Thursday 24 August 2017

Complex comic book hero needs to cut ties with the past to escape suffocating love

dfanning@independent.ie

Dion Fanning

There will be those who will have observed Steven Gerrard fulfilling his contractual duties with BT Sport in London last week and wondered if he was preparing properly for LA Galaxy's game in Utah last night.

MLS sceptics would insist Gerrard could have landed by parachute just before kick-off for the match against Real Salt Lake, who were beaten 5-0 by the Galaxy in the Western Conference semi-final last year, and picked up the pace of the game.

Robbie Keane has demonstrated all that is possible in US football and while there has been some muttering on Twitter from LA Galaxy fans about Gerrard's trip, their club will be just fine. It's Gerrard who needs to embrace the idea of total absorption.

He has talked already about the joy of not being recognised in the streets in LA and when his promotional obligations for his book are completed, Gerrard will presumably retreat into this anonymity which will allow him to contemplate life in a way that is different to all he has done before.

His autobiography is published this week and perhaps it will convey a different image of Gerrard than the one advanced in the extracts and interviews he has done to promote it. In some ways that would be a surprise as what we saw last week is Gerrard as he has often appeared to be. "I am the least difficult of men. All I need is boundless love," Frank O'Hara wrote and Gerrard would appear to be a no-nonsense hero of this kind.

Gerrard wants to know why Alex Ferguson didn't rate him; why Rafa Benitez didn't like him; how it would have felt to have been loved by Jose Mourinho. There is a human need that links all these incidents, a gnawing self-doubt that contrasts with the more unconsidered portraits of the player which insist he took on all challenges in an unquestioning, full-throated way.

In that version Gerrard is an unstoppable force, a "caged animal" as he describes himself before his sending off after 38 seconds against Manchester United, but that was always too simplistic, too convenient and too much of a cartoon.

He has always been more interesting and complex than that, even if the extracts suggest that if he was a comic book character, he would be dark and brooding, a Marvel Comics creation.

When Gerrard announced he was leaving Liverpool, it was clear that his decline as a player could not even allow him to be thought of in simplistic terms. At the time, Declan Lynch, a Liverpool supporter, confessed to mixed feelings about his departure. "I'm happy that he's going of course, but sad he's staying for the rest of the season."

Liverpool had been on an impressive run without Gerrard in the side. Naturally they followed that up with an unimpressive run without him in the side so there was always room for debate, especially when Joe Allen was being asked to replace him.

Many others would have mourned more straightforwardly when he decided to leave but by the time his final home game against Crystal Palace came along, it was clear we were in the grip of a mania which didn't reflect the complicated relationship Gerrard had with the club.

Gerrard, introspective and anxious, was asked endlessly to save Liverpool, which would do something to anybody's state of mind. Even when the time passed when he could be expected to do this regularly on the field, Liverpool still needed him. You could call him the brand ambassador but many would have noted a discrepancy between the brilliance of the ambassador and the ordinariness of the brand in its current form.

The idea of him texting Toni Kroos to see if he fancied playing for Liverpool shortly before Kroos joined Real Madrid tells much about that discrepancy and it is notable, too, that one of the most memorable moments from that saccharine farewell at Anfield was the knowledgeable harrumphing from the Kop when Gerrard was asked if the club was in a good place without him.

Right now, he is in the right place. He could probably take lessons from Robbie Keane, who walked off the plane without a backward glance four years ago. The old world offered him little except the obvious signs of decline of a career which was always built on never standing still.

Keane embraced America, which was easier for him when the alternative was the drudgery on offer in England, the claustrophobic dead hand of the final playing years trying and failing to score goals for Blackburn or QPR or Burnley. Instead Keane became a frontiersman, reinventing himself out west on his own terms.

Gerrard's standing in world football is greater and he, of course, had more to leave behind but leaving it behind is the best thing he can do. Instead he says he would have stayed if Liverpool had offered him a coaching role, when freedom from the ongoing dysfunction is the wisest course available to him. Nobody would doubt he is wedded to Liverpool by something that resembles love and loyalty, yet to refuse to admit there were other emotions involved as well would be to deny the complexity of the man.

Clearly it would have been better for Gerrard if he had left Liverpool earlier in his career. He lists the clubs he could have joined and the unthinking supporter will thrill at this expression of devotion but there must have been other factors, especially in a man given to dwelling on all that could go wrong. "I belong to Liverpool," he writes, and it is the kind of thing a comic book hero would say.

But it is not a coincidence that some of Gerrard's greatest times came when all was lost, when things had already gone wrong. The second half in Istanbul and the goal against West Ham in the FA Cup final were moments when he no longer had to worry about the worst that could happen and instead he had the freedom of nothing left to lose. He had boundless love at Liverpool and by leaving he had something to lose and something to fear. Now he should enjoy the freedom.

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