Steven Gerrard's decision reveals game's tribalism and wishful thinking
Don't worry. This is not a column about Steven Gerrard. There have been enough of those over the past few days, ever since the Liverpool captain confirmed that he will no longer be the Liverpool captain after the end of the season. Instead, he will be the least comfortable man in Los Angeles, a deeply shy introvert shifting awkwardly at A-list parties, grinning with fear in his eyes.
No, this isn't one of those columns that asks whether the time really is right for the 34-year-old to leave, or assesses just how Liverpool will cope without him, or attempts to rank him and his achievements in the past decade and a half in some meaningless list without clear criteria or purpose.
It is not a column that seeks to expose the dim-witted absurdity of using the two goals he scored against a League Two side on Monday night to prove that Liverpool should have done more to keep him. And it's not a column that will mention that it's probably better, for all concerned, that the man who has been known for a decade by most at Anfield simply as "the captain" leaves while he can still win games on his own rather than when he can't.*
Instead, in a way, this is about the columns about Steven Gerrard. It is a meta-column. It is a meta-column because, a few days on, the reaction to Gerrard's decision to leave Liverpool is now far more interesting than the decision itself.
There is the reaction of the fans. Not the fans of Liverpool, who are probably more split on the issue than they are presented as being, but the fans of everyone else. The fans who sing the Demba Ba song -- the one about Gerrard slipping last season, the one that's gone viral -- despite the fact that they do not support Chelsea and are not playing Liverpool.
The weirdest moment of this season so far, on a personal level, came at the Emirates, during Arsenal's game against -- I think -- Southampton, when a chorus of that song broke out. Do Arsenal dislike Liverpool more than they dislike Chelsea now? Or do they just dislike Steven Gerrard?
Given how popular that song has become over the past nine months, it is no surprise that the reaction to Gerrard's announcement was, well, mixed.
Some seemed to be furious at the fawning and gushing over Gerrard. Some seemed to be even more upset at the thought of all the fawning and gushing that might happen, even before it did. Others insisted he was overrated anyway, or that he let his country down, or that Paul Scholes or Frank Lampard or Glenn Helder never got this treatment when they retired and it was all the usual pro-Liverpool bias from the media.
What very few (among those who would count themselves as loyal fans of another club) did, or seemed to do, was what would certainly have happened had Gerrard been born 30 years earlier. Whatever their view on just how good he was or whether all the fawning was necessary, they did not lay down their cudgels and applaud what has been a very fine career indeed.
That is how most former England captains were ushered into retirement, or the liminal state of it that Gerrard is about to enter. It was the same for most former England players, or for players who had served their clubs, and thus the game, with distinction.
It is here that we see why this has not been afforded to Gerrard. Liking football and supporting a team are not the same thing; the increased frenzy around the sport in recent years has led to a decrease of the former and an increase in the latter. Gerrard has been a player in an era when the sport itself is immaterial; tribal fractures mean only the team, your team, matters. Everything else is to be hated and booed.
And then, more interestingly still, there is the reaction of the former players.
There is not a single ex-pro left in Britain who has not had his view sought on Gerrard. Most insightful of all was Chris Waddle, the onetime Marseille winger and mullet-wearer, who started off with: "I don't care what anybody says, for me, he's been a top player." I am sure you agree it is crucial we have these sorts of controversialists prepared to come out with these outlandish theories.
What is intriguing about the reams of opinions proffered by Gerrard's erstwhile peers is that there is a single thread that runs through all of them. It is, broadly, this: that Liverpool should have done anything at all to keep him, and that he is still capable of performing at the very highest level. Many have said they believe he could play the same role as Andrea Pirlo; a few others, who are somewhat closer to the truth, have suggested he could do a passable impersonation of Frank Lampard. Regardless, they all feel he can keep on playing in the Premier League until he decides the time is right to hang up his boots.
This is abundantly untrue. Leaving aside the issue of whether that is precisely what Gerrard has done anyway, it is not for the player to decide whether he is good enough to play. That decision has to be made by the collective: the club, represented by the manager, his coaches and the owners. This is largely because players are the worst judges imaginable of the standard they are playing at.
A few weeks ago, John Barnes was discussing his own incremental decline. For those of a younger persuasion, Barnes was the finest English player of the second half of the 1980s. He was a brilliant winger, a sort of prototype of, say, Eden Hazard. Barnes also invented the modern trend of being outstanding for his club and terrible for his country. By the mid-1990s, his pace had gone, disappearing in inverse proportion to his waistline.
Barnes was an intelligent player, though, and he moved inside, playing in central midfield for Liverpool. By 1996, it was obvious he was done. He was too slow, too immobile, too lacking. Obvious, that is, to everyone except Barnes. "I still thought my performances were good enough," he said.
There are some who do not quite fit the pattern, but they are not far off. Manchester United's Gary Neville famously decided it was time to go after an arduous afternoon at West Brom -- his brother, Phil, had a similar experience for Everton -- which is more self-aware than most, but not exactly the height of modesty. Both had been fading for some time, long before they called it a day.
Players, in other words, often believe they are immortal. That is no great surprise. What is eye-opening, and has been amply demonstrated the past few days, is that they seem to apply this to all other players, too. They believe all of their peers can keep on playing as long as they want.
It is not immediately clear why that should be, even if football has long fought a battle against time, if clubs have invested hundreds of millions trying to prolong the careers of their stars, if fans have been unwilling to see their heroes fade.
And yet the exact same process applies to the players, too, that is what has been notable about the reaction to Gerrard's announcement that he would sail to the west. They, too, do not want to acknowledge the beat of the clock, not just in themselves but in others. Perhaps it is two sides of the same affliction: to acknowledge that others get old and their flame is extinguished is to remind ourselves that we all eventually outlive our usefulness.
* It is not even a column that argues Gerrard is the embodiment of English football, in his Roy of the Rovers heroism, his unshakeable conviction that the most important players on the pitch play in the middle of it, and his complete lack of tactical nous, all of which have combined to make him a very good central midfielder but at the same time would have made him an infinitely better right-winger or No. 10. That column can wait until he actually leaves Liverpool.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.