Kiss My Badge: The Gerrard Saga Concluded

Posted by Paul Tomkins on June 28, 2004, 07:55:01 PM

Confusing days; emotional times. We've all been on a rollercoaster, fearing the loss of Steven Gerrard: our inspirational leader, our talisman, and - quite frankly - the heart and soul of our side. At long last we know Rafa Benitez can build a side around him - and not have to rebuild a side with his transfer fee. Michael Owen, clearly impressed with Benitez, will be similarly happy to sign a new deal. Suddenly, the storm clouds have lifted. It may not have been an ideal situation, but it is an ideal conclusion.

A relationship between players and fans is just that: a relationship. We feel cheated only when we care; no-one batted an eyelid when Bruno Cheyrou looked longingly at Marseille last week. When someone you don't have strong feelings for leaves you, you breathe a sigh of relief. When it's someone you love, you call them all the names under the sun. The latter is precisely what happened on message boards across the internet. Steven Gerrard was (somewhat prematurely, it transpired) subjected to outrageous insults by Liverpool fans; but if he is wise, he will take it as the biggest compliment imaginable. Emile Heskey left with only good wishes - because he was an amazingly nice bloke, but mostly because we were happy to see the back of his inexplicable under-achievement. It was amicable: it suited both parties.

Players are happy to take the fans' adulation; they kiss their badges with gleeful abandon. Of course, we can laugh when we see the latest Ecuadorian import bringing his shirt to meet with his lips on his debut after a mis-hit heavily-deflected goal (so inept is he, he no doubt kisses the manufacturer's logo by mistake). Although I cannot off the top of my head recall ever seeing Steven Gerrard kiss the hallowed Liverbird, I do know that I never needed to: I just knew he loved the club; we all did. Then again, he was never slow to make it clear, not least when signing a new five-year deal in November 2003. It had to mean something; and so it proved. But crucially, he made his affinity with the fans most clear in his performances. We never expected hollow or empty gestures from Stevie G. That's why we panicked, and we started hurting.

I still expect loyalty from certain players in football - those who grow up in the city and support the team they represent. When Steven Gerrard signed his new 5-year deal, Liverpool were languishing in the Premiership, and the Champions League qualification looked a long way off. Gerrard said today (as he had in May) that the last two years hadn't been good enough; how true those words are. And yet after 18 months of that ineptitude, he signed the deal (doubling his wages). If anything, things have radically improved: we may have scraped the Champions League qualifier spot, but secured it all the same; we have a wonderful new manager and a new direction in which to head; we have the injection of £40m towards transfers from Thailand (plus, hopefully at least £15m from the CL and the same again by offloading the dead wood); and we have Djibril Cisse arriving, plus the return of a joyously revived Milan Baros after his amazing summer of numerous great goals.

As an England fan (but one whose devotion pales in relation to his love of LFC, and who can only fully enjoy the national team being successful if Liverpool players are at its core, such as Munich in 2001), Euro 2004 was ruined by the speculation about Steven Gerrard. The suspicion - much as I tried to disregard it - meant I could barely look at the screen whenever he had the ball - admittedly a contribution which amounted pretty much to ferrying it to and fro in subservience to Frank Lampard. The American term that kept springing to mind was that Gerrard was Lampard's bitch; I kept imagining the two together, getting up to stuff behind my back in London, while I was off watching Liverpool. Lampard even went so far as to make public his desire that he and Gerrard be united in the capital. Meanwhile, Chelsea fans bombarded Liverpool forums with gloating comments.

Nothing happened, though; looks were exchanged, but no dalliance took place. Instead, we had the unusual sight of Rick Parry calling a press conference merely to tell us we were not about to be jilted. It was a conference to say: No news is good news.

But I guess Steven couldn't afford to look happy at the press conference; he knew he was guilty: guilty of looking at a potential suitor - a flash olive-skinned herbert called Jose Mourinho, a Portuguese sweet-talker who was offering our Stevie G "open arms" in the summer sun (in fact, giving a come-on akin to the worst British female holiday-maker, up for a "good time"). A holiday romance beckoned. Gerrard admitted to being tempted - but we can forgive this; disregard it, even. All human beings stray occasionally in their heads; it is only human to picture a life elsewhere, wonder if the grass is greener. Real betrayal - unforgivable betrayal - only occurs when the thought is consummated.

He made his decision to stay with his heart, he told us. Hopefully, his head wasn't far behind. What we don't need is his pity. Had the club not partially re-invented itself in all areas this summer, then I'd understand his desire to leave (which is why the timing of the speculation was so galling - we had sorted out our problems and shown ambition); I just hope he believes fully in our future - his words, if analysed, could be construed as lacking total commitment and belief (I'd like to think he just felt stupid at having to give a press conference when the news was: Nothing is happening). I don't want him to see Liverpool as a poor relation; I don't want him to stay if, on some level, he doesn't feel like he's making the right decision. If he is thinking like a man who wants to leave his wife but cannot because she would crumple and fall apart in his absence, then that is not good for the club; he'd soon feel hollowness in his pity, and regret would blacken his heart. Similarly, if he feels like a man whose wife threatens to kill herself should he leave her, and so is emotionally blackmailed into staying against his wishes, then we will suffer the consequences. We need Steven Gerrard and his unique brand of football that signifies total commitment.

But as I said: had we still had the same manager as the last year (who had taken us as far as he could), and no money to add real quality to the squad, then either of those two scenarios could apply. On some levels (okay, one level: money) Liverpool cannot compete with Chelsea; but with Gerrard, Benitez, Cisse, (plus Owen, Kewell, Hyypia, Kirkland et al) and three or four quality additions already being lined up, we can give them a good run for that money. It's not the richest teams, but the best teams, who win trophies: witness Arsenal's incredibly low net spend, compared to the two teams directly below them; witness Turkey and South Korea in 2002, and Greece and the Czechs this summer; witness Benitez's Valencia, and Mourinho's Porto. Object lessons in "team over egos".
 
Had Gerrard gone, this would have been the summer of a new blockbuster: The Betrayal of the Badge Kisser. To me, there were three top-flight players who most symbolised the special affinity between local lad who was a fan and the masses they left behind in order to represent the team of their dreams: Alan Smith, Steven Gerrard and Gary Neville. The latter didn't count as much as the first two, though; he clearly loves his team (and hates scousers), but I don't think any United fan would say he also represents their team's best hopes of success. Basically, he's a yard-dog.

Alan Smith took breaking fans' hearts to a new level: he wanted to play in Italy or Spain, he said, so he could return to play for Leeds within a couple of years; within a week, he signed for Manchester United - something he had every right to do, of course, but which made him into a monumental hypocrite. He let these fans carry him around the Elland Road pitch on the final day of the season, and then made his decision in the knowledge it would tear out their hearts. The 'best' bit about his stupidity is that he thought it was okay (and get this!) to do so - as Leeds were relegated, therefore Leeds and Man U were "not rivals anymore" (and there was no hint of irony, either). As an act of great personal sacrifice, he forewent his "loyalty" bonus from Leeds; apparently, they're not so well off anymore.

So - and I'm extending the relationship analogy to breaking point here - in other words, just when every Leeds fan feels like he's lost his job, his house and his life savings, the girlfriend he adores goes and dumps him for the bloke he has always detested. Oh, but as a goodwill gesture, she says she won't take the widescreen TV and the DVD player. Nice.

Steven Gerrard arrested a possible trend. Ambition is important in life; but less so than being true to yourself, and your roots. I often think of Matt Le Tissier, who was roundly criticised (in the media, mostly) for "lacking ambition" in staying at Southampton. Unlike other "bigger" clubs, they never got relegated. He played his entire career in the top flight, and scored 250-odd goals (many of them breathtaking). He enjoyed his life off the pitch; he enjoyed his football. And he was - and will remain for the rest of his life - adored by the people of that city, despite winning bugger-all with them. Zilch. Zip. Zero. And yet it didn't stop fans of other clubs - such as myself - admiring his immense talent. Perry Groves, Steve Morrow, Stuart Ripley: men such as these will be able to polish their medals in their old age; but men like me will have long-since forgotten who the hell they were (I almost had, and had to look up their names). Being remembered: now that is immortality. We remember greatness more than medals (although ideally the two go hand-in-hand; Kenny Dalglish, anyone?). One of the best-ever teams - still revered to this day - is the Dutch side of the 1970s; the current crop could win Euro 2004, but still not come close to being remembered as fondly. Clarence Seedorf could win yet more medals (to add to his three Euopean Cups with three different sides), and never be thought of as a "great" of the game.

I guess my point is that Steven Gerrard, if he stays for years to come, could be an Anfield Immortal even if we don't win another trophy. My point is: That must mean something? Ideally, he stays, and we win things: that way, everyone is happy.

I said that Steven Gerrard at least owed the fans and Benitez two more years; no progress, and he'd have my reluctant blessing to leave. So I am overjoyed that Steven Gerrard will be at Anfield 19 times in the league next season, not just once. I just hope to see a smile back on his face soon.

(Note: Typos pending, this article should be called "Kiss My Badge"; "Kiss My Badger" could mean something altogether different, and quite what exactly I don't wish to contemplate...).

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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