MANY Reds looked to the heavens before Liverpool took to the pitch on Sunday. Despite all the bravado, we needed a miracle to win the Premier League. But rather than a thumbs up from the big guy above, instead we saw a small plane buzzing around Anfield carrying a banner reading: “Manchester United 20 Steven Gerrard 0”.
Ignoring the fact that it doesn’t make very much sense – Manchester United have had 136 years to win those titles, Gerrard 16; they’re a football club, he’s one man – it highlighted a strange phenomenon in the English game.
Fans will always take delight from the failure of their rivals, it’s part of football and always will be. And no-one’s been on the end of more jokes this season than seventh-placed Manchester United and their now sacked ex-manager David Moyes.
But Gerrard has to now be running Moyes a close second for the internet memes, the songs, the banners and the jokes.
His slip against Chelsea that allowed Demba Ba to score the goal and secure the Anfield win over Liverpool that ultimately was the pivotal point in the title race has been celebrated like a World Cup winner by fans up and down the country ever since.
On Sunday the song about the slip was heard in games involving Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. Newcastle fans were at it too at Anfield. But it’s nothing new. He’s routinely a target for abuse – much of it well over the line of what passes for the dreaded ‘banter’.
And all this despite Gerrard being one of the most consistent performers for club and country. All this despite the Scouser being the inspiration behind one of the unlikeliest title challenges in years. And all this despite the fact that in a month’s time, the 33-year-old will captain England in the World Cup and many of those same fans will cheer Gerrard to the rafters if he scores a goal in the white of England rather than the red of Liverpool.
Gerrard has consistently given his all for England in 14 years of playing for his country, clocking up 109 caps. No doubt he can take a joke, but when he hears, sees and reads the base level of abuse he attracts – the songs about his children’s parentage for example – or when he sees himself routinely refereed to as ‘thug’ for a bar fight six years ago – does there come a time where he thinks “f*** this” – even subconsciously?
He’s only human after all. And he might wonder why the fact that he is in the main a family man who keeps to himself and does his fair bit of charity work doesn’t attract quite the same prominence as his mistakes.
Gerrard might also look at David Beckham and wonder why he is – and was – a national darling. The cringe-inducing ‘Golden Balls’ played for a widely-hated Manchester United, acted like a pop star, lapped up photoshoots and endorsements and kicked out at a player in a World Cup. Yet he still retains a hero status, and even enjoyed a brief, bizarre spell as an England cheerleader, appearing on the touchline with no apparent role.
Gerrard’s never enjoyed the same adulation from the national football fan collective, yet clearly most people in the game respect him, and his achievements, which include two FA Cups, two League Cups, a Champions League, and a UEFA Cup. He’s also a one-club man, albeit that he has been tempted to leave Liverpool and even – as he is so often reminded – handed in a transfer request.
The Liverpool captain was rightly named in the Premier League team of the year, voted for by his fellow professionals and Sam Allardyce – an unlikely ally for a Scouser – even expressed his desire to see him lift the title before his West Ham side faced Manchester City on Sunday.
Gerrard has inspired from a holding midfield position for Liverpool, and even against Newcastle, when he looked a burnt-out shadow of the man who had rallied his troops so successfully in recent weeks, he still delivered two of his peerless free kicks – finished off by Daniel Agger and Daniel Sturridge – to ensure Liverpool finished the season with a victory.
When England kick off against Italy, the nation will no doubt hope Gerrard can inspire the Three Lions like he inspired Brendan Rodgers’ team in a campaign that exceeded all expectations.
His boss for the summer – our old friend Roy Hodgson – even made a point in public of providing a rallying cry for his downhearted skipper, telling the media: “Steven is extremely mentally strong, and extremely proud. He loves Liverpool but he loves England and I don’t have any doubt that he won’t be as good as he ever has been in this World Cup.”
Hodgson has to say that. But Gerrard’s body language – he barely celebrated Liverpool’s goals on Sunday – suggests a man at war with himself; a player torn by his emotions and – maybe – a man sick of the stick coming from all angles.
What Gerrard needs now is an arm round and some respect. What he’s getting is something completely different. A funny old game indeed. Or is it just a funny old country?