Ahead of his testimonial on Saturday, the midfielder talks Sam Wallace through his Anfield highs, lows, near misses…and the one strike that changed the destiny of the club
Steven Gerrard will walk out the tunnel at Anfield on Saturday afternoon as he has done so many times before, although – even taking into account the dramatic highs, and occasional lows, of his career at Liverpool – he admits that this occasion will be especially emotional.
It will be his three young daughters who walk with him on to the pitch of his hometown club, and his team-mates and the opposition, Olympiakos, who form the guard of honour. Almost 15 years after his debut, as he approaches a decade as captain, Gerrard will be honoured with his first testimonial. Anfield sold out weeks ago.
He smiled as he considered the prospect – not least the sense of excitement and anticipation among his family, who he says have been looking forward to it for months. The Gerrard girls have, he says, “had new frocks made and they are getting their hair done”, although they have also been told by dad that they will not be staying up all night at the dinner for 1,000 guests that will follow on Saturday evening.
Anfield can feel like a big family gathering at most home games: raucous, disputatious but with the sense that, when push comes to shove, everyone pulls together. And at the centre of that family for the last generation has been Gerrard. It has not always been easy being the local boy who ended up captaining Britain’s most successful club – and England – but looking back now, at 33, he would not have wanted it any other way.
All the money raised on Saturday from the game, broadcast by BT Sport, will go to his foundation which works with charities on Merseyside, throughout the country and overseas. Gerrard has visited many of the projects and has a clear idea of what is required to help.
“I have been to some different places all round the area,” he says. “It has been a real eye-opener to see how some of these charities run and what they need to keep their heads above water. But also some of the conditions that children and families are in. We have seen some really difficult cases. But when you come away from the places and you see that you have made a big difference and you can help financially, it’s a good buzz.”
Olympiakos have a special place in Gerrard’s history. It was against them that he scored the 86th-minute goal at Anfield in December 2004 that gave Liverpool a 3-1 win, clinching the necessary two-goal margin that saw them through the group stages on their way to winning the Champions League in Istanbul that season. For Saturday, Olympiakos have donated their match fee to charity and have been “superb”, Gerrard says, in playing their role on the day.
As for the memory itself of that night in 2004, it still feels, Gerrard says, “like yesterday”. “When you are in that position and one falls for you it’s make or break at that moment. Luckily for me it was one of the sweetest strikes I have ever hit. Just such a relief to see the net go. If I had to pick my favourite goal for connection and also the reaction of the crowd – that’s the one.
“The memory is still so strong. When I look back over my career so far it pops up as one of the main games. And it started the journey to Istanbul. And Andy Gray’s commentary made the goal even better than it was.”
One suspects that Gray’s commentary on Gerrard’s goal – “Oh you beauttttttttty, what a hit, son! What a hit!” – will be played over the Tannoy on Saturday along with a few more reminders of famous Gerrard moments over the years. He has won a Champions League title, a Uefa Cup, two FA Cups and three League Cups. Not a bad haul, although there is one major club honour missing.
The club’s 19th league title, their first since 1990, looks like it will not come in Gerrard’s career and although he says he will never stop trying, he has made his peace with the possibility that it could forever elude him. The current battle to keep the striker Luis Suarez at Anfield, about which Gerrard is outspoken, is a sign of just how hard it will be even to regain Liverpool’s place in the Champions League.
He says: “Sometimes you have to be realistic and say we just fell short [in the league in past years]. Realistically sitting here now we are not one of the favourites to win it this season or the season after but we have to see what happens. I am never going to give up fighting for it. I won’t give up the dream of winning it but I have to be proud and happy with how my career has gone from a personal point of view and also what I have won with the team.
“We had no right to win the Champions League in 2005. We were probably the 10th, 12th best team in the tournament. With a little bit of luck and a bit of desire and determination that made up for the lack of ability. We went and achieved the impossible. A lot of top players all over the world never win the Champions League. I think that’s the best trophy to win in any footballer’s career besides maybe the World Cup.
“I have to be grateful for what I’ve done and not be too upset that I fell a bit short in the Premier League. It hasn’t been through a lack of effort or a lack of trying. In certain seasons we fell short by inches, in other seasons we have been nowhere near it. I have to accept it.”
He has a new one-year extension to his contract which will keep him at the club until the summer of 2015. The shoulder operation in May meant he has had the benefit of a full pre-season to stand him in good stead in a World Cup year.
He will be Liverpool’s longest-serving captain in October, passing the previous record set by Alex Raisbeck more than 100 years ago. What he wants is a “couple more trophies” and one more tilt at the Champions League before he calls time on the unique pressure of being a Liverpudlian captain of Liverpool.
“I think that pressure helps with your own performances and your own form because you are always striving for the top. When you have that relationship you don’t want to let the fans down. You want to maintain a high standard every time you go out and play.
“But it also has the other effect, too. It’s tough. Liverpool fans are a tough crowd – the expectations and what they demand from players every single game, whether it be the third round of the Carling Cup or the Champions League final, you are expected to perform the same level. They are only ever happy when they win, the Liverpool fans.
“It does come with pressures and demands but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I don’t think I would enjoy it if I played at a club where there wasn’t the same demands and pressures. That’s what I enjoy: big games and big pressure situations.”
To celebrate Steven Gerrard’s testimonial BT Sport will donate £1, up to £100,000, for every tweet that includes #thesupportersclub on 3 August between 9am and 9pm. The Supporters’ Club is a fund established by BT Sport to help change the lives of young people in the UK and some of the world’s poorest countries. It will fund the coaches, mentors and teachers to help young people achieve their goals in life.
Fair Kop: Gerrard’s Liverpool career
Debut 29 November 1998, v Blackburn (h), as sub for Vegard Heggem in 2-0 win
First goal 5 December 1999, v Sheffield Wednesday (h) in a 4-1 victory
Season by season
1998-99 13 games 0 goals
1999-2000 31 games 1 goal
2000-01 50 games 10 goals
2001-02 45 games 4 goals
2002-03 54 games 7 goals
2003-04 47 games 6 goals
2004-05 43 games 13 goals
2005-06 53 games 23 goals
2006-07 51 games 11 goals
2007-08 52 games 21 goals
2008-09 44 games 24 goals
2009-10 49 games 12 goals
2010-11 24 games 8 goals
2011-12 28 games 9 goals
2012-13 46 games 10 goals
Honours Champions League 2005; Uefa Cup 2001; FA Cup 2001, 2006; League Cup 2001, 2003, 2012; PFA Player of the Year 2006; FWA Footballer of the Year 2009