Gerrard return brings Anfield relief
It's often said that a player returning from a long-term injury is like having a new signing and that is certainly true for Liverpool after Steven Gerrard's first start in more than six months last weekend. He couldn't have asked for a much better comeback, playing 90 minutes against Manchester United and scoring a goal too. As the captain and the driving force of Liverpool, his return is obviously a massive boost and he will be looking to kick on again when Norwich visit Anfield on Saturday.
From a manager's perspective there's not really much you can do for a player when he is injured apart from offering words of encouragement and cajoling him along. It is down to the player to handle it and it can be really difficult when you're out, especially when you're a bit older. When I was at Southampton towards the end of my career I had a hamstring problem and, at 31, it felt like it took much longer to recover than it had before.
Steven is 31 himself now and admitted this week that he seriously worried about whether he'd ever be the same player again while he was sidelined. When you know you're nearer the end of your career than the beginning, it's only natural to get those sort of doubts - especially as he's had setbacks as well. There will have been times when he's thought 'I'm doing really well and only a couple for weeks away from coming back' and then suddenly he's out for another few months, which then seems like an age.
Although the manager's encouragement is important during a lengthy lay-off, the key people are the physio staff and your family, who keep you going during your low points. Rehab can include days and days of work that feels really mundane, and it can be difficult to find motivation when you're doing such light work. Life is easy for a footballer when you're playing games, winning matches, scoring goals - the whole world is rosy. Then suddenly, that's snatched away and your team-mates go off on holiday over the summer while you're visiting the medical staff or they're travelling to games and you're not with them. It can be a real mental test; the six inches between your ears is the most important thing in football.
Steven is through the other side of that now and will be hungry to make an impression on his manager as he's only started seven games under Kenny Dalglish. He is such a big player and if I was at a club now and was told I could buy any player in England, I'd probably take him. I remember giving him his international debut for England ten years ago and he's really grown into the heartbeat of the Liverpool team. Coming back against United was a good challenge for him because there's no hiding place in a game like that and he'll now believe he's ready for anything after performing well in such a high-paced and high-pressured match.
While Steven Gerrard has been frustrated by injury, his team-mate Andy Carroll will have been frustrated by his lack of playing time this season. It's been really difficult for him to deal with the expectations of him and I think people have got to try to forget that £35 million price tag and accept that he's young and going to take time to bed in. When he got into the Newcastle side he knew all the lads because he'd been at the club for years and he knew his way around Newcastle because that's where he's from. Suddenly there's a massive transfer fee, he's left the club he's grown up at and he's thrown in at the deep end playing for a huge club.
People have said that he doesn't fit into the formation that Kenny is using at the moment, but I think that Kenny is actually playing that way because Andy hasn't been good enough. Away from home, just about everyone plays one up front and that one is always going to be Suarez at the moment for Liverpool because of the way he's playing, his knowledge and experience. He's an established international, whose played for a big club in Ajax - Andy hasn't had that, he is still just a young lad. Against Norwich, Kenny will probably think seriously about playing two up top with Andy and Luis Suarez together but if he doesn't play in these sorts of games, it doesn't bode to well.
I think at the moment it's in the balance whether he'll be the player that Liverpool fans want him to be. I worked with him at Newcastle and he is unquestionably one of the best headers of the ball I've ever seen, but that's not enough in the Premier League - you can't survive at a club like Liverpool by having just one major asset. He's got to improve his link up play, his ability to hold the ball up and show a bit more intelligence around the football pitch. Andy should be given time though - he was the best young striker in the Premier League while he was at Newcastle last season. He will be aware of what he needs to do to improve. It's down to him now to show he can be more than just an impact substitute.
Kenny's team selection against Norwich will be interesting as it's the sort of fixture - at home to a promoted club - that Liverpool have to win if they are serious about getting into the top four. However, it won't be easy as Norwich have had a very encouraging start to the season and they're a tidy team. Paul Lambert has a lot of hungry players, most of who have been on the edge of being Premier League players but unproven, and they've reminded me of Blackpool last year in the way they try to play good football.
They were excellent at at Old Trafford and got nothing and I expect it will be the same at Anfield, but if the performance level is good a defeat will not be the end of the world - the manager will be confident of turning good form away to the likes of United and Liverpool into home wins. I'll be honest, I picked Norwich in my three to go down before the season and though I'd still stick with that, they've certainly planted a seed of doubt because they've shown enough so far - in terms of belief and the football they've played - to suggest they could stay another year in the Premier League.