Farewell, My Lovely
A fan who followed from afar pays tribute to Steven Gerrard
When it happened, it didn’t even hurt. The first time I saw Robbie Fowler in another kit, the instinctive reaction was nausea. But Fowler was 26 when he was sold to Leeds United, with thousands of Liverpool fans left to wonder what might have been but for those knee injuries. With Steven Gerrard, we saw the very best of him. The player who eventually crossed the Atlantic was a wan and ageing shadow of the one whose Roy-of-the-Rovers contributions were such a big factor in the most surprising of Champions League wins.
There being no MLS coverage in India, I didn’t watch Gerrard’s first game for LA Galaxy. After watching the first goal he scored in that unfamiliar white strip on YouTube, the first thought in my head was: why did he run to the left to celebrate? For his first goal in red, the celebratory run and the knee-slide toward the corner flag had been in the opposite direction.
The last three months of his Liverpool career epitomised pitiful anticlimax. When he scored his penultimate Anfield goal, a penalty in a thrilling 3-2 win against Tottenham, it was the spur for a five-match unbeaten run that took the club to the brink of the top four. After that, five losses in nine games meant that the Gerrard farewell resembled a slowly deflating balloon.
When he scored his last Anfield goal, the glancing header that turned out to be the winner against QPR, all I did was punch the arm of my recliner and mutter, “Yes!” My four year old, who had grown used to my goal celebrations during the memorable season that had preceded this miserable one, asked, “Why aren’t you dancing, daddy?” I was as lost for an answer as Gerrard himself seemed to be.
There was a moistness in the eye after the final Anfield game, though the dismal display against Crystal Palace was merely another reminder that both icon and team had run out of time, that change couldn’t come soon enough. I didn’t even bother to watch the Stoke match live. We were on my way to visit my gran and I switched off the streaming video on my phone once the first three goals went in. He scored, but I doubt whether fans or the man himself will recall it in the years to come. It was that sort of afternoon.
Those traumatic last couple of months took me back nearly two decades, to the summer when English football’s balance of power shifted irrevocably. Compared to now, when fans in India can watch Premier League football around the clock, things were a lot harder in the mid-1990s. My most reliable option was the BBC, with its sports round-up and the special programming on weekends.
There was no live telecast of the 1996 FA Cup final. I had a train to catch a couple of hours after the game, to the opposite coast in Chennai, where a forgettable month-long factory internship awaited me. I listened to the game on the radio, punched a wall after Éric Cantona’s late winner for United and then chain-smoked my way through an 11-hour journey, most of it spent on the footboard of the carriage staring at a cloudless sky.
I sensed then that the Roy Evans era would not be the hoped-for renaissance. That was a beautiful team, but one lacking the Sami Hyypiä or Gerrard kind of leader. It specialised in letting in soft goals and the following season’s 3-1 capitulation against United at Anfield, with the title on the line, summed up the fragile heart. Great goals, some great games, but no glory.
One of my friends while growing up in Warrington, David, had a great eye for talent. In the early 1990s, long before the gangly local boy became a regular in the red shirt, it was he who alerted me to Steve McManaman’s talent. But scouting is an inexact science. I still remember that Mike Marsh excited him even more. McManaman ended up at Real Madrid, Marsh at Kidderminster Harriers.
In late 1996, I reached out to friends in Liverpool to find out about the hopefuls from the next generation. Michael Owen was the name atop every list, with Jamie Carragher also highly regarded. I don’t remember anyone mentioning Gerrard, but by the time I shifted to Mumbai two years later, there was quite a buzz about this kid from the reserves.
That was another horrible season. There had been a false dawn under the dual-management team of Evans and Gérard Houllier, with ten points from the first four games, but the season went south so rapidly that it was over by November. I remember reading Frank Keating in the Guardian – “The Day the Boot Room Died” (12 November 1998) – and feeling it like a punch to the gut. By the time Gerrard made his debut a little under a fortnight later, my interest in the season had become cursory, with the focus more on finding a job.
Of course, there are certain games that you’ll switch on for, no matter how wretched the season. The United encounter is one, the derby another. By the time Everton came to Anfield in April 1999, I was enjoying my first job and getting ready to head back to Kerala for a week’s break and my sister’s wedding. She and her partner decided to stop off in Mumbai first and there was a party at the apartment I shared with a friend a couple of days before we went home.
I played the dutiful host, ignoring the first 70 minutes of the derby. But blood isn’t necessarily thicker than football and with my desktop telling me that it was 2-1 with the clock winding down, I disappeared from the party fray. With no TV pictures, I had to rely on the radio to tell me about Gerrard’s goal-line clearances, and I was pumping my fist and swearing in delight when the guests found me soon after the final whistle.
A few months later, I was visiting my father in Oman. By then, Gerrard had become a starter, but was yet to score his first goal. One night, when Sheffield Wednesday were the visitors to Anfield, I was staying with some friends. They had a small child and were in bed long before midnight. I crept into the lounge soon after to watch the telecast. It may have finished 4-1, but for the longest time, the game was in the balance. It was in the 69th minute that Gerrard set off on a slalom run from just outside the centre-circle. By the time he finished running and let fly with the right boot, he was level with the penalty spot. As he dived full length on to the turf to celebrate, I was stifling the loudest of yells. If someone had taken a picture of me then, I’m sure it would have resembled Munch’s The Scream, with face contorted but no sound.
Those were good years. Under Houllier, United were beaten for the first time in five years, and a few months later a Gerrard thunderbolt past Fabien Barthez at Anfield went a long way towards securing Champions League football. That May, I watched the Uefa Cup final against Alavés in Bangalore, with a Finn, a Brazilian and a Basque for company. The Brazilian, a Corinthians fan with leftist views whom I fancied, insisted on supporting the underdog. The Basque, who was only militant when it came to his dislike of Real Madrid, stayed neutral, though it was obvious he would have liked his brothers to prevail. The Finn had grown up supporting Everton in the Kendall-Sheedy-Southall halcyon years, but was now a Liverpool fan.
Without a healthy heart and copious amounts of alcohol, I’m sure I wouldn’t have got through that night. When Gerrard scored the second, after being beautifully teed up by Owen, it had seemed that it would be a parkland stroll. Instead, Cosmin Contra gave Carragher twisted blood, Javi Moreno scored two terrific goals and it went all the way to golden-goal extra time.
I left that party thinking Liverpool were again on the cusp of greatness. The following season they finished second in the league, behind an outstanding Arsenal side. My favourite memory is of Old Trafford and Danny Murphy’s dinked finish over Barthez, made possible by a curling pass from Gerrard that could only be described as delicious.
By the time the girl who eventually became my wife moved in with me in early 2003, the optimism of the early Houllier years had given way to disenchantment. She got her first taste of my obsession during the League Cup final a few months later. The cable connection at home decided to go on the blink a quarter of an hour before kick-off and after a few minutes of ranting and raving, I stormed off to an Internet café just down the road. There, once again aware that the team was going nowhere, I swore and shouted as Gerrard and Owen put United in the shade for an afternoon.
The final two seasons under Houllier, that cup win aside, were an exercise in frustration, and I can only imagine how players like Owen and Gerrard felt. Owen left for Real and I was resigned to Gerrard heading off to Chelsea or wherever else as Rafael Benítez struggled to come to grips with the Premier League in his first season.
Europe was a different story but there, too, Liverpool did the tango with disaster before qualifying out of the group stages. At half-time against Olympiakos, 1-0 down in a must-win game and needing three goals to progress, I decided to go to bed. I was on the early-morning shift at work. But sleep proved elusive and I made my way back to the couch and what turned out to be a manic 45 minutes. The world remembers that game for the Gerrard strike and the accompanying Andy Gray soundtrack – “What a hit son, what a hit!” – but my screams were more akin to what John Aldridge summoned up on Radio City commentary. The next morning, my girlfriend asked me casually, “So they won, did they?”
By the time Chelsea were beaten in the semi-final, I had just returned from covering a hectic Pakistan cricket tour of India. “I have to go,” I told her. “We may not reach another Big Cup final in my lifetime.” She didn’t stop me, even though she knew it meant pretty much cleaning out whatever savings we had.
With rumours rife that Gerrard would be Stamford Bridge-bound at the end of the season, there was a fair bit of cynicism in the Istanbul air. Some of us tried to get over the sense of betrayal and hurt by saying that Xabi Alonso – metronomic passer, but at least a couple of yards slower – was more valuable to the side. But the night itself was all about Gerrard. There would have been no comeback without his strength of will. I still get goose bumps when I think of him urging the fans to pump up the volume after the first goal, of how Milan were buried under an avalanche of noise for six of the craziest minutes I’ve ever witnessed in sport.
After that, he stayed, though the years that followed had more troughs than crests. In 2006, I was at an uncle’s in Mumbai when Liverpool took on West Ham in the FA Cup final. For once, I was the model of decorum, save for the discreet fist pumps each time Liverpool scored. I can’t think of a major final in any sport that has been so dominated by the exploits of one individual. Gerrard was in his prime then and after setting up Djibril Cissé with a gorgeous cross-field ball, he scored not one, but two goals worthy of winning any final. West Ham had been the better side and I sheepishly admitted as much to a disconsolate Hammer soon after the final whistle.
The 2004-05 Champions League campaign had felt surreal, maybe because the team had been so dismal in the league. By early 2007 though, Benítez had pretty much the personnel that he wanted, though Fernando Torres would join only that summer. This time, progress through Europe’s elite competition was much more emphatic. A famous away-goals triumph against Barcelona was clinched a couple of days before I left for the cricket World Cup in the Caribbean and it felt bizarre to then watch games mid-afternoon while having other work to finish.
I watched the two legs against PSV – Gerrard, almost inevitably, scored the crucial first goal in the Netherlands – from Guyana and Barbados. I was in Jamaica when Joe Cole gave Chelsea a slender lead to take to Anfield. By the time I got back home after the final, the second leg was already underway. I was jet-lagged and in a zombie-like state, but when Daniel Agger scored within minutes, all the exhaustion just vanished. Adrenaline carried me through the penalty shoot-out, though it was another matter that I didn’t then wake up till 5pm.
This time, there would be no final adventure. My Greek visa arrived a day after the game, but in many ways I’m prouder of that run to the final than I am of the admittedly lucky success in Istanbul. Torres didn’t turn out to be the missing piece, however. I still think Liverpool could have won the trophy in both of the succeeding seasons, but it was just their luck that they ran into a Chelsea side so familiar with how they played.
In 2009, I was in South Africa for the Indian Premier League as a title challenge fell just short. A few months earlier, I had celebrated New Year’s Eve with the family in Kerala, nearly certain that two decades of pain were about to come to an end. Gerrard had been imperious in the last fixture of the year, a 5-1 rout of Newcastle at St James’ Park, and 20 games into the season, Liverpool had 45 points, despite a sticky patch in early December. Then came the nightclub incident, accusations of assault and three consecutive draws that relinquished the initiative in the title race. When most think of Gerrard, the title and missed opportunities, they inevitably think of that slip against Chelsea. I think of Phil Collins and the error of judgment that almost certainly cost Liverpool No. 19.
I was visiting my parents in Cochin when Liverpool journeyed down the M62 to Old Trafford. Watching me go berserk that night, as Gerrard, Torres and friends ran riot, my dad’s younger brother asked, semi-bemused, “You still take it so seriously?” Any sense of jubilation, however, was tempered by the realisation that the trophy was still in Sir Alex’s grasp, a fact confirmed a few weeks later when I quietly slipped out of a bar full of celebrating United fans in Durban.
By then, my girlfriend – soon to be wife – had begun to understand the desperation. She also listened patiently to my diatribes about football losing its soul, of the need for parochialism and teams having no identity without a local core. She would watch the odd game with me and became enough of a Gerrard fan to request a shirt. You can imagine my surprise when she turned up to register our marriage wearing it. You don’t get too many bigger endorsements of your choices.
One of her closest friends was visiting, with husband and five-month-old infant, when Chelsea came to Anfield in 2014. The husband had grown up in Cornwall and was old enough, like me, to remember a time when April and May meant Liverpool lifting trophies. We were sitting next to each other when Gerrard slipped. I could sense his grimace. I just sat there in a daze, glass of whisky untouched till long after the final whistle.
I couldn’t so much as summon up as smile as I got my daughter ready for bed that night. She was wearing her red Liverpool jammies and seeing my forlorn face, she asked, “Daddy, are you very sad?” “A little,” I replied, whereupon she promptly gave me what she calls her ‘bone-crushing hug’. “I’m a Liverpool girl,” she said with a beaming smile as I tried very hard not to blubber.
I showed her the pictures of Gerrard with his daughters just before the final game at Anfield and she told me she wanted to go there and watch a game. I haven’t been back since 2011 – rock bottom under Gillett and Hicks – but I have a feeling that when I do finally take her, Gerrard may be part of the coaching staff, if not actually prowling the touchline.
Oman, the UAE, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, South Africa, Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Turkey – off the top of my head, those are the countries, apart from India and the UK, where I’ve watched Gerrard play, either in the flesh or in TV. He didn’t win the titles that King Kenny did and was never as ‘Boss’ as Souness, but for fans with dwindling memories of the trophy-laden years, he symbolised hope. Others could laugh at his severe haircuts, his taste in music, and his slip-ups on and off the field. For us, he was always the lightning rod for our dreams and fears. No matter how many he scores for LA Galaxy in that alien uniform, he’ll forever be one of us. Once a red, always a red … sliding toward the corner flag on bended knee.