SHORTLY before the World Cup started, Adrian Chiles, who would go on to present ITV’s coverage of the tournament, relayed an anecdote to the Radio Times. In it he told of the occasion a couple of years ago when Sam Merriman, the young nephew of a friend, bumped into a Premier League footballer and asked if he could have a photograph of them together. The footballer was more than happy to oblige but Sam’s phone had unfortunately died. Not wanting to disappoint the lad, and realising that he and Chiles had a mutual acquaintance, the footballer got someone to take the photo on his own phone and then sent it to the mutual acquaintance, who in turn sent it to Chiles, who in turn sent it to Sam.

It is a story which Chiles rightly says “speaks volumes” of the footballer involved. Indeed, it is such a heart-warming tale, one which goes against the common perception of those who earn millions of pounds for kicking a ball around in this country, that I’m surprised it isn’t more commonly known. Especially as the footballer involved is Steven Gerrard, Liverpool and, up until very recently, England captain.

Now you know the story, try this: share it with any friends of yours who don’t support Liverpool, particularly any who support Manchester United, Chelsea or Everton, and ask for their reaction. Then see if it fits into any of these categories:

  1. The story’s bullsh*t – Gerrard probably got Chiles to make it up
  2. So what, ‘Stevie Me’ does one nice thing and suddenly he’s an angel?
  3. Did Gerrard slip as soon as the photo was taken?
  4. Whatever, he’s still a c***.
  5. At least two of the above.

It’s of course not rare for supporters to dislike a player from a rival club, especially if that player happens to be their captain and, for a decade at least, best player. But the vitriol that has come Gerrard’s way for so long and so often has been astonishing, ranging from over-the-top spite to immature, senseless mockery to downright mythical accusations. Gerrard’s had it all and sadly it will only get worse during the soon-to-begin season because of that moment against Chelsea four months ago. Indeed, the songs about slipping from fans even beyond Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and Goodison started shortly after it happened and they will only get louder and more lary over the course of the next nine months.

Gerrard is old and wise enough to deal with the crap that comes his way, but that doesn’t take away from the sense that it has all got way out of proportion and that as Gerrard enters the final few years of his career, this may be the appropriate moment for those men, women and even children who regularly spit fury and mockery at him to give it a rest, or at the very least, calm down a bit.

Football - FA Cup - 4th Round - Liverpool FC v Everton FC

The abuse reached a new level of absurdity prior to Liverpool’s final match of last season, the 2-1 victory over Newcastle, when a plane was spotted above Anfield carrying the message ‘United 20 Gerrard 0’. First of all: what sort of obsessed moron does that? Secondly: if, as naturally suspected, it was a United fan, then why go to all that trouble and expense if you’re not actually there to see it? And thirdly: United are an entire club that have been in existence since 1902 while Gerrard is an individual who has been playing professional first-team football since 1998. Hardly a fair comparison then is it? As I said … moron.

To a large extent this type of attack is a compliment; proof that Gerrard carries a status high above most of his peers – enough, indeed, to make him comparable to an entire club – yet it is highly unlikely those who hired the plane will even contemplate seeing it that way, nor will most of those who regularly sneer and jeer the 34-year-old. For them, Gerrard is the personification of arrogance and hyperbole; a self-loving, overrated so-and-so who in that moment when he lost his footing and allowed Demba Ba to race towards the Kop and score a crucial goal in the 2013/14 Premier League title race, got everything he deserved.

It’s the ‘Stevie Me’ thing, a caricature which bears little or no resemblance to the man it is meant to be based on and leads to buffoons such as the Irish journalist Roy Curtis espousing notions such as ‘The Great Myth of Steven Gerrard’. What Myth?! Since Gerrard made his debut for Liverpool as a skinny 18-year-old, the range and depth of his abilities have been constantly debated by a variety of people, including Liverpool fans, with some viewing him as the best midfielder of his generation while others (Liverpool fans again included) deeming him somewhat flawed in that regard. The only verdict on which a consensus has ever truly been reached is that Gerrard is a highly-talented footballer, which he clearly has been for most of his career.

And as for this accusation that Gerrard is only in it for himself – “a genius for self-promotion” as Curtis puts it – on what is this based? As far as I’m aware, Gerrard does very few interviews, is rarely spotted at celebrity hotspots and doesn’t have an aftershave named after him. So nothing like David Beckham, for instance.

Don’t get me wrong, Gerrard is not perfect – he has occasionally shown a frustrating level of recklessness-bordering-on-selfishness on the pitch and, in my opinion, let himself down greatly during the transfer request saga of 2005. But when the bigger picture is considered, these are small black spots on a canvas marked predominately by virtuous traits, most notably endeavour, strength of will and immense talent. Those who claim Gerrard is self-obsessed and overrated perhaps haven’t been watching football for the past 16 years, and certainly missed those instances against Olympiakos in 2004, Milan in 2005 and West Ham in 2006 when Gerrard gave everything he had to make thousands of people happy.

Not all of the Gerrard-haters are deluded fools, and there are those who are mature enough to admit that they truly target him for the reason all fans truly target a player – because he makes a team we love to hate win more games than they lose. As the Everton-supporting journalist Dave Downie puts it: “There are several examples over the years where Gerrard has enticed the now customary barrage of abuse from the Blue side of the fence, but admittedly I think the origins of it all stem from a blend of factors such as his obvious superior ability and how he’s subtly responded to being singled out. As the figurehead of a side we’ve rarely got the better off since he’s been around – and that’s no coincidence – Gerrard has tormented us and always found a way of rubbing it in that little bit more.”

It’s all part of the dance, the pantomime nature of relationships between certain fans and certain players, and can also be seen and heard every time Liverpool fans mock Wayne Rooney for enjoying a night in with old ladies and John Terry for his mother’s supposed fondness for Merseyside-flavoured penises. In those terms it’s understandable that Evertonians and United fans should target Gerrard, as should those belonging to Chelsea, particularly after the player decided nine years ago not to move to Stamford Bridge after all. But with Gerrard it feels particularly relentless, particularly snide and over-the-top, stretching beyond the 90 minutes of actual combat, and what I won’t accept from the abusers – many of whom don’t even support clubs that are justifiable rivals of Liverpool – is the claim that their attacks on Gerrard are part of some moral crusade; the people standing up against the sneering, self-proclaimed king of Merseyside. Ask Sam Merriman if he recognises that description of Gerrard. It’s likely he’ll glance at the most cherished photo in his collection and shake his head.

Football - FA Premier League - Chelsea FC v Liverpool FC

The other truth is that Gerrard is loathed by so many because he is the established, symbolic leader of a club that is loathed by so many. We adore Liverpool but, in case you’re not aware, there are lots of people out there who don’t for a variety of reasons, ranging from historical jealously to regional snobbery, and the captain has had to take on the brunt of that for the bulk of his career.

There is no doubt Gerrard will receive his customary abuse this season, with a whole lot more related to slipping dumped on top. Who knows, there may even be more planes carrying more braindead messages. Gerrard will suck it up and, in his own words, “go again”. But as fans we can help ease the tribulations. Whenever the abuse comes in, whether it be at Anfield or elsewhere, get on your feet, straighten your back, raise your head and belt out the song we all know:

“Steven Gerrard is our captain/Steven Gerrard is a red/Steven Gerrard plays for Liv-er-pool!/Scouser born ‘n’ bred”.

He’s been there for us for so long. Now it’s time to return the favour.


Images: David Rawcliffe/Propaganda