Steve G: Slipping through the Enemy Camp

Just before the transfer window comes to a close, a whole new perspective about a departing legend of English football from the rival camp. Pratik Guha sums up his years of emotions here at Goalden Times.

Being a Manchester United supporter, never in the worst of my nightmares had I imagined that a day would come when I would write about Steven Gerrard. I don’t know how to define the piece, really,  but if I have to be honest to my feelings, my emotions and my urges, then I have to pen down all the thoughts that are currently running through my mind in a Brownian Motion.

That too, about none other than the man I am supposed to hate — Steven Gerrard! The name perhaps no Manchester United supporter is taught to respect. Such is the rivalry! But does this beautiful game of football really have any place for hatred? For me, the answer is ‘No’ because at the tender age of six, I learnt from my father that football is all about love, as is support. It was my first visit to the Kolkata Derby with my father and I witnessed the mad rush of emotions in every supporter to understand the true meaning of support!

It is in this backdrop that I dare to write on the phenomenon, the legend named Steven Gerrard.

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Newcastle United FC

Who is this footballer named Steven Gerrard to me? Best player of the fiercest rival of the club I love? The best footballer that club has ever produced? One of the best central midfielders to play against 20- time Premier League champions? The player who could destroy the Manchester United defense in a fraction of a second? A player who could fire a shot like a cannonball and the goalkeeper would have no option other than to stand still and watch the ball going past him like a flash? Gerrard ticked each of the previous mentioned boxes. Now is it unfair to hate a rival player of this caliber?

Let me be honest. Hailing from a country geographically far away from England it was never possible for me to get into the very core of the two counter flows of emotions between two clubs which gave birth to this much talked and hyped about hatred or rivalry  between two ‘Red’ giants. It was a random match of the Red side of Manchester where the sheer excellence of Van Nistelrooy and Paul Scholes made me fall in love with the Old Trafford outfit and it was only much later  that I gradually became familiar with the rivalries that are omnipresent in English football. It was  when I was getting familiar with the glorious past and tradition of Manchester United, realizing that a club is not only about its present squad-goals-wins-defeats but much more than that,that the famous UEFA Champions League Final of 2005 took place at Istanbul. Whenever I thought about that match, I felt that if Barcelona ’99 could be an epitome of football romanticism, then Istanbul ‘05 would fit into the same bracket. And, who was the string puller that night behind Liverpool’s most dramatic comeback ever? Who scripted it? But, of course, Steven Gerrard!

Looking back - The night in Istanbul
Looking back – The night in Istanbul

For me, Gerrard always had only one identity. The leader of Liverpool. Not the captain, but the ‘Leader’. He was not a man who cared for an armband. I have seen Gerrard changing the environment of Anfield drastically with a single wave of his hands! That’s the kind of bond he shared with the crowd. The most astonishing aspect is that Gerrard does not belong to the genre of leaders who are outspoken and inspire their team  with their performances  as well as motivating speeches nor does he take the fight to the opponents through verbal duels,  or by gesturing towards the crowd and taking them along with the team. Gerrard always remained a silent character on the field, concentrating on his and his team’s game. He was always about maintaining his composure and silently getting the job done for his club and yet he remained such a motivational figure for the red half of Merseyside and there lies his credit. He had only his performance to speak for him and to ‘make his fans dream’. If you ask me these are the things that make legends and not the number of goals or assists or clean-sheets.

Do I have respect for Gerrard? I will answer it later. But I hated him! Shocked by the word ‘hated’? You must be thinking that it is not keeping parity with the tone I have maintained so far, right? Let me make myself clear! I hated every single of those seconds when Gerrard had the ball in his possession! Not only I,but every single Manchester United supporter felt likewise. Because in the deepest core of our hearts we all knew he  could change the color of the match in the blink of an eye or put the match to bed with just one move. We witnessed that in the 2010-11 season. The ‘Red Devils’ were leading 2-0 at Old Trafford but a 10 minute spell from the man scoring a brace and ‘Scousers’ were the superior team. Thanks to sheer brilliance from Berbatov Sir Alex Ferguson’s boys came out winning. There have been only a few instances when I felt such a shivering chill down my spine.

I hated being intimidated by him, especially because I love Manchester United dearly! I hate the thought of every single possibility that can hurt or do harm to the team I love. I knew what Gerrard was capable of. I knew that he could orchestrate devastation for my team on his day. The nightmare took its worst possible shape on the match day when Ferguson’s boys were facing Liverpool at Old Trafford in the 2008-’09 season. It is one of the matches that I’d always want to erase from my memory also knowing that it is never to happen. The match started being evenly poised for both sides. Cristiano Ronaldo gave the Red Devils the early lead by scoring from the spot but the joy was short lived. Torres capitalized on a mistake made by Nemanja Vidic which later proved to be the moment that changed the complexion of the match. But the most painful moment for me was Gerrard scoring from the spot kick and then coming to the corner flag and kissing the camera. That moment is to stay there forever and torment me. It was such a jovial display of emotions but it felt like Gerrard was slowly pushing a poisonous dagger through my heart. For many, Fernando Torres was the man of that match, but for me, that was ‘The Moment’. I can feel that blind and helpless rage running mad inside me even now after more than half a decade has passed. Gerrard was not just a player made up of flesh and bones. He was ‘Liverpool’ that day, bringing his side a much coveted away win at Old Trafford by forcing an unbeaten run of the home side to come to come to a halt.I could not hate him more. And it was only later when I realized that the feeling of hatred was actually respect combined with awe. The respect a legend deserves, a legend commands.

A kiss for the camera
A kiss for the camera

I was never much concerned about how great a footballer Gerrard was, to be honest. Nor was he the greatest of the central midfielders I have watched play so far. For me,Scholes, Lampard were far greater players than him among the others who were contemporary. But as I said, legends are not made of numbers. When I tried to understand,  and analyze why Gerrard is considered an all-time great, why ‘Merseysiders’ hero worship him, it occurred to me tha tGerrard was a great example of a supporter becoming a captain of his boyhood club. Much like Scholes, Neville etc.It gave me some more clarity on the concept of support, that I mentioned at the very onset of this article. A man set out on a journey at the tender age of six, went on to play for over 25 years in the club he supported, captained it for 11 years and finally decided to hang his boots. Every time he put on that shirt and came out of the tunnel, it was a devoted loyalist taking on field. Every time he had the ball in his possession,he carried the glory with him, every time he tried to equalize for his team, it was that blind love and emotions talking, which don’t want to see the name of their beloved club on the wrong side of score sheet. These are the things which have made Gerrard who he is and  every other legend who has traveled the path from being a child prodigy to a club legend. Be it Scholes, Giggs, Neville or Maldini.

But do all these words mean I did not enjoy when Gerrard slipped on the ground and Chelsea went on to win the match and the hopes, the dreams which were eluding the reds for more than two decades ended in ruins? Of course I did! Because it was not Gerrard who slipped that day. It was the rival team whose hopes were crushed.I cannot deny that I rejoice on each and every occasion where Liverpool falter but does that really make me a stronger  supporter of the club I love? The answer I think is ‘No’. As I  read once in an article, no matter how much I dislike a team if I am a football lover, then I should have a feeling of empathy for all the players irrespective of their badges. That is what I am trying to do.To me, Steven Gerrard will always remain one of the most decorated players of the Premier League era  and, above all, a leader who along with the ball commanded the respect of the rival supporters through his devotion on the field. Gerrard will be remembered for  his achievements   as well as the agonizing mistakes (or ‘Slip’ if you would like to call it), the painful turn of events when he inspired his team after the dramatic win against Manchester City in the second half of the season and then turning into the unfortunate culprit behind his team’s late collapse.He is one of the greatest players not to have a Premier League medal under his belt but that is the cruel side of modern day football, the professional aspect of the game and I will remember him as a talismanic leader of the arch rivals whom I have disliked strongly and now there will be a void. Supporting Manchester United won’t be the same without voicing rants against the man and at the same time secretly admiring him deep within, acknowledging that this man can take the match away from us. A new journey awaits him with fresh challenges. I hope that he will leave his marks there Farewell Legend.