Steven Gerrard To Meet Chelsea Officials Next Week

Posted by Paul Tomkins on February 18, 2005, 09:57:43 AM

You may not wish to believe it, of course. But I can confirm that, unfortunately, the news is true.

   Or rather, fortunately the news is true.

   By virtue of making the Carling Cup final, Gerrard will shake hands with various Chelsea officials on the pitch at the Millennium Stadium 末 although it's fair to say that any smile and handshake between our captain and the opposing manager will lead to all sorts of misinterpretations. Lip-readers will find themselves inundated with requests to decipher the shapes their mouths form. "Yes, if we look closely, Mr Gerrard can clearly be seen to say 'I've always hated being a scouser, and I am dying to reinvent myself as a cockney, once I've gone up these apples and pears to collect the trophy, gawd luvva duck, me old sparra'".

   Body language experts will tell us how Gerrard's stance confirms he has as-good-as signed a deal to go to Stamford Bridge. "Look, the way he shifts his weight from one leg to the other 末 that's tells you everything. He's going to Chelsea." Be prepared to become even more sick of the whole saga (if that's possible) in the next fortnight. (And of course, I can't deny that articles like this one are only adding to the debate. So my apologies in advance).

   Six months ago I wrote a confident piece detailing why, in my opinion, Steven Gerrard would refuse the (golden) apple offered by the serpentine Peter Kenyon from his Garden of Mammon. (Okay, I'm mixing my biblical references a little here). Temptation would not be Stevie G's undoing, and he would stay for two seasons at the least (I was perhaps feeling very optimistic) to give Benitez a chance to prove his worth 末 two seasons being the minimum requirement, given that this first season was always going to be difficult. Keeping Gerrard would surely be down to the player considering the long-term plan, over two or three years (roughly half the duration of Houllier's infamous time framework), and not a potentially-flawed one-season 'make-or-break' assessment?

   So, six months on, and with a cup final against Chelsea on the horizon (and the end of the season less than three months away), what has transpired?

   Well, despite it being touch-and-go, I was proved correct in the assertion Gerrard would stay (for this season, at least), and I was also 末 alas 末 right in stating this season would not be smooth sailing. Having said that, I obviously didn't expect it to be so beset by extreme poor fortune regarding injuries. The inconsistency doesn't surprise me in the slightest 末 my catchphrase for the season could be "Inconsistent and uncertain situations lead to inconsistent and uncertain performances". (Not quite as memorable, I'll grant, as "Go ahead punk, make my day").

   However, my certainty that Gerrard will stay beyond the summer is now no more than 50%. The previously unthinkable (try recalling the situation twelve months ago) is now a realistic prospect, if not quite a fait accompli. Quite frankly, your guess is as good as mine on this one. Will he stay or will he go? Well, if he stays there will be trouble. But if he goes there will be double. (Apologies for the bastardization, Clash fans).

   What has changed? Is it purely down to our indifferent form? Or is it simply a prolonged case of the inevitable, once the wheels were set in motion last summer?

   Nothing in the summer could convince me that this would be anything other than a transitional season, with fourth place always the realistic aim, given we would be challenging settled and superior sides blessed with more money to spend. Like others I hoped against reason for a miracle, but Benitez would have needed 」100m+ and a reversal of fortune to work such wonders. (The club has spent 」35m since last season, and 」25m of that outlay 末 roughly three-quarters 末 has resulted in season-curtailing broken bones. Of the new talent Benitez has at his disposal in the second half of the season, the cost of those still fit is far less than the combined fees he received for those sold: Owen, Heskey and Murphy. So instead of having a far stronger squad, Rafa is currently working with a 'cheaper' one than he inherited).

   A manager's first year has to be about taking stock: assessing what he has, how it works, what elements aren't working, what elements are totally absent, and how he can go about making changes. That's a long-term process. You can't do that in pre-season, or in training, as you have no idea how your players react in pressure situations, or in the face of adversity. You learn only in the reality of competition.

   Unlike Mourinho, Benitez was inheriting something in need of repair, and also unlike Mourinho, he didn't have that much money to fix what he inherited. Mourinho was customizing his flashy blue racing car 末 applying the finishing touches of go-faster stripes, aerodynamic spoilers and a fat fuck-you exhaust 末 while on his red car, Benitez was trying to glue together a broken chassis, repair bodywork and replace burst tyres.

   Benitez never had the luxury of being able to ditch the entire first team squad, as Shankly did back in the early 60s, to start completely afresh. It would cost too much, for a start (paying off contracts, and if you are clearly desperate to sell it's as good as guaranteed that you won't get full value). Nor would he want to do something so dramatic; Benitez inherited plenty of quality, just not enough. There were some interesting components to work with, including, of course, the subject of this article: a powerful engine, but one which was being enviously coveted by a rival.

   In footballing terms, what is there to keep Gerrard? I'm sure he has faith in the manager and his staff (check their CVs), but what does he make of his colleagues on the playing staff? Does he see the quality necessary to begin challenging next season? (I expect us to be much better next season, but only realistically challenging for the title the year after, but clearly I have more patience than Gerrard).

   At this stage of the campaign, I would assert that there are four categories of player at Anfield into which Gerrard 末 and of course I am purely speculating 末 would place his teammates. The way I see it (and you may see it differently, as indeed could Gerrard himself), the following players fit into the outlined categories. It doesn't mean they're all of equal ability, but as a rough guide it should suffice.

   Category A: the players who are genuine quality, who offer that something extra, even if it hasn't been all plain sailing, or they haven't quite shown their full potential; I am not saying they are all destined to be 'greats' of the game. These are the players that any top pro would be happy to play alongside, and the nucleus of talent (some still raw, some undoubtedly flawed) around which the team can be formed. Gerrard will know how fine these players are from training (judging on comments from the club), even if they haven't quite shown it in games. Some may be past their best, but it's still too early to write them off, given the quality they've shown in the past, and the wealth of experience that cannot easily be cast aside. These are the names that have that ring of 'quality' about them.
 
   Gerrard (he would of course include himself), Alonso, Carragher, Baros, Morientes, Hyypia, Kewell, Hamann, Cisse, Riise, Luis Garcia, Kirkland, Finnan. (Some of these may seem undeserving, but with the exception of the years catching up with the older pros, these could easily comprise the core of the squad for seasons to come).

   Category B: the intermediate players who have proved they can do a job, and may have had some great games or even one great season, but have lacked the necessary consistency over a number of seasons, or not quite done enough to totally convince. With a good tail-wind they could yet prove successes at Liverpool (especially the young up-and-coming players), but I'd guess that at least half will be heading for the exit in the next six-to-18 months.

   Dudek, Biscan and Smicer (in terms of talent good enough to be in group A, but not proven enough over the years; perhaps lacking something mentally, rather than technically); Pellegrino (on pedigree and winning mentality, if not performances as yet), Mellor, Diarra (doing superbly in France and now a full French international), Sinama-Pongolle (like Diarra, capable of promotion to Category A in a year or two at this rate of improvement), Warnock (doing well without being outstanding), Traore (improving, but still liable to make howlers 末 could go either way for the lad. The best 'recovery tackle' in the league, but a better positional sense and being more switched-on would often cut out the problem at its source)

   Category C: those who have yet to sufficiently impress, but in some cases are new and in need to time to settle. The other members of this group are are on borrowed time, and the two Spanish lads won't get long if they don't meet the standards expected.
   
   Josemi, Nunez, Partridge, Luzi, Otsemobor. And of course, Diao, Diouf and Cheyrou, when their loan deals expire.

   Finally, Category D: Potential. Those who are 21-or-under, and may have played for the first team but are too young to be thought of as anything other than long-term prospects (in that youngsters can develop at different rates). At least half have the potential to turn into Category A players within a handful of years 末 although in Gerrard's mind, that may be too far into the future. The odds also suggest a few will end up plying their trade elsewhere within a couple of years.

   Carson, Le Tallec, Welsh, Potter, Whitbread, Raven

   So in terms of playing talent, there's plenty to be optimistic about, if not quite enough for the squad to have the ring of title-challengers about it. The key is getting players fit and in consistent form, discarding the excess baggage, and adding quality to the first team and, where possible, depth to the squad. Not an easy task, of course. But not an impossible one, either.

   If Gerrard, by staying, thought he was going to win the league this season, he was very much deluded. But given many of his comments earlier in the season, it seems clear to me that he knew getting this side into full working order in such a short space of time was beyond any manager. It's impossible to think a Wenger or a Ferguson could have turned the tide in six months, given their records during their first season at what were then under-achieving big clubs.

   Gerrard cannot fail to have been impressed by Benitez. He can surely sense that this is the right man for the tough task at hand. He's seen at close quarters what the Spaniard is trying to achieve. Having said that, is it a case not of too little too late, but simply too late, full stop? Given Gerrard knew it would take longer than one season, surely he has to back that feeling with a second season? In an ideal world, at least.

   Gerrard demanded to be surrounded by top quality players; of the other nine outfield positions in our strongest XI, two will now be taken by the hugely impressive Benitez signings, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Morientes. I'm also certain Gerrard knows how good Luis Garcia is, even if some fans are frustrated by the little man's inconsistency. Losing Owen in August was a blow, but it's seen Baros emerge as a regular goalscorer (with a ratio no worse than Owen's last season), and Cisse will be in the equation come pre-season. Carragher has improved dramatically, and Riise once again looks a potent attacking force. The skeleton of a great side is there. It just needs fleshing out.

   (A quick aside about Cisse. As the quickest striker in the country 末 all being well 末 he will force defences to drop a lot deeper than they need to against the sprightly-but-not-super-quick Baros. Teams know their quickest defender can catch Baros 末 that won't be true of Cisse. Of course, the deeper a defence sits, the further forward Morientes can position himself, and therefore the threat of him scoring from crosses into the box greatly increases. If teams push out to negate Morientes' aerial prowess, to keep him 40 yards from goal 末 and even he doesn't score 40-yard headers 末 then that provides the space for Cisse to run into).

   Maybe the greatest testament to Rafa's quality is how Valencia are coping in his absence. Rafa's replacement at Valencia, Claudio Ranieri, is being laughed at across Spain, and branded a clueless idiot. Sid Lowe, the Guardian website's Spanish football correspondent, wrote: "Valencia have suffered two vital, long-term injuries to Vicente and Fabi疣 Ayala (the only players Rafa Bentez never rotated), but that still doesn't explain the collapse or the fact that Ranieri, who seems to have taken his coaching badge at the Peter Kay Soccer School, has turned the champions into long-ball merchants with no creativity, no class and no organisation."
   
   From that, you can conclude that Valencia had plenty of creativity, class and organization under Benitez. The trophies back that up. (As did playing Valencia 末 Rick Parry confirming that the senior Liverpool players all rated Valencia the best team they had faced in recent seasons).

   While it's true to say that Benitez has, like Ranieri, struggled at his new club (with even greater injury problems than the Italian is experiencing 末 just two key players injured?), Rafa is merely steadying a sinking ship at present. If the club isn't dramatically better off, it certainly isn't in any worse shape. Despite the doom and gloom surrounding Anfield, the club has a cup final and the Champions League knock-out stages to look forward to. Fifth in the league isn't great, but it's not disastrous in the circumstances.

   Valencia were one of the best teams in Europe last season, and while it can be difficult taking over successful sides (replacing a great manager has its pitfalls), it is surely easier than taking over a side failing to live up to its reputation, with a selection of problems to address? Since Benitez emigrated, Valencia have fallen into disarray. If anything, given the impending cup final, the steady Champions League progress, and the two world-class arrivals (to one waving goodbye), Liverpool are in almost certainly in better shape than 12 months ago. (Maybe not saying an awful lot, but there are those who feel the club hasn't progressed in the slightest, given the league standings).

   Ranieri is the man who took Chelsea 末 there's that connection again 末 to a Champions League semi-final, and second in the league. It was, of course, with the aid of 」150m. Managing Valencia relies almost solely on tactical acumen. If Benitez 末 who achieved so much with so little money (and he barely spent a penny) 末 was loved while at the Estadio Mestalla, he'll be canonized now club is collapsing in his absence.

   But for all Liverpool FC has going for it, Gerrard can surely see that Chelsea have an unfair advantage 末 money from outside the game, outside the country, even 末 and this makes for an alarmingly uneven playing field. If Chelsea are better than Liverpool now (and let's face it, they clearly are, even if I am confident of beating them next week), then it doesn't take a genius to assume that transposing Liverpool's best player into Chelsea's team would only widen the chasm. Gerrard might very reasonably conclude that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

   The Carling Cup Final will also be overshadowed by the words 'Gerrard' and 'Chelsea'. It will be seen as his audition to play in blue, whilst also billed as the one remaining chance for his teammates in red to prove they are worthy of his enduring presence.

   If Benitez were to get 」35m from the sale, if it were to take place, there's little doubt that he could fashion a better side than he now has. Benitez will take the club in the right direction with or without Gerrard. It's impossible to tell whether the side Benitez fashions over the coming years would be better with Gerrard, or a clutch of quality new signings procured with the bounty, as you cannot compare two alternatives that are mutually exclusive. It can only be one way or the other. (But it does leave a fascinating talking point). The main worry is that Gerrard will certainly give Chelsea a lot more possibilities, even if Lampard and Gerrard perhaps share too many similarities in the areas they look to exploit. (Gerrard is of course versatile enough to perform various roles).

   If selling could help improve Liverpool through inspired re-investmet (a gamble, of course, but three or four great players are better for a team than one superb one), it will also add complications to closing the gap. Normally you'd feel secure that the buying club was using up its entire transfer budget, and putting all its eggs into one basket. In this respect, Chelsea have no ceiling. If they so choose, they could add three or four more 」30m players this summer.

   The media bandwagon is rolling with such momentum that Gerrard stands little or no chance, even if he wants to, of escaping the lasso of those onboard. You sense the endless speculation will eventually haul the player in.

   If you've ever seen a self-fulfilling prophecy, you'll recognize the signs. The press are making it very hard for Gerrard to stay, and they are only too aware of that. Inducements from Chelsea might be at the heart of such constant speculation.

   The whole 'aura' of LFC seems out of kilter, unbalanced by the weight of the Gerrard issue. Teammates are concerned about his future, and the manager is in an unenviable position of trying to weigh up the situation's undoubted pros and cons. If Rafa's hand is forced by the player asking to leave, then the solution is clear. The problem lies in the silent signals, or the veiled threats about leaving.

   Fans are turning against Gerrard in their droves (to varying degrees), in anticipation of the jilting Dear John letter left of the mantlepiece. With a lover, when you see rejection on the horizon, at least you can leave them first. As fans, we can't walk out on Liverpool Football Club.

   There is definitely a sea-change in opinion towards the player. Not so long ago he was untouchable, the biggest local hero since Fowler, and moving up to stand alongside the very best players in the club's history. Now there is little unconditional love. What love there is is based purely on the hope he'll stay, and only if that condition is met will that affection be shown in full force. Without him signing a new long-term deal at Liverpool (which is never going to happen), there will be no long-term dedication. Words about staying will ring hollow.

   As his is right, he may look to run down his contract; that won't make the remainder of his time at Anfield free from worry. At present he is a massive asset to the club. Losing him would be bad enough; losing him for free, or at a greatly reduced price, would be devastating.

   His form has been patchy of late, after a good first half of the season (even allowing for the broken foot). His nine goals have been a massive bonus, and it's the one area of his game we'd miss the most. That tally includes not one single penalty, and many of the goals have been crucial.

   The most irritating thing about this season is that even when Gerrard has been poor, or even abysmal (by his standards) he's still been awarded countless Man of the Match awards. He is getting credit when it's due to others.

   But statistics (never the most reliable of sources, what with lies, lies and damned statistics, but at least partly-valid) suggest the team actually gets better results without "Stevie Wonder". Would any manger opt for a side without Gerrard, if he had the option of including him? Of course not. But it seems the man most missed is Xabi Alonso. It could be argued that he is the key man: the fulcrum, the metronome. Ideally the two will blossom together in tandem, as Alonso is not a team in himself; Gerrard's attacking threat is not in Xabi's armoury. He needs players who can read his intentions, or make runs into the spaces he is capable of hitting. Gerrard can do that.

   Maybe it all rests on whether or not we qualify for the Champions League; if we don't, then the chances of keeping Gerrard must be very slim indeed. Which only adds more pressure to the chase for fourth spot. This season 末 despite being up against it in so many ways 末 finishing fourth is paramount. Doing so would help keep Gerrard, not to mention fund the necessary rebuilding.

As for the whole "Gerrard to Chelsea" saga, I'm sick of it. Aren't you?

ゥ Paul Tomkins 2005

As ever, to register a (purely provisional) interest in purchasing Golden Past, Red Future when it is published this summer, please email tomkins_lfcbook@btinternet.com or visit www.paultomkins.com



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