Sunday 25 September 2016

Steven Gerrard: 'I don't think I'll ever be at peace'

Steven Gerrard tells Oliver Brown about the challenges of playing in MLS, the strain of living abroad for the first time and why he is not seduced by glamour of Hollywood

Oliver Brown

Published 12/03/2016 | 02:30

LA Galaxy's Steven Gerrard. Photo: Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images
LA Galaxy's Steven Gerrard. Photo: Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Such are the tribulations of transatlantic life, Steven Gerrard spends far more time by himself these days.

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With his wife, Alex, and their three school-age daughters at home in Liverpool, he is left for weeks at a time to find his level here in Los Angeles, a place once described by Jack Kerouac as the loneliest and most brutal American metropolis.

True, there is no language barrier, while the sun that shimmers off the asphalt in the mornings almost mandates a Beach Boys soundtrack. But it can still be a vast and alienating jungle for the uninitiated.

Pick the wrong time of day to head south through the gridlock of the 405 freeway and one soon sees why LA is often caricatured, in the waspish words of poet Dorothy Parker, as 72 suburbs in search of a city.

LA Galaxy's Steven Gerrard. Photo: Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images
LA Galaxy's Steven Gerrard. Photo: Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Gerrard has made his home in the ritziest neighbourhood of all, renting a six-bedroom Beverly Hills house once owned by Mariah Carey. But do not suppose for a second that he is in thrall to LA's sheen of plastic-fantastic glamour.

"Yes, I've been shopping on Rodeo Drive, but I have also been down to the Farmers Market," he says. "I'm not a materialistic person at all. I don't go chasing celebrities. I'm not on the Hollywood bus, driving around to look at other people's houses. I'm a home boy."

We meet in Carson, a part of town far removed from Cartier boutiques or the Avenue of the Stars. Once rolling ranchland, it has turned more recently into a vista of shopping malls and giant warehouses typical of the southern LA Basin. Even here, there is no avoiding the odd brush with superstardom.

Earlier this week, Gerrard enjoyed a kickabout with Niall Horan, of One Direction. Such are the perks, it seems, of being the marquee name at the Los Angeles Galaxy, the centre of Gerrard's universe for the next eight months at least.

In LA terms, Gerrard is firmly on the sporting undercard, a footnote in a city-wide circus centred upon the imminent retirement of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. But he is content, at the age of 35 and with his own final season to contemplate, to keep it that way. After half a lifetime of being mobbed on Merseyside, he relishes his relative anonymity.

"The best part has been the ability to go incognito. Not many people know who I am out here. Soccer is No 5, No 6 in the order of important sports in this country. I can leave the house, go for a coffee, go for a meal, go to the cinema and be left alone to enjoy a certain level of privacy. It has been refreshing."

Former Liverpool football stars Steven Gerrard (C), Patrik Berger (L), John Aldridge (2nd-L), Jamie Carragher (C) and Gary McAllister (R) applaud the fans after playing for Liverpool Legends against Australian Legends in an exhibition football game at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney on January 7, 2016. AFP PHOTO / Peter PARKS IMAGE STRICTLY FOR EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USEPETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
Former Liverpool football stars Steven Gerrard (C), Patrik Berger (L), John Aldridge (2nd-L), Jamie Carragher (C) and Gary McAllister (R) applaud the fans after playing for Liverpool Legends against Australian Legends in an exhibition football game at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney on January 7, 2016. AFP PHOTO / Peter PARKS IMAGE STRICTLY FOR EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USEPETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Yet, even as he passes into a more serene and reflective phase of his career, football retains its capacity to consume him.

Gerrard avidly follows Premier League matches on television, albeit with some gridiron and basketball thrown in as he adjusts to the more congested sports landscape.

As we speak in a pitch-level room at the StubHub Centre, the Galaxy's stadium, many of his team-mates - Robbie Keane and Ashley Cole among them - are nextdoor watching Chelsea lose to Paris St-Germain.

One might imagine, given Major League Soccer's long-held image as a retirement village for the greatest names, that Gerrard would be ready to temper his obsessiveness, that he would feel at peace with his vast body of work in football.

The precis of his accomplishments - one Champions League triumph, 114 England caps, 36 of them as captain - ought surely to appease him. Only Gerrard, a naturally earnest soul, is not tempted by easy conclusions.

"You look back at the highs and the lows," he explains. "I always recognise that I achieved some incredible things. But I also reflect on some of the lows and wish that they were different, that I had achieved a little more.

"I don't think I'll ever be at peace. When it comes to football, I'm quite hungry, quite selfish. I want more than perhaps I can have. Maybe I'm a bit like a kid, a bit immature, when it comes down to that. I wish I was sitting here with an extra 10 medals."

He pulls himself up, lest he is perceived as dissatisfied with his lot. "I'm just a kid, a fan from a council estate in Huyton who had a dream of playing for Liverpool once. So, I haven't done too badly."

There is a perpetual restlessness about Gerrard, a resolve that his spell at the Galaxy should not be remembered just as a sinecure in the southern California sunshine. He joined the team in midstream last season, and the memory of how their campaign folded in grisly fashion, with a fifth-place finish in the Western Conference, still rankles.

Steven Gerrard was back training at Melwood in November as a guest of Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images
Steven Gerrard was back training at Melwood in November as a guest of Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

"We got a bit flaky, conceded some stupid goals," he mutters. The subsequent decision to sign defensive reinforcements such as Cole, Nigel de Jong, the former Manchester City enforcer, and Belgium international Jelle van Damme should, he hopes, restore the pedigree of a franchise that won three MLS titles in four years from 2011.

A perception that MLS is a half-baked, half-paced imitation of the major European leagues - even Cole called it an "easy ride" before he moved here a year later - frustrates Gerrard. He claims that he has had to confront physical challenges unthinkable in the Premier League, with away days that range from the furnace-like heat of Texas in July to the rarefied air of the Rockies.

This weekend, the Galaxy play the Colorado Rapids in Denver, 5,000 feet above sea level, and already Gerrard blanches at the recollection of his first experiences at altitude. One lung-shredding run in Salt Lake City last year was quite enough to make him feel his age.

Steven Gerrard
Steven Gerrard

"It is a shock to the system," he explains. "In the warm-up, you can't breathe, you get this barbed-wire feeling in your throat. After half an hour you hit a brick wall and it takes maybe five, 10 seconds to find your second wind. When you get to 60 minutes, you feel as if you have played 120.

"You are playing against 11 men who are used to these conditions. It is the challenge that we, as Galaxy players, have to face. The owners have put a pretty decent team together, and everybody is desperate to beat us."

The one missing link, of course, is history.

Where Gerrard's 25 years at Liverpool, from joining the academy at the age of nine, were defined by a tumultuous, if ultimately ill-fated, campaign for a first league title to make his CV complete, the Galaxy are more a blank canvas.

For all the energy of LA's home support, the atmosphere is hardly comparable to midweek European nights at Anfield. There is, likewise, no intra-city rivalry to stand alongside the enmities with Everton - even if, as he says wryly, the Californian derby with the San Jose Earthquakes, 300 miles to the north, can be "pretty tasty".

Barely a day goes by when he does not think of Liverpool. He communicates regularly with several players, and with Jurgen Klopp.

"I text him quite a lot, but it's more to wish him good luck than anything else," he says. "I'm a huge Liverpool fan, and I will be until the day I die."

What he misses most, though, is the round-the-clock presence of those closest to him. An avowed home bird, he is living abroad for the first time and feels the strain of separation acutely.

"I miss my mum, I miss my dad, I miss my family. I miss having all my friends around me. I even miss the cold sometimes."

And yet Gerrard is sufficiently worldly to recognise how this is also an opportunity that might not come again.

His daughters' teachers have shown understanding, allowing them extra time off in summer for holidays on the West Coast, while Gerrard seldom misses a chance to drive up beyond Santa Monica to Malibu on a spare afternoon, along the "spectacular" Pacific Coast Highway.

Travelling

"It's good for my girls to come away from Liverpool and do some travelling. There's a lot to tick off the bucket list."

Gerrard intends, should he follow through on his plan to retire at the end of the season, to return to the UK, devoting time to his punditry work and to his abiding aspiration to coach. He merely wishes he had embarked on the coaching project a little earlier.

"I'm plugging away on my A licence, but I wish I had been able to start sooner," he says. "I wanted to be doing my Pro Licence by now. Instead, I left it until I was 33."

A theory persists that the West Coast lifestyle exerts a calming effect if you stay here long enough. Would Gerrard consider himself a more tranquil character now?

"You'd have to ask other people," he says, smiling. "It can be a very calming place. My life until I came here was virtually set in stone. You didn't have to be with me to know what I was doing: train at Melwood, home, pick the kids up from school, bit of tea, help with the homework, watch a movie, go to bed.

"That was 90 per cent of my life, whereas today, if I want to go for a hike, I can. If I'd like to take in an ice hockey match, I can. The climate creates far more variety. It puts you in a good mood."

Just do not expect him to go all Hollywood. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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