crucial moment. Gerrard had already equalised once against West Ham and set up another goal for Djibril Cisse. But as had happened against Olympiakos, the ball fell to him outside the area as the clock wound down, his side chasing a result. Shooting from 35 yards was a relatively irresponsible gamble, a Hail Mary that just as easily could have thudded into a defender's shins or sailed high and wide, but it was an effort more borne of necessity than anything else.
"Everyone raves about what happened next, but they don't realize one crucial thing: If my legs hadn't been riddled with cramp, I would have brought the ball down and tried to build an attack," Gerrard said in his autobiography. "I was a long way out. Too far to shoot, surely? Come on! Be realistic! There had to be too many bodies in the way? But the cramp made up my mind. I looked at the ball. 'It's set decent,' I told myself, 'so have a go, try to hit the target. Nothing to lose, Stevie.' "
Indeed there wasn't. His goal set up the penalty shootout that Liverpool would win, with Gerrard of course finding the net with his own kick.
There is an argument to say that Gerrard's overall performance in the 2005 Champions League final has been overrated in the glow of the final result. Their victory was as much about a tactical change by Benitez, that insane eight-minute spell in which they implausibly scored three goals to level the game, as it was Gerrard's performance.
However that, in a list like this, is perhaps to miss the point, because it was unquestionably his greatest moment in a Liverpool shirt. His headed goal to start the revival and winning the penalty with a surging run to complete it provided moments that made him a club hero for the rest of his life, even without everything else he's done at Anfield.
Glory in sport is all the more powerful when it comes with an emotional connection, be that from great camaraderie with teammates, overcoming adversity or, in Gerrard's case, winning the Champions League for the club you've supported all your life. Whatever disappointments and dissatisfaction he might have about the rest of his career, Gerrard will always have Istanbul.
Nick Miller is a football writer for ESPN FC, the Guardian, Eurosport and a number of other publications. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.