Steven Gerrard: Sign Up (He Didn't), Or Ship Out (He Will) - updated 3pm

Posted by Paul Tomkins on July 5, 2005, 01:00:32 PM

I am not a great one for predictions, as they are the airborne egg ready to impact with the face. But last season I made two particularly bold ones, which, fortunately for me, proved true. (I won't mention a couple that didn't!) In March, before the Juventus quarter-final, stating that Liverpool would go on to win the Champions League. And before then, last summer, when the news stories containing the words 'Gerrard' and 'Chelsea' broke, that the Liverpool captain was going nowhere.

He stayed.

However, the saga rumbled on throughout the season, to the point where it began to overshadow the club, and disrupt the team's preparations for key games. He stayed, but was it just temporary? He also came far closer to leaving last summer than I anticipated; I underestimated the lure of Chelsea. Where Everton found freedom in losing Rooney, Liverpool found a media circus surrounding Gerrard.

But now Chelsea are back, and this time 末 actually for the first time 末 with an official 」32m bid. (It's amazing how close a player can actually come to leaving in order to join a club who hadn't actually bid for him.)

And this time the situation is more delicately poised: two years remaining on a contract is make-or-break time. That's when big players need to sign new contracts otherwise, as seen with Michael Owen, their value more than halves in twelve months' time, and twelve months after that they are 'worthless'. Keeping Gerrard until 2006, without him signing a new deal, would effectively wipe 」15-25m off his value. Either he stays or he goes 末 there can be none of the 'in-between' of last season. Sign up, or ship out. It really is that simple. Time to put sentiment aside, and look at it in cold, hard terms.

[Edit: within 90 minutes of publishing this, news broke of his transfer request. I didn't expect an answer quite so quickly. As I said: it really was make-or-break time. At least the club has a decision, and can now plan for its future with enough time to sort replacements].


Touch and go

One of the great dilemmas when writing "Golden Past, Red Future" was how to handle the Gerrard saga, given it was one of the main themes of last season. Documenting what went on was mostly simple enough; as was stating how good the player himself is, including listing his myriad qualities. But how to conclude it? At the time the book went to print, it looked like he was staying: he had said as much himself, albeit in the heat of an emotional moment in Istanbul. But I wasn't foolish enough to categorically state, in writing, that he would be at Anfield next season. Football changes too quickly. And negotiations take place in cold blood.

The most important thing is the that a club's best players are its best-paid players. A player will have less of an issue if he's earning 」50,000 a week 末 despite knowing he could earn 」60,000 a week elsewhere 末 if his current teammates are only earning 」30,000 a week. He feels duly valued and rewarded.

The problem comes when an average player is earning more than the best. That's not a danger for Gerrard at Liverpool: he will be the best paid player at the club, whatever the club chose to offer him. No one can expect to earn more than him, and no one would demand it. So that's not an issue. [He was offered 」100,000 a week, and that wasn't enough.]

So then there is another potential problem: when another club can offer so much more money that you end up talking not about an extra 20%, but the ability to double a player's salary. Then it gets confusing, as the pound signs ker-ching. How many of us, however content we are, could turn down the chance of earning twice as much money? Even if we don't need the money, we'd be tempted 末 it's a human failing. And if our careers were ten years from ending, would we not be even more tempted?

But it has to be balanced with contentment in one's personal life, and happiness on the pitch. We might be tempted by more money, but only because we think it will make us happier; if we knew it would upset our home life, and lead to a miserable time professionally, we'd stay where we are. Footballers and optimistic, opportunist and ambitious. The sport is all about taking your chance when it comes your way. Do we want them ruthless on the pitch, but lambs away from it?

Much of the problem lies with the agents. As much as we hate them, agents have a job to do. Ideally they wouldn't exist. But in order to make their cut 末 and here we're talking about millions of pounds 末 they need to do their job a certain way. Sometimes an agent has to stir things up, as it leads to a richer client, and more money in their own bank accounts. It stinks, to a large degree, but it's the way of the game, and few players are honourable enough to steer clear of such shenanigans. (Someone like Paul Scholes is a rare exception.) Clubs also use agents to procure players from other clubs, so clubs can hardly cry foul. It cuts both ways.

It gets much trickier when the player is more than just a player, but a local icon. It becomes so much more emotive. Gerrard, and his agents, have a right to try and get the best deal possible from Liverpool; but not to get the impossible. (Or to use the failure to get the 'impossible' as an excuse to leave.) As the local hero, you cannot play the games other players and their agents indulge in. Or rather, you can, but you can't expect fans to feel the same way about it. Gerrard may never have asked to be the local hero, but he got a lot more adoration with that being the case. It was a role he clearly enjoyed.

Are SFX trying to turn the club into the villains, to 'smooth' an exit for their client? [This now appears to have been the case: blaming the club before the transfer request arrived within 48 hours]. Clearly the press are being fed one version of events, and that is not the club's version.

Fan uproar is clearly one of the major factors stopping Gerrard from leaving. He is bound to Liverpool in a way that Xabi Alonso isn't, and can never be 末 even if we come to think of Alonso as the better player (many now do). Some players we see as blessing us for a year, or five years, before moving on to pastures new, with our reluctant best wishes. Others are seen as part of the furniture, and again, that expression cuts both ways: we want them forever, but we also might also take them for granted.


Trophies

So Gerrard wanted to win trophies at Liverpool. The Reds won the biggest. As much as Gerrard would love the league title, the European Cup is the trophy all players dream of lifting. It's the 'rare' one 末 nearly five times as rare at Anfield as the league title going into last season (and about eight times as rare at Old Trafford). If he wanted evidence that the club was moving in the right direction, that was undeniably it, even if doubts exist in other areas: it is not a finished project, but only the start. But what a start!

Being part of a Liverpool side that achieved a kind of immortality, and which can go on and achieve more 末 even if it will be a struggle 末 has to mean something to Gerrard. He wanted to win things at Liverpool, and he's won five cup medals, including the biggest in club football. But of course, now he can turn around and say: I gave you the European Cup, so I'm on my bike. [This appears to be his thinking, following his decision to up and leave].

Gerrard is a very important player. Clearly. But no player is bigger than the club 末 a clich, but never more apposite. He was the club's joint-top scorer last season, but stats also seemed to suggest (rather surreally) that the team did fractionally better without him than when he was in the starting XI. His value to Liverpool is skewed slightly by his status as 50% of the Scouse heart of the side, and there are no Scousers waiting in the wings to fill that void (Welsh has a long way to go). But that's only relevant if Gerrard's heart is in the job. Better an eager and committed Spanish or Dutch or German heart than a dissatisfied local one.

At this point in time I actually don't care that much if he stays or goes, as I see Liverpool being winners both ways. [Now it's official, I feel pretty much the same. I am very disappointed, but not upset. I feel let down, but not worried about Liverpool's future.]

Losing him on the cheap in 2006 or 2007 would have been a disaster; but someone paying top dollar this summer satisfies me, as it gives Rafa the chance to build a better all-round side, providing he spends that money wisely (he has tended to, so far - certainly on his major signings). If prospective players might want to play alongside Gerrard, then I feel satisfied that this will pale when compared to their desire to play for Bentez.

All I care about is where Gerrard goes. Chelsea or Manchester United, and I'd feel sick to the core, and concerned at strengthening our domestic rivals; Real Madrid and I'd see a lot of new 'possibilities' 末 a better Real Madrid, of course, but a better, and more unified Liverpool, too.

This is not the end: only the beginning.

ゥ Paul Tomkins 2005

"Golden Past, Red Future" is available from www.paultomkins.com








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